Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus, Visual Arts

South Korea’s cultural explosion

Some temporal periods of history become so characterised by their new cultural forms that it identifies them per se.


Painted sculpture, “Untitled G-dragon, a space of no name” by Gwon Osang © Courtesy: Gwon Osang. Victoria Albert Museum

Sean Sheehan


In this way, the Renaissance serves as a label for two centuries of western European artistic and scientific development; modernism comes to define what radically changed in literary and other art forms from the 1920s onwards. Hallyu, commonly translated as ‘the Korean wave’, is the term for a flourishing and multi-faceted upsurge of cultural expression – K-culture for short – that began in the late 1990s and which has now reached an extraordinary level of global awareness.

The exclamation mark in the title of a new exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum –¡Hallyu! The Korean wave – signifies the shock that comes with acknowledging the rapturous birth of something as unexpected as it is thrilling. Primarily manifested in music (K-pop), fashion, film and television, but also cosmetics (K-beauty), and all inseparable from social media, the Korean wave has gathered momentum and reached shores furthest from its origin.

As an Event, Hallyu is in a post-modernist, incestuous relationship with big business.

Its dizzying creativity and reach is occurring concomitantly with ongoing global market penetration by Korean electronics and car manufacturers (Samsung, Kia, Hyundai).

The parallel does not go unnoticed by the curators of the V&A exhibition and the Hallyu phenomenon is squarely framed in the context of South Korea’s political and economic development after the US proposed  dividing the country, either side of the 38th parallel, as a way of bracketing off the indecisive Korean War (1950-53).

Needless to say, no one thought to consult Koreans on the matter. Just as modernism is bound up with the trauma of War World 1 and recognition of capitalist logic, K-culture may be inseparable from the wounds of its own past, though the chemistry behind such an imbrication is not crystal clear.

There is much that looks kitsch in V&A’s exhibition, a symptom of Hallyu’s indelible post-modernism, but there is also an infectious and daring ebullience that finds expression in forms as different as fashion and cinema.

The dress models are eye-popping and, while a big screen shows a fight scene from Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” (the octopus-eating scene might have been more representative of the film’s shock value), a star award must go to the recreated set of the split-level bathroom-and-toilet from “Parasite”.

Photo by Jason Decrow/Invision/AP/Shutterstock (9056138l). South Korean rapper Psy performs his massive K-pop hit “Gangnam Style” live on NBC’s “Today” show, in New York, USA

The design of the exhibition wonderfully mimics the hybridity that defines K-culture and as a visitor you move from one arresting room or cabinet to another and wonder how and why such an creative explosion of talent and ideas happened where and when it did.

If you cannot visit the exhibition, or if you do and want to know about K-Culture, there is an accompanying book packed with colour illustrations and informative text.

“Hallyu! The Korean wave” is at the V&A South Kensington until June 2023, supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism – Republic of Korea and Genesis.

The official exhibition book, edited by Rosalie Kim (one of the exhibition’s curators), is available from the V&A Shop.

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