A review of the London Korean Year 2013

In this article, we look at some of the highlights of the Korean cultural year, with a primary focus on London.

Celebrations

Birthday Cake
A special red bean rice cake was served at the KCCUK to celebrate their fifth anniversary (photo: KCCUK)

It was the year of anniversaries. 130 years of formal relations between Britain and Korea, and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War ceasefire. The KCCUK celebrated its fifth birthday with a special concert at the Cadogan Hall featuring pianist Kim Sunwook and pansori performer Ahn Sook-sun. A seminar at the KCC looked at its achievements over the past five years, and this was followed by a glittering banquet at the Corinthia Hotel just down the road in Northumberland Avenue where the chefs prepared some inspired dishes based on Korean flavours but geared towards western tastes.

Exhibitions

Continuing to focus on the KCC, probably the bravest and most thought provoking of their exhibitions during the year was The Hidden Cost of Prosperity, a look at the darker side of the Miracle on the Han – the exploited underclass. The exhibition was one of the winners of the KCC’s call for Curators, a new initiative for 2013, and involved external judges. Abiding by the decision of the judges and opening the KCC to an exhibition that could have be thought of as critical of Korea’s success is something that would not have happened a couple of years ago. In a year in which one of the opening exhibitions of the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art was reportedly censored by the Blue House it is encouraging that the London outpost of KOCIS was brave enough to host this innovative show, which was reported back home in the domestic Korean media.

The British Museum Moon Jar with Yee Sookyung: Translated Vase: The Moon (2012)
The British Museum Moon Jar with Yee Sookyung: Translated Vase: The Moon (2012)

On much safer ground was the celebration of the Moon Jar. The exhibition was an amazing feat of organisation – getting the British Museum’s Moon Jar on loan, and Yee Sookyung’s monumental moon shipped over from the Leeum (a packing case that weighed in at 600kg) were two; but getting an interesting dialogue with UK-based potters an interesting and rewarding theme.

An exhibition which needed somewhat less curatorial and organisational input from the KCC but which nevertheless provided plenty of interest was Inspired by Nature – The Traditional Cosmetics of Korea. The exhibition presented pieces from the permanent collection of the Coreana Cosmetics Museum including some beautiful ceramic powder boxes. It also provided some interesting insights into Joseon dynasty exfoliation techniques.

Goryeo dynasty oil jars and powder cases
Exquisite Goryeo dynasty oil jars and powder cases

The most difficult KCC exhibition to absorb was the second of the two “Call for Curators” exhibitions – a fragmentary portrait of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Like Cha’s work itself the exhibition was difficult to grasp, and it was a shame that the one event (a screening of some of her films followed by discussion) that might inspire you to go back and try the exhibition for a second time was held on the day that it closed for the last time.

Much more accessible but just as thought-provoking was the annual exhibition of the Korean Artists Association at the KCC. It is a shame that the KAA is only allowed a week in which to show off their work – their one-week residency is increasingly well planned, this year involving collaborative work between different artists, in a programme entitled 합 Collaboration. The opening performance was a multi-disciplinary event in which the last number involved music, dance and painting simultaneously. The resulting artwork was displayed in the KCC’s multi-purpose space for the duration of the exhibition.

The year always starts and finishes at the KCC with a “Call for Artists” exhibition, featuring UK-based Korean artists. In prior years this has been a group show, and so January this year saw the final weeks of Now X Here. In a break from the past, for their sixth such show the KCC elected to focus on one artist, Shin Meekyoung, who was one of the four artists in the running for Artist of the Year at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea.

Meekyoung Shin's Toilet Project 2004-2013
Meekyoung Shin’s Toilet Project 2004-2013, on display at the National Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, Korea

Outside of the KCC, Shin Meekyoung had a solo show at Sumarria Lunn in which see revealed for the first time some of her soap vases crafted in waxy black. She also had work in a group show at Tryon Street gallery in Chelsea and in Danson House in Bexleyheath, while her Duke of Cumberland soap sculpture continued to erode in Cavendish Square.

