A joyful explosion of sound and colour marks the arrival of K-everything at the V&A Museum as it takes a look at modern Korean culture.
The exhibition looking at the Korean wave that erupted in the past few decades opens with the man who for many marked the moment that K-Pop arrived, with PSY’s Gangnam style, which was almost as famous for forcing YouTube to rebuild its view counter to stop it breaking when the video passed 1 billion views. Less well known is that the song and video are a parody of the excesses of South Korea’s new rich and the tendency of all countries that move from relative poverty to patches of high wealth — to spend extravagantly on consumerism.
Having opened in a burst of sound, the exhibition proper begins, with a look at the decades leading up to the modern K-phenomena, from the Japanese annexation, the Korean war and the struggle for democracy. It may surprise people who are unfamiliar with the country’s recent history to learn that it was a military dictatorship until as recently as 1987, so this introduction is a useful primer for how Korean culture emerged the way it has.
When a culture has been oppressed by the government for so long — there was even a ban on long hair for men — it’s no surprise that when the lid is finally taken off the proverbial pressure cooker, there’s going to be an outpouring of expressive art that can challenge the older generations used to a greyer lifestyle.
The modern pop world is announced with a huge wall of 1980s televisions that’s a 1986 artwork by Nam June Paik, often called the father of video art, with this very 1980s dystopian effect.
A large section looks at the movie and television markets, and how the gradual reduction of government censorship spurred the growth in locally produced content from the mid-1990s after a near-death experience when limits on American imports were relaxed.
It was the huge success of Jurassic Park in 1994 that spurred the government to support home-grown talent, and pumped the industry with money and marketing support and with rising exports, markedly improved the country’s image overseas. This soft-power is something that was actively sought, and a lesson to the UK, where attacking the media seems to be a popular pastime of the political classes, rather than using it to project British soft-power overseas.
Dotted with film clips, dramas and movie posters, something special in the exhibition, and slightly easy to miss as it’s in a corner, is a mock-up of a set from Parasite. A rarity, as the director doesn’t usually allow sets to be reused in this way.
Something that K-pop fans will love, and leave the rest wondering what’s going on unless they spy the small explanatory sign, is the wall of K-pop lightsticks. These glowing lightsticks are used by the fans at concerts to show their fandom, and can also be synced with the music so that the audience can become part of the performance.
The K-pop phenomenon is encouraging people to learn Korean, and here we have both an early academic book on the language for English speakers, to the latest BTS branded language lessons book for pop fans wanting to speak like their idols.
There’s an interactive zone, where you can try out K-Pop dance moves, and have your efforts added to a large video screen for ritual humiliation or praise as appropriate.
The exhibition soon explodes into noise and colour, with a catwalk of K-pop idols surrounded by huge screens and a thumping soundtrack, before calming down with a look at modern makeup trends and fashions.
Overall, this is an exhibition that is unlike many exhibitions before, being big and bold with lots of sound and light, but not overwhelmingly so and just lifts the emotions to a joyful level. You probably wont come out humming a catchy tune, but you’ll leave with a good grasp of the aesthetics of modern K-pop and Korean culture in general.
It’s a blast of sunshine for the dreary winter months ahead.
Tickets should be booked in advance from here.
Adult: £20 | Persons 12-26 / Students: £13 | Children under 12: Free
Entry is also free for V&A Members.
Incidentally, the name of the exhibition, Hallyu! The Korean Wave is an example of RAS syndrome, as Hallyu itself translates as the Korean wave.