‘Hallyu’ – the eye-catching title of this big-ticket exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (‘V&A’) – translates as ‘Korean wave’, the phrase used to describe Korean culture’s steady rise to prominence over the last 25 years or so. Informed by a K-pop aesthetic, it’s a heady, day-glo, assault-on-the-senses experience. Throw yourself into it and you might be occasionally baffled or battered, but ultimately energised and enlightened.
Overall, I feel ‘Hallyu!’ belongs to the type of exhibition the V&A has made something of a speciality, particularly its huge musical/biographical surveys ‘David Bowie Is…’ and ‘Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains’. The aim is not exactly to educate you in the subject matter – although it manages this as far as it can – so much as immerse you in it. Certain sections of the show are so big and brash that you might feel overwhelmed and move on. Ultimately, you may find you reach the end of the exhibition more quickly than you might expect, and wonder where it went. But – I would say that if you can linger, and adjust your internal rhythm to its vibe (or literal ‘beat’, since there is a musical soundtrack throughout), there are myriad treasures to stumble upon.
Given its global reach and dominance, it’s unsurprising that K-pop also seems to dominate the exhibition. The first thing you hear once you’re through the door is Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’, unbelievably now ten years old itself. Old Father Time here suspects that this is eons ago to many current BTS fans, but that singular phenomenon proves utterly typical of the genre’s features, as presented here. The insistent rhythms and importance of dance, for example: utterly serious, in that mastering the carefully choreographed moves is crucial, but all geared towards an effect that is ultimately joyous, amusing and exhilarating.
There is a ‘dance room’ in the exhibition where visitors are invited to throw some shapes – but I’m afraid your rather unfit correspondent was only prepared to go so far for an ArtMuseLondon article. Helpfully, the music features stretches beyond ‘pure’ K-pop to cover music leading up to the present-day phenomenon, and wider genres including rock and electronica. (I was particularly taken with a group called Leenalchi, who overlay a kind of psychedelic jazz-funk sound with traditional elements and storytelling lyrics taken from Korean folklore.)
K-pop is only part of the picture, however. Other areas of focus include K-cinema, K-drama, K-fashion and K-beauty. These last two are extremely well-served, as you would also expect from the V&A’s rich history in costume, textiles and design. Fans who have already discovered K-culture will enjoy seeing actual examples of outfits and styles right next to video excerpts and photographic stills in which they feature.
One advantage of having a snapshot of a culture laid before you like this – and where a museum like the V&A can perhaps reach the parts other institutions couldn’t – is the ability to place past side by side with the present, even to smash them together. This is even a feature of the hang itself: we might be surrounded by video-screens, cinematic projections, headphone kiosks and light-sticks… but there are still the traditional glass-case exhibits for us to look at, sitting quietly and patiently until they draw our addled attention. Some of the juxtapositions here are sublime: from a modern beauty show and product display by vials of traditional medicines; an ice hockey shirt hanging next to a woodcut; not to mention ancient and modern versions of language study!
This technique is foregrounded at the very start of the exhibition, as you move immediately from the fractured ‘Gangnam Style’ video wall to a display of older ephemera in static imitation.
A final aspect of the exhibition I’d like to mention is its inclusion of K-cinema. I like a good action movie, and a proper chiller even more so… No surprise then, that alongside J-horror, I’ve also been drawn to many recent Korean films that have made it to these shores. The films of Bong Joon-ho have come to worldwide attention outside cineaste circles, following the resounding success of ‘Parasite’ (the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar). We see a fully-reconstructed room from the movie alongside poster art and publicity.
Park Chan-work is perhaps still best known for the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy, held up as shining examples of Asian extreme cinema: with a suitable warning, and behind a suitably heavy curtain, the exhibition includes a clip of the famous scene from middle film ‘Oldboy’, where the enigmatic (anti?-)hero takes out a corridor full of thugs with a hammer. Surprisingly low on gore, but shot through with a blackly-humorous crunch and swing, it’s an unforgettable sequence, almost ludicrous in its excess. Other posters on display brought back memories of personal favourites such as ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’.
I would be interested to know more about the contrast between Korean cinema (and certain TV dramas such as ‘Squid Game’), which at its high points of crossover success seems determined to investigate its society’s dark heart, in contrast to the retina-scorching effervescence of its music and fashion.
This exhibition walks the walk: if you’re feeling robust, it successfully realises the paradox between giving you sensory overload, but leaving you wanting more. You might emerge a little punch-drunk, but the punches hit home.