The term “hallyu”, meaning “Korean wave”, has been used to describe the spread of South Korean culture across the globe. Hallyu has coincided with, and been supported by, the rise of social media and digital culture. The addition of the term to the Oxford English dictionary in 2021 is symbolic of the popularity of South Korean** culture in the UK, where its impact, particularly on Gen Z, the first digital natives, has been immense.
No article about Hallyu would be complete without an image of BTS, the world's largest selling pop group. BTS met Joe Biden to discuss anti-Asian hate in the US in May 2022. The hand gesture is the South Korean way of creating a heart - a gesture of happiness and love.
Even if you are not a Gen Z member, the chances are that you have become familiar with some aspect of South Korean culture in past few decades – whether that’s food, fashion, beauty, film, tv, anime, dance or music.
One of the spaces featuring contemporary Korean fashion. Dress in centre is the Peony dress by Korean fashion designer Miss Sohee.
The Hallyu exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the V&A and Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. It is the V&A’s first major exhibition about Korea since 1961.
Moon Jar Dress by Minju Kim. The winner of the first season of Netflix's Next in Fashion.
The entire exhibition is a glorious, rose coloured love letter to Korean pop culture covering the origins and global spread of K-beauty, K-pop, dance and choreography, fashion, cinema, tv dramas and anime, specifically the online app webtoon.
Webtoon is a digital platform for creators of digital comics to spread their work. Webtoons are only meant to be read online. Revenue generated by Webtoon is predicted to reach US$28.44 billion by 2028.
The exhibition also gives prominence to the extraordinarily engaged fanbase, particularly of K-pop – who have used social media to enact political, social and environmental change.
Painted sculpture, "Untitled G-Dragon, A Space of No Name" by Gwon Osang.
Those who followed Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020 will remember the global coordinated effort of K-pop fans to successfully disrupt Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa.
The empty seats at Trump's campaign rally in Tulsa, globally coordinated by K-pop fans.
From the moment you step into the space, the exhibition is a magnificent assault on the senses – starting with a wall of televisions, playing different parts of the music video that arguably started it all – PSY’s ubiquitous 2012 music video, Gangnam Style.
Screen wall featuring Gangham Style. Photo by C. Trichard.
Walking through the different spaces takes you on mini journeys through the origins and development of different aspects of Korean culture.
PSY's Youtube video Gangnam Style, which has been viewed 4.58 billion times and required Google to recalibrate how views are counted.
For me, the exhibition contained so many highlights.
Outfits worn by members of the K-pop group, aespa in their Next Level music video.
As a user of K-beauty products, I loved reading about the Confucian origins of South Korea’s impossibly high beauty standards with its emphasis on flawless skin as a reflection of inner purity.
Korean beauty sets global beauty trends including "glass skin" seen here on actor Song Hye-kyo's instagram account.
It was a thrill for me to see a display of the costumes used in Netflix’s most watched series ever, Squid Game.
Costumes from the Korean smash hit Netflix series, Squid Game. Netflix's most watched series.
I also loved walking through the spaces dedicated to K-pop – including the wall of light sticks. Light sticks are high end blue tooth enabled torches.
Light stick wall.
Each K-pop group has their own individually designed light stick. Fans bring their light sticks to each concert, connect the stick via blue tooth to a proprietary app enabling each connected light stick to flash in sequence. This creates coordinated lighting pattern displays across an entire arena during concerts and connects each audience member in a very direct way to their idols.
Blue tooth enabled light sticks at a BTS concert - allowing the audience to participate through the flashing patterns made by their collective light sticks.
It was simultaneously exciting and terrifying to see the display dedicated to the entirely virtual and hyper realistic K-pop group ETERN!TY, created by IT company Pulse 9 using Vocaloid technology and “Deep Real” AI.
Entirely virtual K-pop group's latest single, Eternity, released on 26 October 2022.
Fans of K-pop dance and choreography will have great fun having a dance lesson and being filmed and instantaneously enhanced, mixed and projected onto a huge screen. It’s a minor technological miracle to have this entire experience condensed into a couple of minutes.
The exhibition provides a space to have a K-pop dance tutorial, a rehearsal, film, mix and screen the finished dance all in a few minutes. I am on the top left.
The exhibition is full of colour, glamour, noise and excitement.
One of the exhibition spaces dedicated to K-pop.
Those with very young children or anybody sensitive to light and/or noise will want to know that the very loud music is constant and the multitude of screens of differing sizes creates an overall and continuous flickering lights effect. There is nowhere in the exhibition to take a moment of quiet repose. This makes the exhibition extremely exhausting – in a good way for me, but not for everyone, I suspect.
One of the exhibition spaces dedicated to K-pop.
The exhibition glosses over, or ignores entirely, the dark side of much of this success, including the spate of K-pop idol suicides, the allegations that K-pop is a form of indentured servitude, the infantilisation and objectification of women and the bullying of K-pop idols by fans, among many other controversies.
"I am not a doll, I am a person" by Haein Shim, 2022.
Given that the exhibition was in large part funded by the Korean government, I understand why these negative aspects have not featured yet including them would have given the exhibition more depth, interest and maturity.
The light stick designed for K-pop group Black Pink - the biggest selling girl group in the world. Photo by C. Trichard.
Every success has a cost and needs a reckoning. I believe that acknowledging these difficulties in the exhibition would not have taken away from the absolutely extraordinary achievement that is the development of South Korea from a war torn country, ravaged by colonial forces in the early 20th century (including the partition of Korea in 1945 by the Allies, creating North and South Korea) to the cultural and technological global powerhouse that it is today.
Photo by Bundo Kim.
Anybody who wants to understand and participate in the contemporary present and the exciting future, should go to this exhibition.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos were taken by me at the exhibition.
*Booking tickets through the V&A's website can be notoriously unreliable. If the booking process does not work, the problem is likely not your technology. You can book over the phone at the V&A's number +44 (0)20 7942 2000
**I will use the term Korea to mean South Korea.