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A Review of the London Korean Year 2012

What a year it’s been. Even without any event organised by the KCC, there’s been more than enough to keep us all entertained and enriched. And when you add into the mix All Eyes on Korea, The Year of the 12 Directors and the London Korean Film Festival we’ve almost had a surfeit of K-Culture. Certainly 2013 will have a tough time living up to 2012, though I hear that there are a few rabbits getting ready for being pulled out of the hat.

So here’s a reminder of this year’s London Korean Year.

Music and Performance

2012 was the year we had two commercial K-pop bands come to the UK: the middle-ranking CNBlue, unusual for the fact that they play instruments as well as sing, and the undeniably A-List Big Bang. Both sold out amazingly quickly, and Big Bang added an additional date to their schedule, thus allowing 25,000 fans and spectators to see them. At LKL we were split down the middle, with your K-pop correspondent loving every minute, and your editor walking out halfway through having appreciated the experience but unable to take any more.

Taeyang sings Don't Judge Me with a tissue staunching his nosebleed
Taeyang sings Don’t Judge Me with a tissue staunching his nosebleed

Taeyang impressed the audience on the first night by singing while suffering from a nosebleed.

The All Eyes on Korea programme of events gave us five performances, of which probably the most memorable was Pansori Project Za. LKL was commissioned by the Korea Arts Management Service to review the musical performances, and our write-up can be found here.

Lee Jaram (left) and Pansori Project Za perform Sacheon Ga, an adaptation of Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechwan (image courtesy KCCUK)
Lee Jaram (left) and Pansori Project Za perform Sacheon Ga, an adaptation of Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechwan (image courtesy KCCUK)

As often happens, some of the performance events came seemingly from nowhere. Igudesman and Joo gave us an unforgettable evening of musical comedy at the Cadogan Hall, EMI Classics launched pianist HJ Lim in spectacular debut at the Wigmore Hall, while British saxophonist Tim Garland collaborated with Korean musicians in an enthralling set of jazz fusion in the London Jazz Festival.

Tim Garland (saxes), Heo Yoon-Jeong (Geomungo), Lee Aram (Daegeum), Jean Oh (guitar), Asaf Sirkis (drums). (Image © Melody McLaren)
Tim Garland (saxes), Heo Yoon-Jeong (Geomungo), Lee Aram (Daegeum), Jean Oh (guitar), Asaf Sirkis (drums) perform at St James’s Piccadilly as part of the London Jazz Festival (Image © Melody McLaren)

On stage, Yohangza Theatre Company returned with a repeat performance of their Korean Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of a big Shakespeare in Translation festival at the Globe. Kim Geung Soo Ballet Company performed a modern take on Chunhyang, and Project Team Gumok gave two very moving performances of a simple, powerful portrayal of the story of a young Comfort Woman.

Was this the year that K-pop truly arrived in the UK? Maybe, helped by the maverick PSY, who made it in to most mainstream news outlets in the UK. But it was the Guardian more than any other title that did the occasional piece featuring mainstream K-pop, choosing to review the Big Bang gig, and featuring HyunA, Girls Generation and others in their K-pop category. The fangirls were upset that the broadsheet was not completely drooling over Big Bang’s performance (though to be fair the Guardian heaped praise on the stage performance), and chose to describe the official glowsticks, which looked like fat yellow tulips, as “tulip-shaped lightsticks” (when in fact they were meant to be crowns). There’s no pleasing some people. Anyway, we hear that some indie music will be coming to London next year, so at LKL we’re looking forward to a popular music concert we don’t walk out of.

Visual Art

Again, All Eyes on Korea provided us with a range of events to enjoy, from Choi Jeong-hwa’s brightening up of the dull concrete underpasses on the South Bank to Shin Mee-kyoung’s equestrian soap sculpture in Cavendish Square. Shin also contributed to the Thames Festival, sculpting the Cheomseongdae out of soap bricks. And at the KCC itself the colourful and characterful funeral figurines – Kkokdu – held court during the summer months.

A reconstructed funeral bier lined with funerary figurines
A reconstructed funeral bier lined with funerary figurines from Seoul’s Kkokdu museum

It was nice to see Kim Beom’s work again, particularly at the prestigious Hayward Gallery: his quirky Painting ‘Yellow Scream’ and other video and installation works provided entertainment as well as food for thought.

