V&A blasts K-culture in new exhibit


The design of Hallyu! the korean wave frames the energy of south korean culture that is currently sweeping the globe in the spaces that shaped it.

The new Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) exhibition Hallyu! Korean Wave opens with the frenzied energy of K culture – loud, vibrant, constantly in motion – its title displayed on multiple screens amid spinning clips from PSY’s 2012 viral hit Gangnam Style.

Curated by Rosalie Kim and Yoojin Choi, it is the first major exhibition to study South Korean culture which has recently swept the world and, as Rosalie Kim explains, “it has transformed the image of the country devastated by the Korean War to that of a leading cultural power.

This encompasses the rise of K-drama to recent hits such as Boon Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite, as well as global K-Pop idol phenomena such as BTS, G-Dragon, and aespa.

But in an exhibition designed by Berlin-based Korean graphic designer Na Kim as creative lead and Liverpool-based Studio Mutt as 3D designers, Hallyu’s global explosion is also framed more broadly.

Entrance to the exhibition at Hallyu! the korean wave

Invited to apply for the role of creative lead by the V&A, Na Kim was intrigued to tackle this now global phenomenon with which, as a Korean national, she has a “love/hate relationship”.

To understand Hallyu, it was necessary to go back to the wider Korean culture, but on the other hand, she explains, how K culture took off beyond the borders of South Korea. This cultural mobility is itself part of what makes Hallyu unique, where new ideas can “flow or happen”. [through] pop culture [or] a contemporary scene,” she says.

Shaped by the social spaces of Korean life

It was important for Na Kim to root Hallyu in South Korean culture.

Signage gives a strong visual presence to Hangul, the Korean alphabet, through bilingual headings that place Hangul characters side-by-side with Roman lettering, using similar font weight and width in both languages.

During this time, Kim also sought to express the energy of K culture by collaborating with a number of other Korean designers, including space designer San Jeon, graphic designer Yejoo Lee, and illustrator Joonho Ko.
However, the core of the exhibition proposal was to shape the exhibition through two contrasting settings familiar to Korean life: the public square and a private room.

Installation image featuring the recreation of the Parasite bathroom scene in Hallyu! the korean wave

Na Kim discusses how these spaces were key to the political and social milieu from which K-wave evolved. Events such as the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s brought people together in public, while in contrast, the more intimate space of a room is not only part of the traditional Korean home, but is also characteristic of the specific public space of the South Korean internet. -precursor to coffee, the PC Bang, now more commonly used for multiplayer computer games.

A focus on form

In a design that streamlines materials by focusing instead on form, both public plaza and private room environments were realized through 3D design by Studio Mutt, in collaboration with contractors Made Studio. The design of the lighting by Studio ZNA contributes to creating these two atmospheres thanks to the temperature and the power of the lighting.

The concept feels strongest in the section on K-drama and cinema, designed to look like a streetscape set.

“We created this street scene where we could use buildings [to hold] museum cabinets, but also in some cases we used the building to represent a physical building that you can walk into,” says Alexander Turner, director of Studio Mutt.

On entering a “building”, visitors are dropped off – almost too close for their comfort – in

Installation image with handmade fan banners and interactive screen by LG Display

a ‘one-on-one’ projection of a fight scene from Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy, the wide, shallow dimensions of the space perfectly reflecting the camera shot.

The many moving parts of K-culture

To accommodate Hallyu’s broad remit, the exhibition is divided into separate sections. After the introduction From Rubble to Smartphones comes Spotlighting K-drama and Cinema, Sounding K-pop and Fandoms and Making K-Beauty and Fashion.

Each space is saturated with a single color on its various surfaces, clearly distinguishing each section. The specific colors were chosen by Na Kim for their relevance to aspects of Hallyu, such as a blue-purple associated with the BTS group, which would be instantly recognizable by his fans.

The design is flexible: darker moods are established for the Korean history section, [which moves swiftly from the Josean Dynasty to the 1950 Korean war and the rebuilding of the country afterwards, and a restrained elegance is used for the section on the world-leading industry of K-beauty, which spans from the 13th century cosmetics boxes to the futuristic machinery to IOPE and Lincsolution’s 3D printed custom face masks. Against white walls, Joonho Ko’s silhouetted illustrations depict historical beauty products.

Installation image featuring K-pop music videos and costumes, Hallyu! The Korean Wave

In contrast, the K-pop section features both intimate and open spaces. The walls of one room, featuring handmade fan banners, are lined with large cardboard tubes as if surrounding visitors with a giant curtain, while the next room is a riot of K-pop’s vibrant aesthetics, bordered instead with screens displaying K-pop music videos surrounding the exuberant stage costumes worn by the idols.

From hand-made fan banners to hi-tech collaborations

This section also showcases two examples of new technology. The first is a large transparent screen from LG Display which displays different K-pop lyrics.

Making use of its transparency, Turner explains, “we located [it] in a way that created a sort of enfilade […] a series of frames that lead you through the exhibition.

Behind it was another collaboration, an interactive Google Arts and Culture dance piece where visitors can record themselves performing K-pop dance routines.

The soft power of culture

Overall, the exhibition showcases the enormous variety and hybridity of K-wave, juxtaposing historical objects from the V&A’s leading collection of Korean crafts and design with innovations from the past decades.

There are design highlights throughout; these could include installing glow sticks, a handheld light wand unique to each K-pop idol and waved in unison by fans at concerts; or the webtoon comics of the 1990s, both a Korean design innovation that adapted cartoons for vertical reading by scrolling on a mobile phone, and a cultural product that bore witness to the tumultuous period of the Asian financial crisis, and which provides still sources material for K-drama, cinema, musicals and video games to this day.

Installation of K-pop glow sticks at Hallyu! the korean wave

One of the strengths of the design is a flexibility that allows for this variety, moving from sensitive historical content, through fine art to pop culture. The history section alone features exhibits as diverse as propaganda leaflets, a Seoul Olympics poster, early smartphones and car models to the 33 TV screens of Mirage Stage – the 1986 work of the ” father of video art” Nam June Paik. It also shows the unexpected origins of the cosmetics industry from LG – the electronics company that is one of the exhibit’s supporters.

Turner explains how Studio Mutt tried to play with this mix of formality and informality, something spelled out from the start in the V&A brief.

The exhibit is likely to appeal to design fans, K-pop fans, and everyone in between. Its design allows viral hits to be shown alongside lesser-known highlights, while its singular yet expansive concept shows how much can come together in one particular place to explosive effect.

The Hallyu! The Korean Wave runs from 24 September 2022 to 25 June 2023 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL

Banner Image: Installation Image, Hallyu! The Korean Wave at the V&A

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Rozella J. Cook