A review of the London Korean year 2016

by Philip Gowman on 29 December, 2016 updated 1 January, 2019

in 2016 year-end posts | VoDs

2016 review of the London Korean year: banner

As is traditional at this time of year, we look back at some of the highlights of the London Korean Year.

Exhibitions

Is it my imagination, or was there less going on this year? Certainly from the perspective of contemporary art, we have been through a lull this year. With HADA Contemporary gone, Mokspace reborn as Han Collection but with a different focus, 43 Inverness Street taking a break, and Hanmi nearing the end of its refurbishment, there really haven’t been the venues for exhibitions of contemporary artists. Standing almost alone in this bleak landscape the KCC of course is a beacon that continues to host exhibitions of work by Korean artists. This year their shows have been aimed at appealing more to the head than the heart.

Kang Ik-joong in front of his Floating Dreams on 31 August

Kang Ik-joong in front of his Floating Dreams on 31 August (photo: LKL)

During 2016, you had to look beyond some of the usual spaces to find satisfaction. Looking back, two exhibitions will linger in the memory: Kang Ik-Joong’s Floating Dreams on the Thames, with its associated exhibition in Robilant + Voena; and Kitty Jun-im’s solo show Connected Moment at Han Collection. Another satisfying exhibition was the double show by Noh Suntak at 43 Inverness Street and the Fitzrovia Gallery; and worthy of note was Bongsu Park’s two part performance Crossing Over – Ritual of Grief.

Crossing Over - Ritual of Grief part 1

Crossing Over – Ritual of Grief part 1. Photo credit Bongsu Park

It was also the year when London caught the Dansaekhwa bug: an austere solo show by Park Seo-bo at White Cube was a little difficult to engage with; an exhibition of work by the late Yun Hyong-keun at Simon Lee Gallery was more approachable; and a low-key dansaekhwa exhibition at the Arts Club had the advantage of showing the works in a comfortable, homely interior. And if your bent is works where the site itself is an integral part of the creation then this year you will have gone to see Koo Jeong-a’s upgrade of Charing Cross Station, and immersed yourself in Kang Yiyun’s digital projections in the V&A’s Cast Courts.

A still photo of Yiyun Kang's projection onto the huge Roman column of the V+A's Cast Court. Courtesy of the artist and the museum.

A still photo of Yiyun Kang’s projection onto the huge Roman column of the V+A’s Cast Court. Courtesy of the artist and the museum.

I must have missed several exhibitions either because I didn’t know about them (sadly too often the case with student shows) or because I simply couldn’t get to them.

Music

Jeong Ga Ak Hoe

Jeong Ga Ak Hoe performing as part of the British Museum’s Chuseok celebrations, in collaboration with the K-Music Festival

If, maybe, it has been a quieter year than usual for the visual arts (though on second thoughts, looking at the above list again, there’s been plenty to keep us interested), it’s been a good year for film and music. Quite apart from performances by visiting hip-hop artists (which I didn’t get around to listing on LKL because the tickets sold out within minutes, long before the event), a k-pop zombie musical (again sold out, so no LKL review) and an appearance by BAP, the K-music festival returned even stronger than before. It’s hard to single out just one highlight of that festival – of course Nah Youn Sun and Ulf Wakenius were totally amazing, but Jeong Ga Ak Hoe and Kyungso Park with Andy Sheppard were also stunning, and I wish I’d had the stamina to stay to the end of Idiotape’s pulsating set. And let’s not forget Gamin’s and Kim Hyelim’s collaborations with Notes Inegales, or the brief set performed by Neon Bunny in a Kilburn pub, or, in the world of classical music, Joo Yeon Sir’s debuts at St John’s Smith Square (as part of her Young Artist Residency) and Royal Festival Hall and performance of Lament for the Valley, composed for her by Sir Karl Jenkins as part of a larger work remembering the victims of the Aberfan disaster on the 60th anniversary of the tragedy (now available on Deutsche Grammophon)

Film

The Wailing

Hwang Jung-min as the mysterious shaman in Na Hong-jin’s riveting movie The Wailing

Film wise, the BFI London Film Festival had three of the year’s top Korean films (Handmaiden, The Wailing and Bacchus Lady); the London East Asia Film Festival, in its first full year, parked its tanks on the KCCUK’s lawn by majoring on Korean film and anticipating one or two of the LKFF’s strands. LEAFF had two scoops: the crowdsourced comfort woman movie Spirit’s Homecoming and a selection of indie films from the Jeonju festival. But the KCCUK’s London Korean Film Festival more than held its own with its more in-depth focus on female directors, a good spread of indie fare including Park Hong-min’s mysterious movies and adventurous screenings of artists’ short films. Their series of “teaser” screenings throughout the year maintained filmgoers’ levels of excitement, making sure the festival stayed in the front of their minds. We didn’t much like Himalaya, but this disappointment was more than outweighed by Lee Jun-ik’s The Throne, Jang Jae-hyeon’s exorcism thriller The Priests and of course everyone’s favourite zombies-on-the-KTX movie, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan.

Train to Busan

Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan

And maybe we are at the start of a new trend: the early UK theatrical release of Korean movies while they are still screening in Korea. We were lucky enough to see Tunnel in the UK even while it was still topping the Korean box office. Now all we need is someone to tell us about such releases a couple of weeks in advance.

Stage

The princess in front of the exquisite puppet scenery

The Tiniest Frog Prince in the World: the princess in front of the exquisite puppet scenery (photo: www.brushtheatre.com)

Further afield, the Edinburgh Fringe continued to attract high quality Korean performers (where for me the highlight was Brush Theatre’s magical Tiniest Frog Prince in the World), and across the channel the French Korean cultural year came to an end. The London Korean cultural year started with two plays on North Korean themes. Insook Chappell’s emotionally sensitive P’yongyang for me had the edge over Mia Chung’s more fantastical You for Me for You.

Love blossoms under the smile of the Great Leader.

In-sook Chappell’s P’yongyang: Love blossoms under the smile of the Great Leader.

Protest

Comfort Women Protest at Tate Modern

The Living Statue Comfort Women Protest outside Tate Modern

Was 2016 a year when more protestors have been visible? The Sewol protestors maintain their monthly vigil in Trafalgar Square, the Oxxy humidifier protest came to Reckitt Benckiser’s AGM, the living comfort woman statue was seen outside Tate Modern and perhaps most high profile of all the dignified protest against the comfort women deal that briefly disrupted Ban Ki-moon’s speech and thanks to Jason Verney’s hastily captured footage went viral.

Books

On the book front, the KCC’s monthly book group has been well supported, discussing a wide range of translated fiction. It has of course been Han Kang’s year, with the launch of Human Acts, and her Vegetarian winning the International Man Booker prize. Her translator Deborah Smith has had a similarly good year, with the launch of Tilted Axis Press and the publication of their first titles including Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows.

Han Kang with Philippe Sands at Foyles on 13 January

Han Kang with Philippe Sands at Foyles on 13 January at the launch of Human Acts (photo: LKL)

Thanks to the artists, organisers and sponsors for making these events possible.

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