It makes sense that Psy’s Gangnam Style is the first thing we hear at this captivating exhibition; for many around the world, the K-pop sensation was the first time they truly became swept up in the Korean wave.
A blast of turbocharged dance music accompanied by a bombastic video, the viral hit took just 159 days to race past one billion YouTube views and electrified the global awareness of “hallyu”, the phenomenal spread of South Korean culture, first across Asia, and then the rest of the world, over the past few decades.
Gangnam Style is given a vibrant showing here — a collage of screens beam out choppy footage of the music video’s cartoon stylings, placed beside a mannequin sporting both the pink suit and horse-riding pose made famous by the song — but it also works as a more subtle entry point to the transformative story of South Korea in the past 70 years.
Psy’s song parodied the affluent, achingly stylish locals of Gangnam, a wealthy district of Seoul, but as the exhibition explains, this glitz is a relatively modern thing. A black and white photo shows a farmer working on Gangnam’s fields in the 1970s with newly erected housing blocks in the background, and below it, we see the ultimate results of that rapid gentrification: an area of gleaming skyscrapers, bright lights and busy roads without a whiff of its agricultural past.
It’s emblematic of South Korea’s astronomic rise. It is now the world’s 10th largest economy (for years after the Korean War, it was poorer than than its northern counterpart) and has cultivated an era of unprecedented cultural dominance: its musicians are among the biggest on the planet, its actors and directors are winning Oscars, and its TV shows are breaking streaming records.
The exhibition picks out a few key moments to explain how this all happened, and how, in its words, South Korea went from “rags to smartphones’’. It starts with Japanese colonial rule in 1910 and passes through the Korean War, which split one country into two warring states. We’re told how decades of strict military rule, starting in the 1960s, focused on boosting the economy but also tightened censorship, and how flourishing pro-democracy movements eventually toppled the regime, liberalising the nation’s culture in the process.
It’s far from a dour history lesson though. The staging is bright, loud and engaging, from the barricade of flickering vintage TVs showing the work of famed video artist Nam June Paik, to the wall of lightsticks — luminous objects wielded by fans at K-pop concerts.
There are some wonderful surprises, too. Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed 2019 film, is credited by the exhibition with reigniting the Korean cinema scene, and one of its most memorable sets — the cramped semi-basement occupied by the struggling Kim family — is recreated here, complete with its grimy tiles and dingy windows (as in the film, where the apartment is isolated from Korean society, this part of the exhibition is partly hidden behind a wall; a nice touch).
Another classic of Korean film, Oldboy, is celebrated with a screening of its most famous scene, the fabulously violent single-shot fight sequence. It is sequestered behind a curtain, understandably, and is worth peeking behind for another reason: to see the shaggy wig worn by lead actor Choi Min-sik in the film.
Elsewhere, the exhibition dips its toes into some rather more niche, but nonetheless fascinating facets of Korean culture — eSports; the Korean diaspora of New Malden in south-west London; the increasingly humanistic portrayals of North Koreans in South Korean dramas; all of which you feel could make intriguing exhibitions on their own — but focuses largely on the juggernauts: fashion, beauty, TV, cinema, and music.
That last one makes for the most engrossing section. K-pop is what has taken hallyu to a new realm of success in the 21st century, and is explored in all its multi-faceted glory here. The boundary-pushing fashion worn by some of the genre’s biggest stars (or “idols”, as they’re known), such as the eight-member boy band ATEEZ, take centre stage, with a huge backdrop that flicks between various music videos, as K-pop booms through the speakers. The genre is at its best when all of its components — music, choreography, fashion — are experienced at once, and the sensory overload of this display provides exactly that.
A smaller section has been designated for attendees to learn, practise and then perform K-pop dance moves (a prospect that struck fear into this jaded reviewer, but will probably delight any TikTokkers) before a glimpse of the future is given with footage of an entirely digital, disconcertingly realistic idol group. It seems as if the Korean wave won’t be crashing anytime soon.
V&A, from September 24 to June 2, 2023; vam.ac.uk