Jeong Yun-kyung and Bae Chan-hyo had solo shows at Sumarria Lunn and Purdey Hicks, while Hur Shan had an interesting commission in Berkeley Square as well as a duo show at Gazelli Art House. Kwon Jukhee finished the year with a solo show at October Gallery.

Husain with Kamsler
Mishal Husain with war veteran David Kamsler in the Asia House library during the exhibition A Soldier’s Tale (image credit Mishal Husain / BBC)

Probably the highest profile group show outside of the commercial galleries was A Soldier’s Tale at Asia House, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War ceasefire. A wealth of new work was commissioned specially for the exhibition, including a portrait of a war veteran by Anna Paik and a moving recreation of the veteran’s living room and all its patriotic memorabilia by Kwon Soonhak.

Film

Mark Morris interviews Choi Min-sik
Mark Morris interviews Choi Min-sik as part of the KCC’s Year of the Four Actors (photo credit KCCUK)

The KCC’s Year of the 12 Directors in 2012 was followed by 2013’s Year of the Four Actors – Moon Sori, Jeon Do-yeon, Choi Min-sik and Ha Jung-woo. Sensibly, the pace of screenings dropped from weekly to fortnightly: 2012 was simply too hectic. The KCC secured the very civilised theatre at BAFTA for the final screening of each quarter, at which the featured actor was present for Q&A with audience and moderator. The programming allowed newcomers to Korean film to catch up on some of the back catalogue, while also showing some of the latest releases. The final screening of the year, 2013’s The Terror Live, was a fitting ending to the endeavour.

Stoker poster
The rather creepy poster for Stoker. Does it remind you of the poster for A Quiet Family?

Outside of Korean language films, Hollywood movies by Korean directors Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon had UK theatrical releases. Park Chan-wook’s Stoker had more screen time and more column inches devoted to it by the critics, while The Last Stand almost passed without notice. For LKL, it was the latter that worked better. It might have been derivative but it was good honest fun, while Stoker emphasised style at the expense of substance, leaving one hoping that if Park has another go in Hollywood he’s got a better storyline to work with. 2013 also saw the UK release of Cloud Atlas which included Bae Doona in the cast. It was refreshing to see a Korean in a Hollywood movie in a role which didn’t involve martial arts. Lee Byung-hun meanwhile appeared in the incoherent GI Joe 2. We have yet to hear of a UK release of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, and whether it will be the butchered Weinstein version.

E J-yong and Yoon Yeo-jeong
E J-yong and Yoon Yeo-jeong at the Q&A at the Curzon Soho (photo: LKL)

The London Korean Film Festival, the 8th such festival organised by the KCCUK and at least the 12th overall, was too ambitious this year. At LKL we’re all for ambition in the presentation of Korean culture, but to arrange a festival so that because of scheduling clashes it is physically impossible to get to almost half of the screenings is a questionable decision. The 2011 and 2012 festivals started the trend of overlapping screenings, though in a much more limited fashion, and it was usually easy to choose between them (often the choice was between a current film and something from the back catalogue). But this year there were some impossible choices. On the plus side, of course, there was a wide range of the latest and best of Korean cinema, from blockbuster to art house. And what a pleasure it was to have veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jung on stage to talk about Behind the Camera with its director E J-yong. There were plenty of other actors and directors to quiz too.

Music

Infinite, Super Junior and Jay Park kept the K-pop fans happy this year, while indie rock fans were delighted with Apollo 18, Goonamguayeoridingstella, Gate Flowers, Galaxy Express, Jang Kiha and the Faces, Yi Sung Yol, Uhuhboo Project and probably others I’ve forgotten. The first four were brought over as part of a promotional tour for Hyundai Cards, while the last three were brought over by the KCC who worked with indie, jazz and world music promoters Serious to put together the K Music Festival, which is now hopefully an annual event – having started last year as part of the All Eyes on Korea Olympic cultural extravaganza. The festival also included traditional music (pansori and vocal music) and fresh new music for geomungo ensemble from Geomungo Factory, plus an earth-shattering performance from the National Orchestra of Korea at the Barbican Centre.

