Thank you so much for curating this exhibition, it's been incredible to experience!
Could you take us kind of behind the scenes of how you and Rosalie put together this exhibition?
Sure! We wanted to put together an exhibition that showed the dynamic and vibrant popular culture from South Korea. As you've seen, we go from of the historical, tumultuous past of Korea's 20th century history through to K-Drama, which were the first ripples of Hallyu, to K-Cinema, and then to K-Pop and its fandoms, finishing with the cultural impact these different sections have had on K-Beauty and fashion.
So the process of putting it together was quite a huge undertaking, to weave through lots of different mediums... from digital displays, to 13th Century ceramic cosmetic boxes, to the giant, three metre tall sculpture of G-Dragon!
I've been working on the project since February 2021, and Rosalie, the lead curator, she's been working on it since the year before. Her ideas came from looking at how young visitors to the museum were responding to certain collections, through the lens of K-Dramas and things they might have seen, like Confucian values like ancestral worship. Then at the same time, older audiences of the museum were perhaps not aware of the global phenomenon that is Korean Wave. So we wanted to connect those together.
Having a Korean background yourself, I imagine it was no easy task to find a way to show off Korean culture in a way that is accessible to people that have no experience of it, but also to show it off in a way that doesn't water it down or compromise its complexities.
The balance you've found in the exhibition is brilliant. How did you and Rosalie manage to achieve that?
You're exactly right, that was one of the trickier elements of the show, because we had to just build in these layers so that the show was accessible. So we try and pace each section of the exhibition with interesting visual moments, and also to make sure... for example, in the film section, we have the recreation of the bathrooms set from Parasite (2020), which we were just so lucky to get.
Then we also wanted to so respond to things happening in Korea at the same time. So what's really interesting about the bathroom now is there was recent heavy flooding in Korea, and they're now phasing out residential use for the bathroom. So it's become a really interesting, sort of, architectural history of Korea. So we wanted to build it, and also show social impacts throughout each sections, even in K-Pop.
We look at some of the lyrics; lyrics like [those from] Seo Taiji and The Boys. Their song 'Regret Of The Times' was initially censored by the Korean government. So then the group released a track without the lyrics of the protests and they actually brought on censorship law changes in Korea. Just looking at the wider impact [of the music] and really delving into that, rather than "just that it's popular".
I really particularly enjoyed looking at the roles that the fans play. Because the fans really are the experts in my opinion! A lot of them have a learnt Korean and are better Korean speakers than me! They sub South Korean dramas or translate new songs overnight. They are incredibly connected on social media, and then they work as philanthropists in support of the idol groups or the actors that they're supporting to raise funds.
For example, in Thailand during the pandemic they raised money for tuktuk drivers who were out of business. They raised money for COVID centres, for school uniforms!
So some of our work in this exhibition is about making our language accessible so that people who have no knowledge of Korea can come in and find something that they're interested in, which I hope that they will across some of these different sections, and invite people to delve further!
What are your earliest memories of the Hallyu Wave and what's it been like revisiting that now as a curator?
That's an interesting question, because I'm from Seoul, and I moved to London when I was ten. When I moved, people in my school barely knew where Korea was. Then over the years, my first memories were starting to see people in London with Korean smartphones like Samsung, or LG. Then, when I was a teenager people at school - like the cool kids - were watching Oldboy, Lady Vengenace (2005) and The Host (2006). So yeah, that was kind of a crazy moment.
Then I realised people were swapping DVDs as well! [Laughs] Of K-Dramas was like, Jumong (2006). In recent years, it has just exploded really, with K-Pop music; and what was before more of a niche subculture, now all around London, I've often seen K-Pop Dance practices. Every university has a K-Pop society.
So before, I used to have secret conversations in Korean with my mum in the tube, now we have to be really careful!
Because anyone might know what you're saying!
Yeah! [Laughs] Because a lot of people have started learning Korean as a result of interacting with the culture. So it's been really interesting to see have experienced firsthand just how quickly Hallyu has picked up.
Even though the exhibition really starts at the beginning of the 20th Century, it was really cool to see some of the much older exhibitions as well, such as the 직지 (jikji: the world's oldest surviving book printed with movable metal type) from the 14th Century placed next to more modern technological artefacts.