Tate Modern opened a spectacular new space – the old tanks which used to fuel the power station. The Tate commissioned a new work from Kim Sung-hwan which was installed in one of the tanks for more than two months.

In another industrial building further down river – the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station – Michael Karakis installed his sound and video tribute to Jeju’s Haenyo – an unmissable experience.

Shin Mee-kyoung: Plinth Proect (2012)
Shin Mee-kyoung: Plinth Proect (2012) – the Duke of Cumberland in Cavendish Square, sculpted out of soap

The annual Sasapari group exhibition at the Bargehouse was bigger than ever, and featured a performance from musical duo EE. Musician Baek Hyunjhin of Uhuhboo Project had a solo show at 43 Inverness Street while also exhibiting in the high-profile group exhibition in NEO Bankside, which also featured work by Shin Meekyoung, Lee Hyung-koo and Lee Yong-baek. Shin Eunjung curated a big group show at Foreman’s Smokehouse Gallery overlooking the Olympic Park. Korean Eye put together the largest ever Korean art exhibition in London, taking over most of the Saatchi Gallery. Shin Meekyoung had a room devoted to her work. She seemed to be everywhere this year, and we hear we’ll see a bit more of her next year, in a collaboration on a Korean War memorial.

Mokspace continued its schedule of affordable exhibitions, while Hanmi gallery continued its seemingly endless quest for planning permission to upgrade its premises, still holding adventurous interim exhibitions in the meantime. HADA Contemporary celebrated its move to Vyner Street in Hackney.

The Korean Artists Association held another rewarding show and performance at the KCC based on the five traditional Korean colours: O Bang Saek.

Kihyun Kim: Romance (2012)
Kim Kihyun: Romance (2012). Still from loop digital motion graphic video – installed in the KCC’s multi-purpose space as part of the KAA’s O Bang Saek exhibition

Talks on art were less successful than the exhibitions themselves: at the Hayward Gallery Haegue Yang’s knitting and origami workshop left LKL’s correspondent less than satisfied, while Lee Bul’s performance was belwildering. At the KCC, talks by Ralph Rugoff of the Hayward Gallery and Kim Ock Rang of Seoul’s Kkokdu museum lacked content. The highspot at the KCC was Charlotte Horlyck’s interesting and informative talk on the Kkokdu. I was sorry to have missed a study day – Korean Art: Narratives and Displays in Museum Contexts – at the British Museum and a sadly not very well publicised three-day conference at the Courtauld.

It was certainly a very full year for Korean art in London. In fact, LKL got approached by a journalist writing for a Korean publication to give our perspective on whether 2012 was the year that Korean Art “arrived” in London. Well, looking back, we’ve certainly had more than any other year before. And even though Chinese art had a major publicly sponsored exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (The Art of Change), you would still find more – and arguably better – contemporary art from Korea at more venues.

In fact, more than anything else, 2012 was the year that Korean contemporary art made it into alternative venues. Yes, it continued to be seen at all the normal places – from Bargehouse to the Saatchi via the Tate and the Hayward. But this year we found it in out-of-the-ordinary places: a specially curated exhibition in a private house, for example; or in a modern office foyer; or in a spectacular luxury flat with panoramic views over South and East London.

Lee Hyung-koo: Face Trace. Beyond, the towers of Canary Wharf. Image courtesy House of the Nobleman
Lee Hyung-koo: Face Trace. Beyond, the towers of Canary Wharf. Image courtesy House of the Nobleman, from an exhibition in a brand new apartment near Tate Modern

Part of the vibrancy of the Korean art scene in London is due to the large number of Korean student artists who come to study at London’s prestigious art colleges such as Goldsmiths, Chelsea, and the Slade. It is sad that the removal of the post-study work visa from 6 April 2012 will mean that most of these students will no longer be able to stay for the additional two years after they graduate.

Books and Literature

It was nice to see the KCC start to dip its toe in the water promoting Korean literature in the UK, something that they aim to expand on next year. This year’s humble beginning was a well-received workshop on literature translation as part of All Eyes on Korea.