National Orchestra of Korea at the Barbican
Won Il receives the well-deserved ovation on the Barbican stage with the National Orchestra of Korea on 14 June 2013

Outside of these big events, daegeum player Hyelim Kim seemed to crop up everywhere playing traditional music, new compositions and even jazz while also appearing on national radio talking about Korean music. Pianists Grace Yeo, Yoo Hyung-ki, Baek Minjung played the Wigmore, Cadogan Hall and St Martin-in-the-Fields respectively, Yeo getting a 4-star review in the Independent. Joo Yeon Sir (violin) and Yun Jung-soo (tenor) made their Wigmore debuts.

Jieun Jung performed works for Gayageum and Orchestra in Teddington and also gave well-received gayageum classes at the KCC.

Crayon Pop
Crayon Pop’s Bar Bar Bar dance routine probably caught on more than the one in Psy’s Gentleman, which used a routine from Brown Eyed Girl’s 2009 track Abracadabra

The world of K-pop generally passes us by at LKL, though occasionally we take a look at what’s happening. Five things interested us this year:

  1. The failure of PSY to come up with a decent follow-up to his one-off success. There was an intolerable weight of expectation, and it was hardly a surprise that Gentleman failed to achieve the momentum of his previous record-breaker
  2. The emergence of Crayon Pop – at least, they had a catchy song with a dance that caught on, and generated a lot of column inches in the press. We couldn’t but wonder what the extras at KBEE London thought about the outfits they were told they had to wear.
  3. The achievement of Girls Generation in winning a YouTube award. Even with the Korean vote for Video over the Year split between them and PSY, netizens still managed to propel SNSD ahead of Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, One Direction and Justin Bieber.
  4. The comeback album of Cho Yong-pil. And this was a proper comeback, 10 years after his last release. It was also a reinvention, with Cho managing to win over the younger listeners with the new sound.
  5. The lack of anything else interesting in K-pop

Activism and North Korea

Apart from the regular series of evening seminars at SOAS, there have been a number of student-organised events highlighting issues relating to the Gangjeong naval base. There was even a small demonstration in Trafalgar Square protesting over issues such as the role of the NIS in the Korean election.

The Mayor of Gangjeong, who spoke at SOAS this year
The Mayor of Gangjeong, who spoke at SOAS this year

North Korea continues to provide more than enough material for events. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival screened Camp 14 – Total Control Zone (a documentary on Shin Dong-hyuk who escaped from the camp) with Director Q&A, while Amnesty International UK hosted two documentary screenings (Crossing and Yodok Stories) followed by Q&A with North Korean defectors including UK-based Kim Joo-il. Conferences included Engage North Korea in Merton College Oxford and the Korea-UK Forum on the Peaceful Unification of Korea in London. An entertaining documentary The Great North Korean Picture Show provided an interesting insight into the North Korean film industry, screening at a small theatre in Bermondsey, and the content provided a useful supplement to the focus on North Korean cinema at SOAS’s second Korean Screen Culture conference at the end of May.

State Visit

A photocall before the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace (photo: Blue House)
A photocall before the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace (photo: Blue House)

A three day state visit in early November was the opportunity for the ground-breaking ceremony for a new Korean War memorial on the Embankment, a couple of splendid banquets, the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation between Britain’s and Korea’s cultural and creative industries, the unveiling of a new Hwang Ji-hae garden, and plenty more besides.

Literature

Looking ahead to 2014 when Korea is Focus Country at the London Book Fair, Korean literature started emerging as a theme at the KCC. Choi Yoon and Chung Yung-moon attended the 2013 Fair and participated in an interesting seminar at the KCC, while later in the year the KCC hosted a session on Korean literature in translation. Serendipitously, Dalkey Archive published the first of its Library of Korean Literature, and we can look forward to more in 2014.

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