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The ubiquitous stainless steel tubes weave through five rooms—at times evading reach, at times blocking gallery goers' paths—in an exhibition opening at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki on Saturday.

How Yona Lee Became the Art World’s Handrail Whisperer

Yona Lee, An Arrangement for 5 Rooms (2022) (installation detail). Courtesy the artist and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Yona Lee has created an entire oeuvre based on chrome tubes, a material she bends and stretches through interior spaces.

Lee, who was born in Busan and moved to New Zealand age 11, traces her practice back to a chance encounter when she was a student at Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts. A friend's uncle saw a work she'd soldered together from steel sheets and invited her to collaborate.

'He had all these business ideas, including some idea of working with me,' Lee said. 'He invited me to come visit his doorknob company, but he was never there. He inherited that company from his dad.'

Yona Lee, An Arrangement for 5 Rooms (2022) (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Yona Lee, An Arrangement for 5 Rooms (2022) (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

'After I graduated I kept going to that space,' she continued. 'They worked with a lot of brass, rods, stainless steel, and had intricate machines to cut things down and mill them. I learned how to weld, and use machines, and so on.'

During a residency in Seoul in 2016, she noticed the vertical metal bars inside subway trains and soon began to see the same material on buses, trams, shower rails, and sign poles. Similar stainless steel tubes can be found almost everywhere, including staircases inside and outside Auckland Art Gallery, and on the handles of the building's doors.

'What I really like about this material is how malleable it is, how strong, environmentally friendly, that it can go inside and outside,' Lee said. 'It opened up a lot of language.'

Yona Lee, 2022.

Yona Lee, 2022. Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Lee employs that language in direct dialogue with the buildings where she creates her site-specific installations.

'I try to interpret the space in a way that makes it more visible,' she said.

Lee, who studied cello, likens her process to the way performers interpret music. They can be obsessive, she says, reading about the composer's romantic life and the political situation at the time the music was written in order to better understand the composer's feelings and intentions.

She says her conversation is with the buildings themselves, not the people who designed them.

'I don't really think about the architect as a person,' she said.

Gif excerpt of Yona Lee's video Propositions (2021), originally commissioned by Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth and exhibited online at propositions.tube.

Gif excerpt of Yona Lee's video Propositions (2021), originally commissioned by Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth and exhibited online at propositions.tube.

For her exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery, Yona Lee: An Arrangement for 5 Rooms, she creates what she calls 'knots'—where the tubes bend back on themselves again and again—in tight spaces to emphasise their closeness. In a longer, more spacious room, the tubes track along one wall above shoulder height, an unnatural level for a material that we're so used to using as a handrail.

The work also responds to the beat of tall panes of glass looking over Albert Park, travelling through the glass to form what resembles a small outdoor jungle gym.

Conscious of the potential coldness of such a utilitarian material, Lee incorporates objects from domestic and public life in her work. There's an outdoor lamp, a power board where people can charge their phones, a button used to signal the bus driver when you want to stop, a fan, a soap dish, cafe tables, and more. The outdoor section of the work features an umbrella and a letter box. These items are invitations to engage with the handrails, the way skateboarders use them for play and free expression, in contravention of their primary purpose.

Yona Lee, An Arrangement for 5 Rooms (2022) (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Yona Lee, An Arrangement for 5 Rooms (2022) (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

'I was interested in how this material provides safety but also controls our movements,' Lee said. 'There's always been a question of how much control you allow for safety.'

Lee is clearly at play in her work, as evidenced by a piece acquired by the gallery that will be installed in the North Atrium in April. Lee will extend an existing handrail, bending it upwards at 90 degrees and topping it with the head of a mop, giving the building the impression of shaggy, silly sentience.

'Yona's work has a certain whimsy and playful sense of the uncanny to it, cleverly responding to the gallery's architecture, and enlivening our spaces,' said Auckland Art Gallery Director Kirsten Lacy.

Yona Lee: An Arrangement for 5 Rooms continues at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from Saturday 26 February to Sunday 2 October 2022. —[O]

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