Ko Un with Brother Anthony at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival
Naomi Jaffa and Ko Un, with Brother Anthony and Ko Un’s wife Lee Sang-Wha. Photo by Aldeburgh festival photographer Peter Everard Smith. (From the Displacement poetry blog)

Ko Un came to the UK for three successful readings in Oxford, London and the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. Shin Kyung-sook and Krys Lee visited Edinburgh but unfortunately there were no events planned in London for them, and Asia House completely ignored Korea in their festival of Asian Literature, despite the Man Asian Literary Prize having gone to a Korean.

In the UK we were lucky enough to have publications of English translations of Ko Un poetry (First Person Sorrowful) and Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower. In return, the UK gave Korea a translation of 50 Shades of Mummy Porn.


Of course, 2012’s big programme was the Year of the 12 Directors: 12 months, 12 directors and more screenings than you could possibly go to, even with no other time commitments – because Im Kwon-taek had so many screenings at different venues that there were scheduling clashes.

The KCC gave bloggers the opportunity to interview each director – and the tireless Hangul Celluloid transcribed them all bar one. For me, the highlight of the year was Feburary: E J-yong. Each film of his that I saw was better than I remembered it, and the delicious Actresses surpassed all expectations. I know I should be saying that the Im Kwon-taek retrospective of 15 films was my highlight, but really there was so much crammed in to so little time that it was impossible to digest.

As part of All Eyes on Korea, Kim Tae-yong’s ever-evolving live performance of Crossroads of Youth was performed at the Barbican. One day I’ll get to see it, I hope, but there was enough positive feedback to put this event high in the list of events of the year. Meanwhile, the Asian Movie meetup group put on a number of informal screenings at the Roxy, including a rare outing for Shin Sang-ok’s diabolically bad North Korean monster movie Pulgasari.

The BFI London Film Fest gave us six K-films, and the London Korean Film Festival gave us too many to count, and again scheduling clashes meant that even the most dedicated follower could not get to them all. We got two of Korea’s biggest films of the year – Masquerade / Gwanghae and Thieves, plus K-pop, comedy, sports and art house streams and more. We got to see Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis and Lee Byung-hun. It was a blast.

Lee Byung-hun with Bruce Willis at the screening of Masquerade
Lee Byung-hun with Bruce Willis at the screening of Masquerade which closed the London Korean Film Festival 2012 (image courtesy KCCUK)

Yes, we could in theory gripe that we didn’t get to see Pieta or White Night, but that would be churlish. We’ve had more K-film than we could possibly deal with this year. How could 2013 possibly be better? Well, the KCC’s pace is going to revert to one film a fortnight – that is certainly to be welcomed for both audience and the KCC staff. And we’re going to be meeting a handful of pretty exciting actors and actresses.

Fashion and Design

The KCC actively participated in London Fashion Week with their show A New Space Around the Body, and received the British Council and British Fashion Council’s Emerging Talent Awards 2012 for best project in the International Fashion Showcase. It was nice to see some of Girls Generation in town supporting Burberry, too. Later in the year the Lie Sang-bong catwalk show at the V&A was for LKL probably the standout event of the year: a feast for the eyes, ears and stomach (as it was preceded by a performance by Baramgot and followed by a first-class dinner provided by CJ’s Bibigo).

Once again there was strong Korean participation in 100% Design London, both in the KIDP-sponsored pavilion, and in standalone efforts such as Been Kim’s imaginative hanji creations and Je-Uk Kim‘s desirable sideboard which doubles as a planter. A request to KIDP for next year though: please tell your designers to leave their novelty clocks, iPhone accessories and lampshades at home. There can be too much of a good thing.

Everything else

We’ve had PSY at the Oxford Union, I’m a Petty Minded Creep (Na Ggom Su) appearing in Oxford and London, the Black Eagles aerobatic team winning three awards at two UK air shows, a Korean gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show for the second year running, two seasons of the K-pop Academy, and conferences on Korean music old and new, Korean Film and the Korean future.

And a lot of the above was free.

So thank you to all the organisers and sponsors, and a happy new year. You exhausted me.


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