Think Korea and depending on your age it will be either M*A*S*H*, Kimchi or K-Pop. The K-pop fandom already knows what the rest of us are yet to discover—that Korean culture isn’t having a moment so much as a tsunami that is sweeping the outside world with its pop music, cinema, television, fashion, and art devours. Korea is hot, hot, hot. (The South, of course – the North, as we all know, is completely different).
A new show at the V&A — Hallyu! The Korean Wave – opens today and features everything from the 2019 film Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and 6 Oscars including Best Director for Bong Joon-ho, to Miss Sohee’s stunning gowns, the creations of Sohee Park, a 26-year-old fashion graduate from Central St Martin’s whose graduation show went viral during lockdown. Designer Minju Kim is the breakout star of Netflix series Next In Fashion, and Korea’s Squid Game is the highest-grossing Netflix show of all time, with 1.65 billion viewing hours in the four weeks following its release in September 2021.
Meanwhile, K-Pop has taken over the world. Boy band BTS and girl band Blackpink are the best-selling pop bands in the world today, having conquered not only the Asian but also the global music markets. Think Stock Aitken Waterman on digital steroids creating not just a slew of ever-evolving new pop idols, but an entire global social movement – for teens – to go along with it.
K-popstars or “idols” are recruited from the age of 11 and trained like athletes in popstar factories, overseen by management companies that install them in “houses” where they live and interact with fans and media, either face-to-face to face to face or via digital metaverse. Bands like Aespa have four human members and four avatar members, making them available to fans 24/7. So far, so science fiction. And yes, due to the intense pressure that K-pop idols can find themselves under, there have been suicides, although this is not mentioned in the exhibition, perhaps because it is sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. who wants to project an image of exuberant positivity.
It’s all about Korea’s soft power and the country’s pragmatic choice to fund both culture and production. In 1994, when Jurassic Park’s box office receipts surpassed sales of 1.5 million Hyundai cars, the government took notice and began supporting the Korean film industry. This gave a new generation of filmmakers the chance to experiment – resulting in K-drama, webtoons and Oscar winners like Parasite – whose memorable bathroom is recreated in the exhibition. As is the pink jacket Psy wore in his 2012 satirical Gangnam Style video.
The V&A is the first major global institution to showcase modern Korean culture. It’s the story of an extraordinary transformation from a war-ravaged hillbilly to a futuristic culture whose only speed is fast and faster, initially fueled by the tremendous success of brands like Samsung, LG, Hyundai. Curator Rosalie Kim describes how Korea’s vibrant and creative culture has transformed the country’s image from one devastated by the Korean War to a cultural boss in an era of social media and digital culture. “This phenomenon has been amplified by tech-savvy and socially conscious global fanbases, further raising hallyu’s profile and relevance around the world,” she says. The fandoms, as they’re known, are known for mobilizing in huge, benign waves online — in 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, K-pop fans took to Twitter by the tens of thousands to drown out racist posts; Unlike traditional pop fans, whose sole concern is the pop band they idolize, K-pop fandoms have created an online social movement that functions as translators, activists, fundraisers, and archivists.
The Hallyu! Show is divided into four sections, bright and loud and immersive – Story, Cinema and Drama, Music, Fashion and Beauty. Amid all the color and noise is perhaps the most intriguing photo in the From Rubble To Smartphones History section of a 1979 black-and-white shot of huge skyscrapers — Gangnam, Seoul’s most expensive neighborhood. In front of it a man plowing a field with an ox.
It is this image, more than any other, that captures Korea’s hyper-accelerated modernity—in 1960, 72% of its population lived in the countryside—achieved by Stakhanovist labor practices. Between 1961 and 1987, exports grew at an almost incredible 30-40% a year. The country fell first to Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), then to the Cold War, when the country was divided into North and South by the US and USSR in August 1945. The result was the Korean War and years of military dictatorship in the south, which ended in 1979. North and South are still officially at war today, the border of one of the most militarized places on earth.
After rapid industrialization and economic growth in the 1960s and 70s, the 1988 Seoul Olympics changed Korea’s image abroad for the first time, its cheerful logo reminding us of the tiger on Frosties’ cereal box. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, unemployed people had time to play around with technology, making South Korea one of the most digitally innovative countries in the world. A Korean invention, webtoons gained popularity during this period – which are cartoons that are read vertically by scrolling down your screen – and provide much inspiration for K-drama, computer games, cinema and musicals.
Today, Koreans work some of the world’s longest hours — the government’s official 52-hour workweek is considered “reasonable but elusive,” with staggering levels of presenteeism and jobs that require employees to be reachable around the clock to be. As a result, Koreans sleep the least and consume the most alcoholic spirits of any country in the world. Korea has a $2.5 billion sleep industry to combat not only insomnia — which is growing 8% annually — but also common cases of hyperarousal (where people are so overexcited they can’t blink) , as 100,000 Koreans regularly consume sleeping pills in unsafe doses. Sleep-in cafes – where you can take your lunch break and pay for a quick nap – are popular.
It all fits perfectly with the Korean ppalli-ppalli culture, which roughly translates to “quick-quick”. The country has the fastest broadband in the world; Restaurants serve food almost immediately; Intensive language courses promise immediate results; Speed dating is huge, as are speed weddings at locations that offer a non-stop conveyor belt of hour-long ceremonies. It’s the exact opposite of slow motion.
So what drives this fast-fast mentality that has helped transform a country of 53 million people but has deprived them of so much sleep they need cafes to nap? According to the show’s organizers, the South Korean government pushed high-speed Internet infrastructure and communications technology in the early 1990s “in the belief that the slow adoption of industrialization in the late 19th century caused the country’s colonization.” As the fastest place in the world, Korea will not be caught again.
As you walk through the giant K-pop screen avatars or marvel at the beauty gadgets — LED masks originally developed by NASA to grow plants in space are now being used by individuals to rejuvenate their skin — you ask maybe where the traditional culture of Korea fits in The fiber optic attack. According to the curators of the exhibition, this compressed modernity has created paradoxes in society – after 500 years of rule by the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910), traditional Confucian and shamanistic rituals now coexist with cutting-edge technology that is so far ahead of itself that they almost appear as science fiction. This is the hybrid that formed hallyu.
- Hi! The Korean Wave at the V&A Sept. 24, 2022 – June 25, 2023