Are the British becoming more Korean? That was the rather silly thought that occurred to me as I walked round the energetic space of the V&A yesterday evening for the Korea Friday Late.
What do I mean by that? Well, at every expo or festival in Korea the emphasis is on physical experience. You can’t just watch and spectate, the traditional British way. You have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. You have to make some kimchi, paint a decorative fan or roast and roll those precious green tea leaves. You have to dress up in hanbok and have your photo taken.
And that’s what a lot of it was about at the V&A last night. In a nicely multicultural way, the visitors were queuing up British-style in order to get their Korean hands-on Experience: decorating mini moon vases made of soap (courtesy of Lush) in a powerfully fragrant room supervised by Shin Meekyoung; communal stitching of a patchwork cloth on a seemingly endless table supervised by Kang Sujin. There was some sort of taste experience in a corner of the cafe, but you couldn’t get through the queue to see what it was that people were queuing for; having seen Jeon Jinhyun’s almost pornographically shaped cutlery at 100% Design London I was sorry to miss out on that particular experience.
And of course you could queue up to have your photograph taken wearing hanbok. The additional attraction here was being able to sit on Kim Been’s straw chair in front of the oval pond in the John Madejski Garden. And a very popular experience it was too.
For the more reserved, there were plenty of attractions which just involved observing. It was a treat to see Park Junebum’s work on the big screen, in a theatre space upstairs, courtesy of Hanmi Gallery. The last time we had a chance to do that in London, I think, was at the British Museum nine years ago. Also in the central courtyard was the explosive sound of Choi Jung-hyun’s Samulnori group, the beats seemingly amplified by bouncing off the four walls.
And if you thought that a poetry reading would be nice and soothing after being deafened by the drumming, you’ve never heard Ko Un recite before. In the Raphael Room Korea’s most famous poet was in fine form as he declaimed his verses, his voice booming, arms waving, making the most of all the onomatopoeia and other aural effects. The patrician voice of Sir Andrew Motion tried to live up to the original as he read the English translations, but of course it was Ko who rightly stole the show. In fact he seemed to be enjoying himself too much. He was billed as giving two identical readings of half an hour each, with a half hour gap in between. But the first set went on for almost a full hour, and in the brief interval there was a hurried debate about whether to trim any of the material. Could you have too much of a good thing, or should the original artistic conception be respected? Meanwhile, the sounds of Girls Generation floated down the corridor from the reception area, as a young crowd were busily immersing themselves in the K-pop Experience.
The V&A were very cunning in rationing their signage. On the way to your soap vase workshop you were likely to get lost and end up in the medieval silver gallery. And why not? One of the joys of the evening was that you encountered things you weren’t otherwise going to come across, to experience. Thus we were privileged to be let in to the splendid National Art Library for Yoon Seok-ho’s talk on Korean TV drama. And for this, like all the other events, there was a busy, buzzy crowd. The evening was all about cultural collision and cross-pollination. The regular V&A visitor was introduced to the wide variety of contemporary Korean culture, while visitors who were more interested in the Korean wave would hopefully be tempted to return to see what else was on offer. And most importantly, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Thanks to Rosalie Kim at the V&A for masterminding the event.