The V&A Launches New Exhibition On Korea’s Explosive Cultural Wave

Clash heads to the peninsula to explore its culture first-hand...

Through the heart of downtown Seoul runs a stream called Cheonggyecheon. Flowing almost 11 kilometres before filtering into the city’s iconic Han River, the semi-manmade brook is lined by picturesque pavements, lights, trees, seating areas built into the foundations and stepping stones that connect one side of the path to the other. The tiny oasis is embedded right into the bustling streets of South Korea’s capital, as if the city was built around it as a focal point. But the stream hasn’t always been there, at least not in the way it functions now.

Originally a drainage system built during the country’s Joseon Dynasty in the 14th Centruy, the creek was cemented over and covered by a multi-lane highway in the 1970’s (in line with the country’s push for urban progress following the devastating effects of the Korean War). Then, in the late 2000’s, a plan for how we see Cheonggyecheon was born. A way to not only introduce nature into the multistory-littered skyline of Seoul, but to connect the city’s rich and storied history with the beacon of modernisation it had become. The capital of a country that once was one of the poorest nations but now boasts the 10th strongest economy in the world. A Korea of the past bulldozed to make way for the future now somehow exists as a melting pot of the two.

The V&A Launches New Exhibition On Korea’s Explosive Cultural Wave

I learn about this extensive history while walking along Cheonggyecheon’s scenic pathways on a recent trip to Seoul. I’m guided by Rosalie Kim and Yoojin Choi, who have curated the V&A’s latest special exhibition, Hallyu! The Korean Wave. The show celebrates the dynamic popular culture of South Korea, just a fraction of which has been impossible to ignore over the past few years. From on our screens in Squid Game and Parasite, to our ears with the likes of BTS and Blackpink and on our bodies with face masks and 10-step skincare routines, Korean cultural exports have weaved themselves into the fabric of our lives in ways that may have felt unimaginable even 10 years ago. And while to many people in the West these behemoths may feel like appeared out of nowhere, they’re actually just a surface scratch on a pot of cultivated and supported pop culture transformation that’s been brewing, bubbling and boiling over for over three decades. 

The exhibition is broadly split into four parts. First, a brief history of the democratisation of South Korea and its turbulent journey to become an incubator for cultural and economic innovation. Then, a room dedicated K-Dramas and K-Cinema, exploring not only their steady rise in popularity, first through Asia and now the West, but the way their stories connect and inspect complex cultural dynamics in Korean society. Next is a section on K-Pop, chronicling its unlikely origins and then explosive growth thanks to a unique structure and harnessing of fandom. Finally there’s a focus on K-Beauty and K-Fashion, detailing how both have burgeoned into global powerhouses as a result scientific exploration and a deep connection to the past. 

That constant link to history is something I notice across my trip to Seoul, which takes me on a whistlestop tour through the creative origins that make up many of items on display in the exhibition like a visit to music labels SM Entertainment and KQ Entertainment, The Museum of Contemporary Korean Culture and one-to-ones with fashion designers who take inspiration from everything from future tech to Hanbok (traditional Korean dress). The past exists almost concurrent to the 21st Century South Korea we see today as we walk through the high rises and flashy apartment buildings that line Cheonggyecheon and lead to one of the other landmarks of Seoul, Gyeongbokgung Palace. The 14th century court, dating again back to the country’s Joseon’s Dynasty, has itself seen a rocky past, with much of the opulent structure a result of extensive restoration. It’s seen war, invasion and conservation, a lifespan that as I venture through the nation’s capital seems almost embedded into its foundations. 

For many outside the country, the South Korea they think of today probably looks one of two ways: like the curved roofed, paper-screened palaces of yesteryear, or the chrome-dipped, technologically-advanced futurescape of today. Popular cultural offerings often feed into that, with some of the most successful K-Dramas globally like Empress Ki (2013) and Love In The Moonlight (2016) humanising stories from the Joseon Dynasty, and record-breaking K-Pop groups mastering technology and ways of reaching new audiences before the West can even imagine it. The aim of Hallyu! The Korean Wave is to connect these two realities that can often seem so disparate through the lens of the pop culture that’s influenced by them. 

“We were hoping that people would realise the connection between the history, that it’s not just something that happens or that has no connection with its past”, says curator Rosalie Kim about the aims of the exhibition. “Often, when you have exhibitions about Korea, it’s always about the Joseon Dynasty or about contemporary art. So having nothing in between, people have a hard time connecting the past and the present. And we have used this opportunity to do so”.

The V&A Launches New Exhibition On Korea’s Explosive Cultural Wave

Another focus is on the people who make our favourite shows, films and music possible. 

“For the K-Pop section, I think it’s interesting for people to realise that the idols are just one aspect of the scene, and you have a whole plethora of creatives that are helping to create that image, to create that sound, but we don’t necessarily often hear about”, says Rosalie. 

“We wanted to bring out the behind the scenes creative practitioners, so the stylists who style the looks of Kpop artists, as well as people who are working in production design”, adds co-curator Yoojin Choi. On display at the exhibition, you can see costumes worn by the likes of K-Pop groups ATEEZ and Aespa, as well as a recreation of the infamous sub-basement bathroom from Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, made in collaboration with the film’s art director Lee Ha-Jun. 

The V&A Launches New Exhibition On Korea’s Explosive Cultural Wave

As we walk around one of the top floor of SM Entertainment’s glistening new HQ (dubbed Kwangya, in line with the company’s in-entertainment world building) on a tour of the various rooms, booths and people who continue the K-Pop originator’s legacy, I look out the window to admire the view. Ahead of me, the skyline of Seoul stretches on all sides, below me a huge mass of greenery called Seoul Forest. The 3000 acre park in the Seongdong-gu neighbourhood sits between a stack of towering business blocks like the one I’m in, and the Han River. Once a proposed space for commercial buildings, it’s now the third largest public park in the city with spaces dedicated to horticulture, education and the arts. Again, a site that held potential of urbanisation now sits as a beacon of a city appreciating it’s roots while still pushing forward into future. 

“I think for us, what was really important was to tell not the latest story about Hallyu, but to have a historic overview and provide context to help,” says Rosalie Kim, about the overview of the exhibition that took four years to get come to fruition. 

“I think it would be nice if people could take away that Hallyu has a bigger impact on these sort of elements of creative industries, and also has an impact beyond that. And that whoever sees a K-Pop music video or a K-Drama, that they will have a different perspective and appreciation for them.”

It’s obvious in our trip that Seoul is an ecosystem that feeds and nourishes itself on its rich past, building economies and social structures that are directly influenced by Korea’s confucianist virtues of family, respect and creating communities that work in harmony with each other. In essence, this has seen industries like music, cinema, beauty and fashion all benefit from the popularity of eachother, creating a huge flow of cultural exports to the wider world. A wave, if you will, and one that’s not done crashing yet.

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Hallyu! The Korean Wave is open now at the V&A, London until June 25th, 2023.

Words: Lucy Ford

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