'Hallyu!' Surfs the Exciting, Chaotic Korean Wave

'Hallyu!' Surfs the Exciting, Chaotic Korean Wave

By Harry TafoyaMay 30, 2024

In the past hundred years, South Korea has gone through a lot, to put it crudely. After a brutal war that cleaved the nation in half, multiple military dictatorships and economic turbulence, the country has gradually become an international powerhouse. As it became more liberal and democratic in the 1990s, the government decided that it was just as important to promote culture as it was to invest in industry. This formed the backdrop for K-Pop, K-horror, K-dramas, and Korean beauty culture to explode onto the world stage and dominate today.

The two main effects of the country’s “compressed modernity” have been extraordinary wealth and unbelievable cognitive dissonance. The recent past is as thorny, loaded, and traumatic as K-pop is fun, animated and joyfully immediate. Even then, changes this seismic are bound to cause ripple effects: feelings of pride and triumph no doubt, but also of alienation and anxiety. If this seems like an overwhelming subject matter, one that might best be addressed in the morally ambiguous tone of a Park Chan-wook movie or in the ironic, candy-coated visual language of Squid Game, “Hallyu! The Korean Wave”at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston does the best it can by curating a high-octane, maximalist show that tries to grapple with everything fun and fraught about recent Korean history.

The main focus of “Hallyu!”is the period that followed the country’s chaotic 20th century, and, like the exclamation mark in the title suggests, this exhibition is a celebration! South Korea as a global economic and cultural power! South Korea as the last bastion of girl groups and boy bands! South Korea as a shorthand for glamor and quality and excitement! But in its eagerness to tackle every aspect of South Korea’s boom, we’re left with both too much and too little: an exhaustive and exhausting survey of the country’s off-the-charts creativity that’s still riddled with cracks in its creamy, skincare-addicted facade.

Because “Hallyu!” has such an open and wide-ranging approach to its main subject, there’s virtually no limit for what kind of material can be included. The exhibition wants you to consider the artistry in everything from beauty packaging to K-pop glow sticks, and for the most part it’s pretty convincing. These are genuinely fun and interesting ways of piecing together a history in progress. Fine art is slightly under-represented — it should be a much bigger deal to highlight how a Korean man (Nam June Paik) basically invented video art, never mind to mention that contemporary artists are absolutely dominating today. Fortunately, the show’s section on Korean fashion spanning high-waisted hanboks to alien-diva couture is absolutely stunning and offers an excellent chronicle of how tradition has gradually mutated to the present.

Some of the show’s disorientation comes from how it handles its timeline. Everything from the Korean war to the Seoul Olympics is compressed into one room before history bleeds over into the following galleries. Past and present are woven together intricately, but also in ways that can be difficult to follow. The influence of music played on US military bases somehow comes full circle to a Yaeji record. A section dedicated to Korean soap operas has an extended flashback to the values of ancient Confucian art. The dissonance between modernity and tradition is obviously the point, but sometimes those contrasts aren’t clear so much as confusing. When the show does successfully draw throughlines from ancient and contemporary Korea it can be incredible. It’s fascinating to learn how indigenous instruments like taepyeongso (double reeds) and nagak (seashell horn) have been quietly integral to K-pop’s sound all along. At times the back-and-forth is more witty: the section dedicated to skincare pits contemporary make-up products against a 12th century cosmetics box — beauty really is an eternal concern.

For an exhibition of pop culture to work, you not only need to recreate the energy of that moment but position static objects so that they seem just as exciting themselves. In this respect, Hallyu! only ever succeeds half of the time. The show opens with the tuxedo PSY wore for “Gangnam Style,” which probably remains K-pop’s high watermark in America to this day. The song really only became a hit off the back of its music video’s goofy, dead-pan swagger and shamelessly party-starting EDM beat: who cared about that suit? Even though “Gangnam Style’s” spoof of tacky consumerism is a great lens into the country’s progress, left on a mannequin, the rapper’s outfit is virtually indistinguishable from ‘80s prom-wear. This is also true of the punk look once worn by ATEEZ. Without anything but some wall text to properly introduce who they are (ahem), it’d be tempting to look at the lifeless mannequins sporting their clothes and think the group are rebels without a cause.

“Hallyu!,” however, makes clear that there is much to rebel against. If the glamor of K-beauty and the dynamism of K-pop make up the Korean Wave’s crest, you get the clearest glimpse of its undertow through film and television. Here is where you find the flipside of capitalism explored to thrillingly bloody-minded effect: themes of class struggle and social ruthlessness, the specter of authoritarian government and fear of generations being perverted or fatally cut-off from one another. The show does not share the boldness of Korean filmmakers for staring down what’s most troubling and problematic about society. “Hallyu!” acknowledges oppressive beauty standards, the rash of suicides among K-pop idols, and rising social inequality — but on wall text rather than through the art itself. The props taken from movies seem random rather than loaded — we have Choi Min-sik’s wig from Oldboy but definitely not the octopus. The cramped basement apartment from Parasite is recreated, but the effect is weirdly whimsical and remote rather than dingy or claustrophobic: urban poverty as literal set dressing. Apart from a few stand-out art pieces, like Kyungah Ham’s eerie tapestry woven back and forth across the North Korean border and Shin Hak-chul’s utterly demonic painted response to government suppression, the show would be better if it confronted the shadow side of the country’s progress.

“Hallyu!” is a decent survey that sets itself up with a near-overwhelming task: how do you piece together what’s essentially a shattered picture? Some of the fragments on display are absolutely glittering but it would be stronger overall with sharper edges.

Photos courtesy of MFA Boston