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Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World – the KCC’s summer exhibition

It’s been a while since we’ve had an exhibition at the KCC. But the buildings maintenance is now complete and the floor in pristine condition. This exhibition, part of All Eyes on Korea, will see us through the summer months, and into our next lives.

Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World

KCCUK Summer Exhibition
Exhibition Dates:
11 July 2012 – 8 September 2012
Private View: Wednesday 11 July 2012, 6.30pm

Korean Funerary Figures
Korean Funerary Figures. All images © Kokdu Museum

The Korean Cultural Centre UK presents Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World in association with the Kokdu Museum, Korea.

From 11 July 2012 to 8 September 2012, the Exhibition Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World features a collection of decorated wooden figurines from the late 19th and early 20th century. These figures, the Kokdu, were used across Korea in towns and villages to decorate funeral biers and accompany one on their journey to the other side.

The Kokdu are unique as they present a wonderful insight into the way Korea traditionally celebrated life, death and one’s passing. The Kokdu Museum of Korea has collected nearly 20,000 figures from across the peninsula and a selection of the very best will be shown here in the UK for the very first time. The fifty wooden figures, including magnificent multi-level biers of the late Joseon Dynasty were created by anonymous artisans of the past and made for ordinary people.

The Kokdu figurines accompanied the individual to their final resting place, spiritually preparing them for their journey to the other side by offering guidance, protection, care and entertainment. The Kokdu stand on the boundary between this world and the world beyond, their ambiguous position presents both sides of the world in contrast. Thus, such peculiar aesthetics and techniques were used to express a sense of complexity that results in the unrefined touch, unbalanced ratio and strong sense of simplification and exaggeration that each figure has. With their bright colours, gaiety and laughter the Kokdu explore both Korea’s optimism towards life as well as a unique aspect of Korean folklore.

For the first time in the UK a traditional Korean Funeral Bier, the Sangyeo, will also be exhibited. Made to be carried by 24 men, this magnificent structure will reveal the role each of the Kokdu when one makes their final journey.

This summer Exhibition forms part of All Eyes On Korea, 100 Day Festival of Korean Culture.

The Guide

The passage to the other world is unknown and full of danger. The travelling soul can easily become lost along the way and once lost, unexpected occurrences can happen. This type of Kokdu safely guide these travellers, steering them away from confusion and to a world full of meaning.

Triple-Faced Man Riding a Horse
Triple-Faced Man Riding a Horse. Painted on Wood. Late C19 ~ Early C20. H 14.8 ins
The Guard

The traveller has already left their home town, but has not yet arrived at the place where comfort and safety are waiting. They still remain in the area between the “already” and the “yet.” This undifferentiated or unclassified territory is filled with malignant spirits and wicked energy. This type of Kokdu will protect the traveller all the way to their destination and keep the passage clear of trouble. For this purpose the Kokdu’s faces and gestures are carved with aggression and sometimes are even equipped with weapons.

Man Riding a Horse
Man Riding a Horse. Painted on Wood. Late C19 ~ Early C20. H 12.2 ins
The Carer

These Kokdu lend their help to the traveller but remain quiet and poised; their postures are never assertive. Anyone who avoids bothersome chores cannot understand their real meaning, however these Kokdu realize the cosmic meanings in their embodied figures, that is why their faces are pure.

Female Attendant / Bride
Female Attendant / Bride. Painted on Wood. Late C19 ~ Early C20. H 11.9 ins
The Entertainer

We are saddened and feel empty when we travel alone to an unknown destination. One is comforted when they are touched by the pleasant and vital energy of the Kokdu. When Kokdu play musical instruments, dance, clown around, and perform stage dramas or acrobatics, they provide laughter and cheer to raise our spirits.

Acrobatic Clown
Acrobatic Clown. Painted on Wood. Late C19 ~ Early C20. H 10.3 ins
Phoenixes: Bongwhang

Several birds accompany the funeral bier: birds of paradise, birds from the world of the dead, cranes taking flight and the phoenixes. All of them symbolize transcendence and flight. The most important is the phoenix, one of which is perched at each of the four corners of the funeral bier. The phoenix symbolizes the departure of the deceased from this world towards a new world, where gravity no longer holds. Sometimes the head of the phoenix resembles a flame of a plant stem rising towards the sky.

Phoenix Entangled with a Pine Tree
Phoenix Entangled with a Pine Tree. Painted on Wood. Late C19 ~ Early C20. H 21.3 ins
Dragons: Yong

The most noticeable Kokdu on the funeral bier are the dragons that symbolize the King, the highest power, the one who transcends our world. The dragon as it appears on the funeral bier consists of three elements. The first is the dragon head plank situated at the front and the back of the bier. Its role is to protect the funeral bier and the deceased from evil spirits. The second element is the horizontal dragon, consisting of two dragons, one blue and one yellow, whose tails are braided together. The third element is vertical and is called the t-shaped dragon. The intertwined bodies of the horizontal dragon and the vertical or t-shaped dragon are a sign of their interdependence and the inseparable complexity of the dragons and their complimentary natures.

Dragon Face Board with Fish
Dragon Face Board with Fish. Painted on Wood. Late C19 ~ Early C20. H 13.2 ins × W 24.8 ins
Funeral Bier: Sangyeo

Following ancient documents as a guide, this funeral bier was made to originally display the precious relics of the Kokdu Museum. The whole structure and the shape are taken from the gorgeous and magnificent multi-level biers of the late Joseon Dynasty. The bier body, which would have been carried by 24 men is made from superior pine trees and holds 46 Kokdu. It represented the beauty of Korean tradition at the 2010 Gwangju Biennale

Funeral Bier: Sangyeo
Funeral Bier: Sangyeo. Painted on Wood. Created from traditional designs. Kokdu from Late C19 ~ Early C20. L 178.3 ins × H 99.2 ins × W 78.7 ins

All images © The Kokdu Museum

(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.

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