It’s been a few months since I visited the Korean Cultural Centre, so I’m pleasantly surprised to be surprised by it again. I arrive to find stern armed guards in helmets staring at me. Larger than life. They are, it turns out, plastic models of Korean traffic cops. Just inside the door is an enormous lotus flower that inflates every few minutes.
Further inside, there are museum-like displays of plastic objects, disposable yet beautiful when grouped together: novelty toothbrushes, watches, an oystercard, a pen, a child’s shoes, a disposable cup. Most unsettling is a dream-like room with garish rubbery flowers on the ground that jerkily rise and fall like creatures from another planet, beside a cart of plastic cabbages, under flickering flower-covered chandeliers… It’s quite the most weird and wonderful thing I’ve seen in a long time.1
These are all works by artist and designer Choi Jeong Hwa, and one of the themes is making art from discarded plastic objects. But, um, why are there such things as discarded Korean traffic police dummies? The man on the desk explains: they were used in a failed government attempt to get drivers to reduce their speed on highways in the republic. Now they’re getting people’s attention on Northumberland Avenue.
As the curator’s notes say: ‘You may feel slightly confused, or disturbed, but if you also feel surprise, and can feel a hidden sense of humour, then we can say that you have made a proper start to viewing this exhibition.’ The artist recently covered the Seoul Olympic Stadium with nearly two million pieces of discarded plastics, recycling seemingly worthless, non-biodegradable objects into something jewel-like.
I notice delightful objects everywhere. In the ladies’ loos are a Buddhist statue made of soap2 and models of children in hanbok. The centre is now open until six p.m. on weekdays, so a few people are drifting in from the street, while others are catching up on Korean soap opera downstairs. It also now opens on Saturdays from 11 til 5, when it sees the most visitors, very good news: my main worry about the centre when it opened on 30 January 2008 was its restricted hours. Since then, the KCC has hosted exhibitions of folk painting and antique maps as well as contemporary art and ceramics by Korean artists from the UK and Korea. It runs successful cinema screening programmes and Korean lessons, and has staged performances by B-boys and classical musicians.
It’s exactly a year since the centre opened, and the director, who’s kindly agreed to meet me at the end of the day, greets me warmly. Kyu-Hak Choi (no relation of the featured artist) has been at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the UK for three years, planning and opening this cultural centre, and he has almost accomplished his mission. In his words, the ‘hardware’ is now in place – it’s now a case of developing the ‘software’. It all started several years ago with a survey among over six hundred UK citizens.
‘It was an interesting result. There’s a difference among age groups in the perception of Korea. People over fifty remember the Korean War, demonstrations, North Korean issues – negative images. The under-forties have more positive images of Korea – 2002 World Cup soccer, IT products, Korean films.’
‘With traditional culture, it’s too hard to compete with China and Japan – British people might think Korean looks like a sub-culture of them! But contemporary culture is clearly different, distinctive.’
Choi began negotiations in 2006 for the centre’s vitally important prime location – just south of Trafalgar Square, on the way to Embankment – and finished a year later with a fifteen year lease. In 2008, they received over 20,000 visitors, having projected for barely half that footfall – a huge success. Of those, over seventy per cent were Brits or tourists from other countries, with the Korean community and tourists from Korea accounting for a mere 21 per cent. So how have people found out about the Korean Cultural Centre?
‘They get information from the website, from emails. We’ve focused on groups such as the London architecture community to expand the email list. We participated in the Thames Festival, and the Dano Festival in Trafalgar Square. We invited cultural, tourism, sport organizations to the centre. We co-operated with Samsung to introduce Korean culture to their UK staff. The UK general public don’t know much about Korea. It’s a hard job to raise the Korean profile.’
And so much of what we hear on the news is negative. I mention the news item earlier in the day about the latest breakdown in the peace process between North and South.
‘Every news story makes our job harder. It’s been a challenging year. But we’ve made remarkable progress.’
This year will be much tougher, he says, developing programmes for the future amid serious budget concerns. So they’ll be focusing on making the best use of their space. There are plans to expand into other cities such as Nottingham and Manchester, and into Wales, collaborating with other venues to deliver Korean films and performances. They’ll reach out to the New Malden community by targeting families and schools through Korean manga and animation programmes. They hope to co-operate further with Korean artists and performers, contemporary and traditional, based in New Malden and Kingston.
The vibrant art exhibition for their first anniversary, ‘Shine a Light’, was chosen for its sense of fun and its accessibility. In fact, the same artist created the cool, funky interior of the centre. February will see classic Korean films from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s being shown each week, a Korean Night at the University of London, an exhibition in Portsmouth and a cultural documentary screening every Saturday. Coming in the next few months are a design exhibition, a fashion show, a Korean food festival, plus the Thames festival and the Edinburgh Fringe.
‘The first stage is to make non-Koreans more interested in Korea. It will take a long time to change their attitude. When they visit, they leave with some interest. They feel something. The Korean Cultural Centre is a place where people can get a feeling of Korea. It’s a gateway.’
There are also plans to expand the Korean language programmes for different levels of beginners.
‘I was so surprised – I thought not many people would be interested – there are so many on the waiting list! Some are UK people married to Koreans. Some are related to Korean business. Some are just the general public interested in Korea!’
With only five staff and the director, they’re very busy. Choi, who became a civil servant 25 years ago after graduation and has completed overseas missions in Hanoi and Los Angeles, has until August to finish his work before he returns to Seoul.
‘This is just the beginning of a long journey. We’ve laid the foundation. I am really proud. We did a really good job. But there remains the tougher task to raise the profile of the Korean Cultural Centre to the UK people. In the long run, when the general UK public think of Korea, when they are asked which is the premiere culture among Korea, Japan and China, we want them to say Korea is the most interesting!’
‘Shine a Light’ continues at the Korean Cultural Centre until 21 March.
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Jennifer Barclay is the author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi.
- On the day before Jennifer’s visit, the space was used for a crazy performance by a band consisting of Choi Jeong-hwa’s son and a few of his mates. Anything but dreamlike – Ed
- A work by Shin Mee-kyung – Ed