Hallyu! The Korean Wave at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is an exhibition that tries to cover too much ground with too little material.
The show admirably attempts to illustrate the two waves of modernisation in South Korea following the Korean War in just eight sections split across three rooms, touching on the country’s notable achievements in consumer culture, sports, film and television, music, beauty, and fashion. Each of these themes could easily have become entire exhibitions in themselves, but instead we are presented with an overview of hallyu (한류) that never feels quite complete.
It opens with a banger: PSY’s Gangnam Style comes blaring from the speakers, the music video broadcast alongside its many Minecraft parodies, and with the singer’s original outfit on display too. It looks promising at first.
But then we are thrown into the deep end with a contextual corridor summarising several decades’ worth of conflict and uprisings between North and South Korea. It’s an important (but dense) backdrop to the country’s miraculous revival, explored in the next section with the rise of companies like Samsung, and the hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics. The inclusion of a Nam June Paik installation seemed irrelevant here.
For the subsequent sections, in the attempt to cover both the 1990’s and 2010’s periods of popularity in K-pop and K-dramas, the selected highlights aren’t quite as representative as one would hope, although unexpected icons do feature.
For film and TV, there is a grand display of outfits from Squid Game, a set recreation from Parasite, merchandise from Winter Sonata, and even the protagonist’s hanbok from Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace)!
A wall of glowsticks supporting popular groups like BTS, BLACKPINK, and aespa prefaces a rushed exploration of Korean music’s global appeal, its diversity, obsessive fan base, and ends with a display of outfits showered in not the nicest of alternating lighting. But at least there’s a little wholesome room where visitors can dance and show off their skills.
The country’s obsession with beautification is an interesting one, with a corridor contrasting the Seven Beauties pictorial genre with innovations in beauty products, plastic surgery, and even how the trope is popularised in film and TV. This corridor makes for an elegant transition to the exhibition’s fashion-focused ending, filled with extraordinary modernist takes on traditional hanboks.
Despite glaring omissions and overly-forced political contrasts, it’s not a bad show. It just needed more depth and focus.
Hallyu! The Korean Wave runs until 25 June 2023 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, https://www.vam.ac.uk/