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b. 1986, South Korea

Yona Lee Biography

Auckland-based artist Yona Lee is known for her site-responsive stainless-steel sculptures and installations that explore ideas of travel, migration, diaspora, and the distinction between public and private space.

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Yona Lee holds an MFA (2010) and a BFA (2009) from the Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland.


A cellist trained in classical music, Yona Lee has merged elements of music and performance with her steel sculptures and installations. In 2011, the artist played cello in front of Constrained Organism, an installation of galvanised metal sheets evoking the works of 20th-century Constructivists and Minimalists. In the following year, she worked with sound artist James McCarthy to play her steel rod sculptures in Line Works with a cello bow.

Steel and the Everyday

Yona Lee introduced ordinary objects to her works in Tangential Structures (2013), for which she installed coils of steel rods across Enjoy Contemporary Art Space in Wellington. Attached to the steel rods and displayed throughout the gallery were an array of objects, including sunglasses, mugs, and a potted plant. The conflicting qualities of the steel and the items—industrial and domestic, inside and outside, yet both part of the urban environment—alluded to the interconnected nature of the various spheres of human life.

Steel and objects also come together in Lee's sculptures on a smaller scale, such as the group of works titled 'Succession' (2020). In these, a maze-like structure made of stainless-steel rods feature commonplace items such as lamps, hand towels, and bus handles.

In Transit

Among Yona Lee's most known works is 'In Transit', a series of installations that began in 2016 during a residency in South Korea. The first In Transit work was a freestanding sculpture, in which Lee attempted to collage 'bring different spaces (or ideas of different spaces) together', as she told Contemporary Hum in 2019.

First realised as an installation at Seoul's Alternative Space LOOP in 2016, In Transit typically consists of a complex web of stainless-steel rods interwoven with quotidian objects. These include bedside lamps, bunk beds, bus handles, and the stop button found on public transport, obscuring the demarcation between private and public spaces.

In Transit has been reiterated at Te Tuhi, Auckland (2017); Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2018); and City Gallery Wellington (2018). Lee reconfigures the installation each time to respond to its site while maintaining the same core components. Her continued use of stainless steel that we commonly encounter as handrails and barriers prompt conversations about the complex connotations of technological innovation, from the mobility that it grants to its historical use for colonisation and forced labour.


In 2021 at the Govett-Brewster Gallery, New Plymouth, Yona Lee presented Propositions, a series of short 3D animations that show her steel installations growing in well-known art institutions as well as anonymous public spaces. Playful and rhythmic, the virtual interventions seemingly blend into their surroundings, such as the yellow steel tubes navigating the inside of a bus or a lamp sprouting off the side of a road, though without regard for the human bodies that may require the space empty.


Yona Lee has held numerous solo exhibitions, including Propositions, Govett-Brewster Gallery, New Plymouth (2021); Succession, Dunedin Public Art Gallery (2020); In transit, City Gallery Wellington (2018); In transit (double-function form), Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney (2018); Monochrome on Display, OCI Museum, Seoul (2017); In Transit (Arrival), Te Tuhi, Auckland (2017); In Transit, Alternative Space LOOP, Seoul (2016); Specific objects, Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin (2014); and Tangential Structures, Enjoy Contemporary Art Space, Wellington (2013).

Lee's selected group exhibitions include Words at an Exhibition, Busan Biennale (2020); Là où les eaux se mêlent, 15th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art (2019); Spacemakers and roomshakers, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney (2018); Korea Tomorrow, Sungkok Museum, Seoul (2016); and From the Land of Morning Calm to the Land of The Long White Cloud: Korean Artists in Aotearoa, Whangarei Art Museum (2014).

Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021

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