How amazing to have that connection between such an old artifact and the great Korean innovations in technology recently. A lot has been said about this kind of progress and national pride in that as being fundamental to Korean culture.
What do you think is essence of Korean culture?
Gosh, that's so tricky! But one thing that really sort of sticks out for me, is the resilience of the Korean people. They have really come through a tough period in current history, beginning with the end of the Joseon Dynasty, through to the Japanese occupation, and then subsequently the division of the two North and South territories and the Korean War.
I think with the recent phenomenon of Hallyu, a lot of this has really been forgotten. An object that I really like in this exhibition is a Samsung mobile phone where the manufacturer - in some of the batches - the workers have engraved in the microchip "believe that you can do it", which is a really nice sort of secret message of resilience for people in Korea. They have been through really difficult times but have created all these wonderful works.
We really wanted to bring out the creative practitioners behind Hallyu, so not just the directors and the K-Pop artists, but K-Pop stylists, the music video makers, the choreographers, and the art directors of the films, all the way to the hair and makeup directors.
I don't know if you spotted the Oldboy wig (one of the artefacts on display, as worn by Choi actor Min-sik)?
I did! That was very cool to see!
Yeah! There's a really interesting story from the makeup director Song Jong-hee, because she said initially, the actor was a bit resistant to have this kind of crazy hair, but that was her vision for the character, that he had been in captivity for 15 years. And the film director (Park Chan-wook) really supported the makeup director. Now it's become the iconic image of Oldboy.
It was mentioned in the exhibition how Euro-American influences have shaped Korean culture.
How much do you think that cultural exchange is instead going the other way these days? How do you think the global expansion of Korean culture is influencing Euro-American markets versus how it's usually assumed to mostly be the other way around?
Oh, that's a really interesting question. In the exhibition, we try and show Kpop idols being the state ambassadors representing the UN or UNICEF. They've become global fashion ambassadors for fashion houses and they beauty looks and cosmetic products they wear have really influenced the K-Beauty market, K-Beauty has its own category in the beauty world.
There are Korean fashion designers that they step out in, designers that dress idols too. So it's really great to see this real cultural interchange and sort of influence and it's nice to see this non-western culture, being able to take centre stage. So it's really crazy for me to see this arriving to the UK.
Where do you think the Hallyu Wave will go next? Or where would you like it to go?
Gosh, I mean [laughs] I can't really see into the future but for the moment it's really showing any sign of stopping. I think what's really nice is because they all are connected, if you enter Hallyu through K-Drama, then you might move on to the cinema, or to the language or to the history. So yeah, it's all sort of too easy! But with music, certainly, there's always a new generation of idol groups coming through.
The Hallyu Wave has done some good when it comes to helping push back against racism towards certain Asian minorities.
When you were out curating for this collection, did you find that people in Korea were actually aware that the Hallyu Wave had this kind of impact beyond being a cultural movement? That it has helped members of the Asian diaspora?
Well, that's something that we were really sort of mindful to include when we were curating the show, because the first wider impacts of Hallyu actually started in Asia and then the wider Asian diaspora was so influential in creating this momentum.
So in the film section, we have works by Lee Isaac Chang who directed Minari (2020) and then we worked with a British-Korean photographer, who took these wonderful photos of the New Malden Korean community. In the fashion section we have an outfit by Eugenia Kim, and she is Uzbeki-Korean. In Uzbekistan they have 고려사람 (meaning literally 'Korean people') as there was a period when a big surge of Koreans immigrated to some [now post-Soviet] states and she draws on her Korean and Uzbeki heritage.
In K beauty, we found that sort of the genderless look and the cosmetic looks of male Kpop idols have played a big role in sort of normalising makeup and beauty for men. So we wanted to bring up these stories as well.
I wanted to ask you what your favourite exhibit is, but you already told me!
So instead I'll ask, what do you hope people take away from this exhibition, especially for people who have never encountered Korean culture before?
We would really like people to see how this is just isn't just an overnight phenomenon, it is something that's been building for at least 30 years. There was government support, but there was also an incredible amount of creativity from different fields within the creative industries that all worked together like actors who work who are in K-Drama and films, and K-Pop idols that star in K-Dramas. So I hope people see these things, and hopefully are then excited to delve further into Korean culture.