‘Hallyu!’ at MFA riding the wave of South Korean culture – cialisdfr
‘Hallyu!’  at MFA riding the wave of South Korean culture
‘Hallyu!’  at MFA riding the wave of South Korean culture

Automobiles, electrical circuits and communications technology are among South Korea’s biggest exports. But the country’s cultural offerings are the focus of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Flashing television screens and projectors keep the eyes moving throughout the exhibition. The K-pop soundtrack gives the museum an atmosphere closer to a lively concert or perhaps a music video.

BTS superfan Dawn Baker waved her hands in the air as she entered a room with a giant music video playing on the gallery wall. “That That” by Psy, produced by and featuring SUGA of BTS, plays on loop.

“I tried to get my kid into BTS, but he’s like, ‘ugh.’ … He kind of grew out of it, but I didn’t,” Baker laughed.

Baker is part of a Facebook group dedicated to BTS, the South Korean pop group. She traveled from New Hampshire to experience the MFA’s new show, Hallyu: The Korean Wave.

Psy performs
Psy performing “Gangnam Style” in 2012. The jacket he wears in the song’s video is on display in the exhibit. (Courtesy of Jason DeCrow, Invision, AP, Shutterstock/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

She is one of countless fans around the world who appreciate South Korea’s media offerings. Over the past two decades, the country has become a massive presence on the world stage. “Hallyu!” or “Korean Wave” in English is the term given to the phenomenon that is the cultural takeover of South Korea.

The exhibit features costumes from the international Netflix sensation Squid Game. There’s also a recreation of the bathroom from the movie Parasite, the first non-English-language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Then there’s the jacket worn by singer Psy in the music video for “Gangnam Style,” which in 2012 was the first YouTube video to reach a billion views. Also, lots of mannequins wearing Korean fashion.

The items serve as a reminder of how prevalent South Korean culture has become. Christina Yu Yu, curator and chair of the museum’s Asian art department, said the country’s history both culturally and as a center of technology positioned it for its current media moment.

“Korean culture, on the one hand, is history, traditional values,” she said. “There are Confucian values ​​about family values, friendship, education, but on the other hand, you have this fast-paced lifestyle, you have innovation, you have commerce.”

The clash between tradition and modernity is a dynamic familiar to many other parts of the world. In South Korea, it served as the backdrop for a rapidly growing media industry. “What’s so unique about Korea is that this story is told so well through these different mediums,” Yu Yu continued. “Having an infrastructure behind all these entertainment industries to make all these creators able to they tell all these stories well.”

The exhibition also features items from the Korean Art Museum's collection.  (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The exhibition also features items from the Korean Art Museum’s collection. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The MFA has works from its own collection included in Hallyu! including an 18th-century white porcelain moon jar and five works from the Joseon Dynasty, Korea’s last dynastic kingdom. Throughout the exhibition, a small moon jar symbol next to the object indicates whether that object comes from the museum’s own collection.

In addition to items from Korea, the exhibit also features the Korean-American experience with works by artists Julia Kwon and Timothy Hyunsoo Lee. Kwon reflected on the expansive nature of Korean culture, which expanded beyond the Korean diaspora and reached the wider population. In turn, this audience fuels the South Korean media even more. “You don’t create culture or art in a vacuum,” she said.

“Hallyu! The Korean Wave” also features contemporary fashion. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

South Korean culture is increasingly resonating with an eager global audience, and this exhibit offers those fans the opportunity to see familiar objects up close and personal—a deeply personal experience for some.

“BTS is not only good for the youth, but also for anyone who loves themselves. Mothers don’t usually put themselves first,” Baker said. “They really helped me love myself so I could be a better parent. I am a better wife. They also helped Baker gain perspective while undergoing cancer treatment. She sees them as a source of joy and inspiration, and at this exhibition she got the opportunity to interact with the music she has loved for years.

Baker walked past the giant music video display and into a smaller, brightly lit room to experience the most interactive part of the exhibit: stepping into a k-pop music video. She stood in front of the TV with an instructor teaching her choreography. She had several opportunities to practice, then it was time to record her dance moves.

By the time Baker exited the mini-studio, her image was inserted into the music video, along with other museum visitors. The cinematography is what K-pop fans might expect: hyper and energetic.

Seeing it on screen was an exciting moment for Baker. She threw her hands in the air again, this time like SNL’s Mary Catherine Gallagher, and uttered the catchphrase in what seemed like a genuine appreciation of who she saw on screen: “Superstar!”

This segment aired on March 22, 2024.

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