‘Hallyu!’ at the MFA rides the South Korean culture wave

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Cars, circuitry and communications technologies are among South Korea’s biggest exports. But it’s the country’s cultural offerings that are the focus of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Flashing TV screens and projectors keep eyes moving throughout the exhibit. A K-pop soundtrack gives the museum an atmosphere more akin to a lively concert or perhaps a music video set.

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

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

Baker is part of a Facebook group devoted 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 “Gangnam Style” in 2012. The jacket he wore in the song’s music video is on display in the exhibition. (Courtesy Jason Decrow, Invision, AP, Shutterstock/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

She’s one of countless fans worldwide who appreciate South Korea’s media offerings. The country has grown into a massive presence on the global scene over the last two decades. “Hallyu!” or “Korean wave” in English is the term given to the phenomenon that is South Korea’s cultural takeover.

The exhibition has costumes from Netflix’s international sensation “Squid Game.” There’s also a recreation of the bathroom from the film “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 of “Gangnam Style,” which back in 2012 was the first YouTube video ever to reach a billion views. Plus, many mannequins sporting Korean fashion.

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

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

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

The exhibition also features objects from the museum's collection of Korean art. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The exhibition also features objects from the museum’s collection of Korean art. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The MFA has works from its own collection featured in “Hallyu!” including a white porcelain moon jar from the 18th century and five works from the Joseon dynasty, the last dynastic kingdom of Korea. Throughout the exhibit a small moon jar symbol next to the object denotes whether that item comes from the museum’s own collection.

In addition to objects from Korea, the exhibit also incorporates the Korean American experience with works from artists Julia Kwon and Timothy Hyunsoo Lee. Kwon reflected on the far-reaching nature of Korean culture, which has grown beyond the Korean diaspora and into the wider population. In turn, that audience has fueled South Korean media even more. “You don’t produce culture or art in a vacuum,” she said.

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

South Korean culture has increasingly resonated with an eager global audience, and this exhibit offers those fans the opportunity to see familiar objects up close and in person – a deeply personal experience for some.

“BTS is not only good for the youth, but they’re also good for anybody to love themselves. Moms typically don’t put themselves first,” Baker said. “They’ve really helped me love myself, so that I’m a better parent. I’m a better spouse.” They’ve also helped Baker gain perspective as she undergoes cancer treatment. She sees them as a source of joy and inspiration, and at this exhibit, she got an opportunity to interact with the music she’s loved for years.

Baker walked past the giant music video display and went into a smaller room with bright lighting to experience the most interactive portion of the exhibit: entering a k-pop music video. She faced a TV with an instructor who teaches her choreography. She had a couple chances to practice, then it was time to record her dance moves.

By the time Baker exited the mini-studio, her image had been inserted into the music video, alongside other museum visitors. The cinematography is as K-pop fans might expect: hyper and energized.

Seeing herself on screen was an exhilarating moment for Baker. She once again threw her hands in the air, this time like SNL’s Mary Katherine Gallagher and blurted out the catchphrase in what appeared to be a genuine assessment of who she saw on the screen: “Superstar!”

This segment aired on March 22, 2024.

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