Hallyu! The Korean Wave Review – A Dazzling Historical Remix | Art

IIf you don’t recognize the Squid Game guard costumes looming at the V&A with their cherry suits and geometric masks where were you? This dystopian television series was watched by over 100 million viewers in over 80 countries when it was released last year. It’s part of the global pop culture boom from South Korea that Hallyu! Korean for “wave” famous.

The reason this hit V&A show translates so well is that it portrays its own desires and concerns as universal: it recognizes no boundaries. In a century when many have grown wary of globalization, fleeing an economically and technologically unified world towards a renewed nationalism, South Korea has taken the opposite course. There is no Krexit. This society encompasses everything and everyone.

Fashion is fundamental… A floral jacket designed by Kim Seo Ryong and worn by Jin of K-Pop group BTS in Hallyu! The Korean wave. Photography: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This prospect was anticipated by the late Korean-American video artist Nam June Paik: his 1986 installation Mirage Stage is an early highlight of the show. Its range of shimmering television screens celebrates a Zen-like hypnotic embrace of the endless and limitless possibilities of global communication. This mix here includes everything from Psy’s 2012 mega-hit Gangnam Style on an opening video wall, to a space where you can try dancing K-pop, to a spectacular exhibition of contemporary versions of the dress. Korean traditional hanbok.

Fashion is fundamental in the soft argument of this exhibition, because it actually has one under the infectious soundtrack. You are surrounded by clothes that are both futuristic and ancient, a dazzling historical remix. Until late in the 20th century, Korea was a pre-industrial society with venerable customs. From 1910 to 1945, this identity survived colonization by the Japanese Empire. The hanbok style, with wide skirts for women and silk robes for men, expressed this old Korea: it was threatened again when South Korea began to industrialize after the Korean War. But now, there seem to be endless ways to reinvent the hanbok, from a lace-trimmed black and white suit worn by K-pop star RM to a deconstructed undergarment dress designed by Suh Younghee. Floral designs are taken to ecstatic extremes, from subtle gray petals to huge pink blooms to a giant peony-like dress.

It’s also in fashion that you see one of the most appealing aspects of K-pop culture, its absence of stale images of the genre. Not only male and female clothes blend together, but also the creation of female and male beauty. There’s a whole section on cosmetics and beauty care that shows how Korean stars achieve their looks, from actor Lee Dong-wook modeling Chanel’s Boy cosmetics to pioneering use of green tea as skincare. skin. A statue of Gwon Osang of K-pop idol G-Dragon as an angelic matador piercing a fallen demon with his spear portrays both G-Dragon and his vanquished foe with exquisite androgynous beauty.

Free from all cultural purity… Untitled G-Dragon, A Space of No Name by Gwon Osang.
Free from all cultural purity… Untitled G-Dragon, A Space of No Name by Gwon Osang. Photography: © Courtesy of Gwon Osang

This deliriously kitsch piece of art also highlights what might be the most alluring aspect of South Korean pop culture: its lack of any form of cultural purity. He blithely ransacks Western art. G-Dragon’s heroic pose is modeled after Christian images of Saint George and Archangel Michael. Why not? They bring as much grist to the mill as the Buddhist tradition in this vision of the urban, digital and post-everything world.

You can enter a curtained booth, defying the content warning, to watch a big-screen clip of a street fight from Park Chan-wook’s violent and surreal 2003 film Oldboy, and see the tattered wig worn by its star Choi Min-sik. Oldboy is a glorious example of Korean Wave pick ‘n’ mix globalism: it’s based on a Japanese manga version of the classic French novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Gangnam, the show reveals, is a wealthy neighborhood in Seoul. Its rise from rural suburb to glamorous high-rise neighborhood is chronicled here. But not everyone lives Gangnam-style: you can peek into the tiny, squalid bathroom set of the poor family in the Oscar-winning film Parasite. The universality of Korean culture includes the dramatization of the conflicts and injustices it shares with the rest of the world – which is the dramatic heart of Squid Game.

Yet the overwhelming feel of K-pop culture, this thrilling show proves, is a joyful embrace of the flow of modernity, an optimism that seems to have dried up elsewhere.

James C. Tibbs