Chuseok at the BM — part sprint, part marathon

Harvest Festival

It is a commonplace observation that Korea is caught between two larger neighbours. Similarly, in marketing terms, the Korean events at the British Museum last Saturday were dwarfed by the blitzkrieg advertising for the Chinese “First Emperor” and the Japanese modern design exhibitions, both also at the British Museum at the same time. But although the façade of the museum was plastered with giant posters of terracotta warriors, all eyes were on the Korean festivities in the museum forecourt.

Blue rower

Most people could tell that all the jollifications were Korean. “Korean Harvest Festival” was hastily written in front of the jangseung (totem poles) which formed the centrepiece of the first performance in the forecourt. And more importantly, the large group of helpers from the Cultural Centre and elsewhere were present handing out leaflets. The Korean community itself had turned out in force, many of them in colourful hanbok. Maybe not all the spectators knew precisely what was going on, but the blue man on a stepladder plying the skies with a large aluminium oar was certainly eye-catching, and the white earth-god figure who joined the moon-jar potter rooted the performance in something to do with the turning of the seasons. The drums and voices of Dulsori as ever provided the energy and the backbone for the performance.

Bird man

Inside the museum, the performance continued at the foot of the steps to the old reading room. These celebrations were a bit quieter — the kayageum could only just be heard above the general hubbub, but the full battery of drums would have been deafening.

Ahn Jun-young affixing his chop to one of his woodcuts

In one corner of the great court, long queues were forming. Not for the terracotta army exhibition, but for people to try their hand at Korean woodcut printing. The queue for getting the results signed by the woodcut artist, Ahn Jun-young, was even longer.

Dulsori in the Korea Foundation Gallery

Downstairs, Im Kwon Taek’s Chihwaseon was being screened, and people had to chose between that, Gina Ha-Gorlin’s moon-jar gallery talk, and vocal performances from Dulsori in the Korea gallery itself. There was a feast of entertainment on offer, and unfortunately at each point choices had to be made. The whole day was a cross between a marathon (because there was so much on offer) and a sprint (because if you wanted to cover everything you had to experience but a short burst of each activity) But which ever way you looked at it, somehow the spirit of Chuseok somehow kept your energy levels high.

Earth god

An hour later, Dulsori were again warming the crowds on the West Lawn. Two changgo players (though it sounded a lot more as the beats echoed off the BM’s porticoes) gave a spirited performance of the Hwimori. Then the earth-god made a reappearance, scattering petals against an aural backdrop of music which some might call “timeless” and others “new age”. But it there was no time for further musicological analysis as there was another choice to be made. And never having seen Dae Jang Geum we rushed off to see the edited highlights in the lecture theatre under the Great Court. As far as we could tell, apart from a slightly choppy beginning the editors had done an excellent job of condensing some 50 hours of broadcasting into the mere 90 minutes demanded by the BM’s punishing schedule.

Maypole dance

I could see why the drama has millions of fans. The wonderful Lee Young-ae triumphs over all adversity with her mixture of submissive respect, steely self-assurance and a culinary inventiveness surpassing the most accomplished celebrity chef. If only I had the time to watch it all. But I couldn’t even afford to watch all of the edited version if I was to complete the marathon (or serial sprint) we had been set. A quick look in on the studious lantern makers, a quick visit to the paradoxically messy soap sculptors, and it was time yet again to make our way outside to the Ganggangsullae and other dances on the west lawn of the BM’s forecourt. For all we knew, Dulsori had been at it all afternoon, but as we arrived the lawn was full of people forming human chains, wrapping round each other in the carpet-rolling game, encouraged all the while by Dulsori’s energetic singer. Troops were at last rallied for the final event of the day, the maypole dance.

handing out leaflets

Amazingly for the number of people involved, the whole day had gone like precision clockwork. Events happened pretty much as advertised, and had started and finished on time. If Gina Ha-Gorlin, mastermind of the event for the BM, was concerned about making sure the visiting artists were well-looked after, or worried about the security risks of the vastly increased footfall in the Korea gallery, she did not show it as she chatted with visitors upstairs or at her gallery talk downstairs. Kim Yoo-jung, who masterminded the Dulsori involvement, was totally relaxed as she lectured the attentive students on the rudiments of lantern-making, while holding a side conversation with us impromptu visitors. The myriad of helpers from the embassy’s cultural centre and no doubt numerous other volunteers were happily handing out leaflets, brochures and prayer-paper for hanging on the prayer-trees behind the totem-poles. In fact the most stressed people were probably the representatives of the Diamond Sutra Recitation Group, worried that they were going to run out of supplies of their user-friendly books on traditional Korean culture. They were right: they had to replenish their stocks, and by the end of the day had handed out more than 16 crate-loads to people eager to find out more.

The whole day was a huge success, and congratulations are due to all concerned. A lot of the spectators were, if you like, passing trade, maybe visiting for the terracotta army, or just on the BM tourist route. Maybe a few went along having read about the event on this site. Certainly a lot had been at the Thames Festival the previous weekend, had enjoyed themselves and wanted to come back for more. And in fact that is the test of an occasion like this: do people leave the event wanting more? Based on the conversations and comments I heard, the answer is a definite Yes.

Links:

The Maypole

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