The V&A‘s hotly anticipated exhibition mapping out South Korea’s pop culture boom arrives in London this week, much to the excitement of K-pop connoisseurs throughout the UK. Hallyu! The Korean Wave has been marked in our calendars since the museum announced its 2022 line-up, and Charlie Colville confirms that the hype was well and truly worth it.
Your First Look at the V&A’s Latest Exhibition Hallyu! The Korean Wave
Chances are, if you’ve ever indulged in a sheet mask, tensely tuned in to Squid Game or danced wildly to ‘Gangnam Style’, you’re somewhat familiar with ‘hallyu’, otherwise known as South Korean pop culture. But, as we come to find out in new V&A exhibition Hallyu! The Korean Wave, the euphoric rise of the country’s cultural exports runs far deeper than the odd beauty trend or viral sensation.
While school may have painted a mid-century picture of Korea as a war-torn state on the precipice of technological advancement, the country’s current position is leaps and bounds away from this narrative. This is a country that, in living memory, has experienced rapid change and success – and it’s this transformation that takes centre stage at the V&A. Lead curator Rosalie Kim described Hallyu! as ‘the first exhibition of its kind to celebrate Korean popular culture’, which ‘maps out the country’s history from war to cultural powerhouse’.
Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, similarly added that the exhibition ‘captures the meteoric rise of the Korean Wave, and the country’s masterful approach to rebranding and creativity.’ The museum has one of the largest collections of Korean art and design objects, but with Hallyu! the V&A looks for the first time at contemporary music, film, TV, fashion and beauty. As Hunt highlights, this is an exhibition that dives deep into the ‘rare example of a model state taking soft power seriously’, and how this has helped create an image of contemporary Korea as a global leader.
Stepping through the doors of the exhibition, visitors are greeted by the most familiar pop culture reference to come out of South Korea in recent years: viral hit ‘Gangnam Style’. The room is covered in colourful screens showing the popular music video – the first video ever to hit one billion views on YouTube – which features musician Psy trotting around Seoul’s upscale urban district with an entourage of dancers and celebrities. Psy’s iconic pink suit, worn throughout the video, is on display not too far away on the adjacent wall. It’s a fitting start to the exhibition; regarded as the first song to break the internet, this is where the Korean Wave gained its widescale global momentum.
The rest of the exhibition follows Korea’s history in four parts, starting from the ruins of the Second World War and finishing with its modern achievements. Beginning in the late 1950s, From Rubble to Smart Phones kicks things off with a look at the country’s ‘rags to riches’ narrative. Here, photographs, pamphlets and artwork tell the story of Korea’s struggles as a divided nation impacted by war (one which is technically still going on today) and the scramble to avoid being left behind in the wave of technological advancement.
Through displays marked by mobile phones, computer programmes and televisual art installations, South Korea, which took a risk in investing in information and communication technology, is shown leading the way in digital advancement throughout the 90s – and well into the modern age.
It’s also here that the exhibition begins to give way to more familiar territory. Spotlighting K-Drama and Cinema is where our favourite characters from TV shows, films and webtoons come to lifes through an installation of costumes, props, posters and clips. Here, you’ll find the tracksuits from Netflix’s most-viewed series, Squid Game, propped up against screened snippets of Itaewon Class and magazine covers featuring popular Korean actors from the last few decades.
Around the corner, in a rather Hwang Dong Hyuck-esque rendering of green streets and billboards, visitors can step into a recreated set from Oscar-winning film Parasite, walk through the gory halls of Oldboy and gaze at the photographs used on the set of Minari.
And then comes the perhaps the most anticipated section of Hallyu! The Korean Wave: ‘K-pop: Sounding and Fandoms’. Visitors are led through a tunnel of 20 flashing lightsticks, before walking through a display mapping out the popular music genre’s origins. From 90s hitmakers H.O.T and BoA to the rise of the modern idol (the term used for K-pop musicians in the industry), the curatorial team highlight how the tried-and-tested formula of catchy music, empathetic lyrics, polished performances and sharp dance moves captured the hearts of fans around the world. The fandom, which has grown up in the generation of social media and sharing platforms, has only given greater momentum to the star power of K-pop.
More immersive features follow in the tail end of this section. A sensory explosion of music and video takes over, with clips of popular music videos set to a spliced track of hits from BTS, Blackpink and BIGBANG. Along the sides and in the centre of the room sit costumes and memorabilia from various concerts and music videos, most notably the outfits worn by 4th Generation K-pop groups Aespa and Ateez in the music videos for ‘Next Level’ and ‘Fireworks’. Tucked into an alcove behind it all is a gigantic sculpture by artist Gwon Osang, depicting K-pop royalty G Dragon.
Off to the side, visitors are also welcome to try out a couple of dance moves from Psy and BTS Suga’s 2022 hit ‘That That’ (which we were admittedly terrible at, but had great fun nonetheless), and see themselves pop up on the adjacent big screen. K-pop is known for its vibrant – and sometimes out there – visuals, and the space matched the thrumming energy of its content step for step.
Hallyu! culminates in a celebration of K-beauty and fashion, highlighting the country’s leading contemporary brands and designers. In the beauty corner, visitors can browse through collections of EXO-inspired Nature Republic sheet masks, see beautifully made-up idols grace the front cover of Rolling Stone and come face to face with the skincare heroes that have become popular outside of Asia.
Here, we also get a glimpse of the rich heritage of the hanbok, a piece of Korean fashion history that continues to play a part in expressing cultural heritage today. From painted screens depicting the traditional hanbok to modern iterations crafted by designer Lee Young-hee and those worn recently by idols (make sure not to miss RM of BTS’s blue floral dapho or the cropped pink jeogori worn by Blackpink’s Jennie in the ‘How You Like That’ music video), the evolution of Korea’s national dress takes offers a front row seat to a nation that continues to maintain tradition despite its fast-paced progression.
In the centre of the room, a number of mannequins display garments crafted by South Korea’s leading fashion designers – many of which have been featured in magazines and the runways of Seoul Fashion Week. Highlights include ensembles created by Next in Fashion winner Minju Kim, a collaboration between world-renowned sportswear brand Nike and designer Ji Won Choi and an outfit created using the traditional Korean colour spectrum by Darcygom.
Exuding a contagious excitement at every corner, Hallyu! The Korean Wave captures South Korea’s ever-growing pop culture scene in vivid definition. Expect to be treated to an experience that ticks all of your sensorial boxes, and sets alight a passion for the country’s dynamic exports. The only problem? You’ll leave with an unquenchable appetite for more. We’ve all been happily swept up in the Korean Wave, and we can’t wait to see what comes next from the pop culture powerhouse.
Get a sneak peek at Hallyu! The Korean Wave below:
@charbarcol This is THE exhibition to visit in #london if you’re a fan of #kpop #kdrama and #kfashion ♬ That That (prod. & feat. SUGA of BTS) – PSY
Hallyu! The Korean Wave runs from 24 September 2022 to 25 June 2023, with tickets priced at £20 per person. For more information, please visit vam.ac.uk
Featured image: Charlie Colville