Presenting Korean Culture 2: Why bother with the artist VIPs?

by Philip Gowman on 31 October, 2009 updated 15 September, 2012

in Cultural Promotion | Curating | Opinion

Having being forced to think about issues concerning the presentation of Korean culture in London for the recent seminar at I-MYU, here are some additional thoughts, with maybe some more to come.

Yoon Sook-ja of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food at the Thames Festival. But who knew she was going to be there?

Dr Yoon Sook-ja of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food at the Thames Festival this year. But who knew she was going to be there?

The current exhibition at the Cultural Centre provides a stimulating and thought-provoking panorama of environmental issues. Present at the opening reception were two of the photographers responsible for some of the stunning and provocative images. It was a shame that the audience had no advance notice that any of the artists were going to be present, if so which, and what was important about their particular contributions.

A manhwa artist with Stephanie Kim at the Manhwa 100 opening reception

A manhwa artist with Stephanie Kim at the Manhwa 100 opening reception. He was probably quite famous

It seems now to be almost standard practice for organisers of these events to make the investment flying artists, authors, celebrity chefs, holders of intangible cultural properties, photographers and other generators of cultural content to London to attend the opening reception. This is entirely to be encouraged. What better way of understanding what is being presented than to speak to the artist? But if an audience is not told that one of the artists will be present, they can’t prepare. And an organiser is asking a lot of an audience to come fresh to an opening, take in the work presented, marry up which work has been executed by which visiting artist, and come up with an intelligent question which contributes to the understanding of the exhibition for everyone present. Surely it is not too much to ask that, in the pre-publicity for events of this nature, the potential audience is told which artist / VIPs are going to be there and why they are important, so that we have half a chance of doing a bit of preparation beforehand and maybe, just maybe, of asking them some reasonably informed questions about their work?

Alternatively, why not ship the artists over a week after the opening event so that the audience has had a chance to digest the work a little bit and respond accordingly?

Apart from the current stimulating photography exhibition, here are some other recent examples where celebrities and eminent personages have appeared at events unannounced or with too little advance warning to permit maximum impact:

  • Pansori singer and film star Oh Jeong-hae at the Food Celebration in the Banqueting House: maybe it’s part of the celebrity culture with which we are all infected, but I’m sure I would have enjoyed her performance more if I had known it was her before the performance instead of at the end of the evening;
  • Korean food expert Dr Yoon Sook-ja at the Thames Festival, handing out rice cakes so graciously, who could have been the kitchen maid as far as 99.9% of the punters knew;
  • The artist who attended the opening of the Manhwa 100 show, creator of the manhwa whose title I can’t remember because it wasn’t in the pre-show publicity material;
  • The many eminent craftspeople who attended the opening of the Living Heritage show: they might just as well have been unemployed actors in costume, because no-one was well-enough informed to ask them sensible questions about the intangible cultural property of which they were holder.

All of these occasions, enjoyable and informative as they were, represented missed opportunities, where audience appreciation and cross-cultural understanding could have been enhanced by a few extra well-chosen words in the press release, or by a minor re-jigging of schedules to allow for a bit of preparation by the audience.

It’s always a nice surprise to see an artist or VIP at an event, and it always adds to the occasion. But it seems a shame to spend money and generate carbon emissions flying artists 5,519 miles from Seoul to London, and not make the most of that investment. There are various intangible paybacks from having the artist physically present: providing the audience with a photo opportunity, providing a brief explanation of the work, and providing an opportunity for proper engagement and discussion. All these paybacks are enhanced if the audience is prepared.

Much of this comes down to communication, a subject to which I might return in the future.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

TchmilFan November 2, 2009 at 8:27 pm

I missed some pansori? Very annoyed. Which one (well, bit) did she do?

I agree with you. There does often seem to be a lack of forethought. I’ve an in-law in the KTO… maybe I should bring it up? (It’s probably nothing to do with the KTO anyway.)

Philip Gowman November 2, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Unfortunately not the real thing. But it was very pleasant and atmospheric fusion music.

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