A new exhibition exploring popular culture in South Korea and its global influence on creative industries including music, cinema, beauty and fashion opens at London’s V&A Museum on Saturday (September 24).
Hi! The Korean Wave will feature around 200 items ranging from outfits worn by K-pop groups ATEEZ and aespa to a recreation of the bathroom from Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film parasite. Digital displays and interactive installations will also take visitors deeper into the scenes the exhibition explores.
Curator Rosalie Kim began presenting the exhibition to the V&A in 2019 after noticing that younger visitors were coming to the museum’s Korean gallery and comparing items to those they had seen in K-dramas and films. “A lot of exhibitions about Korea around the world focus on the Joseon Dynasty or the Goryeo Dynasty, but not necessarily on popular culture,” Kim said NME. “I thought that since the V&A is a museum of art, design and performance, we would be best placed to do an exhibition.”
At this time, interest in Korean culture was growing, but still “under the radar”. “If you knew, you knew, but if you didn’t know, you didn’t necessarily know what Hallyu is [a Korean word referring to the global popularity of the country’s culture] meant or what it implied,” Kim said. But as Korean art continued to make great strides with the success of international parasiteBTS and BLACKPINK, and with the recent addition of 26 Korean words to the Oxford English Dictionary, the curator felt the exhibition was ‘timely’.
The new exhibition is divided into four sections – one each for K-Drama/Movies, K-Pop and Beauty/Fashion. The opening section “From Rubble To Smartphones” takes visitors through the history of South Korea and its rapid growth from a country devastated by war in the 1950s to a cultural and technological powerhouse of the modern age.
“I think a lot of visitors are wondering how this all started and why Korea,” Kim said of the decision to start with this background before the exhibition dives into its other strands. “Korea is where it is today because it went through all these phases – a colonial period, territorial division, then the Korean War, then under American trusteeship. So the spheres of influence that Korea was under were quite important, especially during the formative years of Korean history and culture.”
The goal of the opening section is to “highlight trends that people might not necessarily be aware of, but that make more sense in the context of Korean history and society,” like chaebols — or family-owned corporations like Samsung and LG. “This exhibition is about Hallyu, but it’s also a way for us to better understand Korean society and the mechanisms behind it,” Kim explained.
Then, before you get to that first section, the very first thing you’ll see in the exhibit is a set of screens showcasing one of the greatest K-Pop songs of all time – PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” The main music video, which quickly went viral after its release in 2012, is shown on one screen while parodies and covers play simultaneously on smaller screens around it. These include clips from grandmothers to prisoners, college students to NASA astronauts in space recreating PSY’s infamous dance moves.
“We wanted them all to play at the same time because we wanted to show how quickly the song went viral around the world and impacted every corner, even beyond the Earth,” Kim said NME. “It allowed us to show how the song that started in Korea just exploded and how that built community and put Korea on a global popular culture map. The effect was more spectacular when you were overwhelmed by all those visuals because that was the effect of the song – it really enfolded everyone at the time.”
In the “Global Groove” section, Korean music is presented using music videos, audio stations and an interactive dance installation. The latter gives visitors the chance to learn moves from a K-Pop choreography, highlighting the growing fan base around the dance side of the scene, which is reflected in Dance Challenges and Random Play Dance – online and in-person events that bring fans together and perform choreography from a variety of K-pop songs.
Outside of the visual aspect of K-Pop, it explores the meaning of lyrics and reveals the impact of top artists’ songs beyond their fandoms. Kim pointed to Girls’ Generation’s 2007 single “Into The New World,” which saw a resurgence after the ousting of former President Park Geun-hye in 2017, and “Regret Of The Times,” the idol of the first generation, Seo Taiji, who changed the censorship laws in South Korea.
“We knew that some of these lyrics had more power than just influencing fandoms — they actually had an impact on the legal system as well. There were also other lyrics that talked about mental health, for example, and so these were topics that would speak to many generations and people.”
Music in Korea, however, isn’t just about K-pop—anything Hi! The Korean Wave also showcases through a listening station where visitors can sample other styles, from hip-hop to R&B, trot (a genre that was popular in the ’60s and ’70s but made a comeback recently) to traditional sounds. “We show the connection [between modern and traditional]said Kim.
“So we have ‘Daechwita’ [by Agust D, aka BTS’ Suga], for example, and we look at what the Joseon Dynasty military march used as instruments and what that meant. So we also put this instrument on display in the exhibition and give the opportunity to hear how the original sounds and how it sounds in ‘Daechwita’.”
One of the challenges in putting the exhibition together, according to Kim, was making it accessible to those who aren’t experts on Korean culture, while also making it interesting for fans “who sometimes know better than everyone else.” The solution, the team decided, was to “use Hallyu as a lens to delve into traditional cultural values that aren’t necessarily better known, or to talk about current issues facing contemporary Korean society.” The results give fans a different perspective on their favorite culture and offer newcomers a thorough introduction to the phenomenon.
In addition to the presence exhibition, which will be on view at the V&A for nine months, Hi! The Korean Wave will also be complemented by a program of online events including workshops, lectures and activities suitable for children and families. Further details on these events will be announced in due course.
Kim, who is Korean but born in Belgium, has enabled her by curating the exhibition to showcase “a part of my culture” that has not always been widely accepted. “It’s still hard for me to understand that I’m actually doing a show about Korea [on],” She said.
“When I was growing up, no one had heard of Korea. You had these clichés of kids making fun of you for bringing sushi rolls for lunch and now kimbap to school [Korean rice rolls that look similar to sushi] and these foods are becoming quite fashionable. The Korean language is something that is now being used more and more. It’s incredible to see this development in such a short space of time, so it’s nice to be able to share my story.”
Hi! The Korean Wave opens at the V&A Museum in London on Saturday (24 September). Entry is £20. Visit the V&A website for more information.