The V&A’s latest exhibition starts with an immediate bombardment of wild, joyous neon, video, and the all-too familiar melodies of ‘Gangnam Style’. Psy’s viral dance craze is a brilliant example of ‘Hallyu’, the South Korean pop-culture phenomenon that has ignited imaginations across the globe. This blockbuster exhibition is a sensitvely researched, mind-boggling and ambitious attempt to record its explosion in recent years, through everything from cinema and television to music, fashion, beauty and tech.
To start, propaganda leaflets and documentary photographs guide us through a concise Korean history lesson from the Joseon dynasty to the 1950 Korean War and into the country’s abrupt embrace of technology. Here, powerhouses like LG and Samsung are part of a constant stream of innovation that filters into every area of life.
There’s a cultural optimism here that’s summed up well by artist Nam June Paik’s 1986 installation ‘Mirage Stage’; vast towers of video screens buzz and flicker, creating loops of early internet nostalgia to signal the start of the revolution in digital communication. Be it TikTok, music videos, or early 2000s mobile phone formatted ‘Webtoons’, this is how Hallyu was propelled to the rest of the world, allowing it to fuse with Western influences.
But it’s always a carefully tread line. The Squid Game boiler suits are displayed next to traditional hanbok costumes, and a 1990 photograph shows Korean filmmakers protesting for the protection of their domestic industry after it was threatened by the influx of European and American cinema.
A sensitvely researched, mind-boggling and ambitious attempt to record Korean culture's explosion in popularity.
While the whole thing flows well, there are minor aspects of the show that could have been thought out better. The huge section dedicated to television and film relies mainly on posters, costumes and text, but rarely any moving pictures on screen. Similarly, we’re not given an opportunity to listen to examples of the early ‘Trot’ genre, which was born out of the Japanese colonial period and was apparently pivotal to the emergence of K-pop.
That aside, the roaring explosion of K-pop itself is triumphantly conveyed. There are super-sized video projections, an installation of flashing K-pop light sticks, and personalised fan banners. There are real costumes worn by famous icons like Blackpink, eerie-looking AI avatars, and even an interactive challenge where you can record yourself dancing and become a music video.
The final section documents K-beauty and K-fashion. Here, K-pop’s embrace of the hanbok is shown to be crucial for the garment’s resurgence in contemporary design – like in a beautifully crafted Ji Won Choi and Adidas collaboration and a gender-fluid floral dinner jacket – underlying Hallyu’s fusion of tradition and modernity.
But there’s also another, more subtle narrative, one that shows South Korea’s constant, but optimistic, fight for freedom. You can see it in the photographs documenting the country’s 1980s struggle for democracy, and you find a similar spirit in K-pop fandom’s online activism for Black Lives Matter. It’s easy to overlook the soft power of pop culture, but this gleeful and extensive exhibition is a great way to remind us how much it matters.