Every year at this stage in the year, I look back on the cultural highlights, whether they be live performances, exhibitions, movies or books that I have encountered over the past twelve months. Every year I lament that I’ve been unable to cover everything, that I’m getting slower and that there’s been even more to cover. Whether, objectively, that’s the case I’m not sure. And I’m not sure I’ve got the time or inclination to mine the LKL archives and count the number of events I’ve listed but not covered. I’ll just do what I can with the hours that are available.
As I went through the year, two highly subjective thoughts struck me:
- That Korean food must be getting much more mainstream, when temple food has had at least three demonstration events during the year.
- Literature in translation must be getting into its stride, given that at least three Korean poetry translation workshops have been held in London this year
But I’ll come back to that later on. First I’ll give my take on the performances and exhibitions that we have been able to enjoy this year. I’ll cover the books and movies that caught my attention in separate posts.
Music and performance
This year I began wondering if we’re reaching peak K-pop in London. I know I’m an old fogey, but rather too many times this year I’ve been browsing on Facebook and tripped over an upcoming live gig by a pop or hip-hop act and wondered: “Who are they? Where did they spring from?” And then I find that most of the acts have been around for years, and some of them end up in Miss Vogue’s list of the K-pop acts you need to know. Yes, I’m definitely not tuned in to what’s going on in the mainstream Korean pop / hip-hop scene, but of course I am intrigued by it and the reception it is getting in London. And I’m wondering if it’s a sign of reaching peak K-pop that Miss Vogue is writing about it.
Of course, there were names that even old fogeys have heard of, and this was the year that BTS came to London, packing the o2 arena two nights running and performing on the UK’s favourite TV chat show. We also had B.A.P, Jay Park, Monsta X, ZICO and many more pop and hip-hop artists. We were also well visited by indie bands, from surf-rockers Say Sue Me through indie / folk singer Gonne Choi to the veterans 3rd Line Butterfly, thanks in part to the fact that Korean bands seem to be making the late spring music festivals a regular feature in their touring calendar. This year female DJs seemed to be a thing, with DJ Soda and Peggy Gou playing the Ministry of Sound and Village Underground, and experimental musician Yaeji appearing at the Serpentine.
The K-music festival, in collaboration with Serious, and a new Festival of Korean Dance at The Place, presented a strong line-up of performers, and hopefully will remain in the London cultural calendar for the foreseeable future. But part of the fun of running LKL is the unexpected event that comes up every now and then. And I surprised myself by really rather enjoying 1446 – a musical based on the achievements of King Sejong the Great.
As an aside, it’s nice to see that Park Jiha’s 2017 album Communion is getting some attention – for example being included in The Guardian‘s interim list of best albums of 2018.
Pick of the year
It says something about the strength and depth of what’s been on offer this year that Ahn Sook-sun’s p’ansori performance in the Purcell Room doesn’t make it into the top three. But it really has been a great year, and if the p’ansori hadn’t unexpectedly stopped two thirds of the way through it would probably have topped the list. Before we get to the winners, here is the shortlist – and once you get to the bottom of the page you’ll see a separate, special award.
- Jambinai opening Robert Smith’s meltdown
- Ahn Sook-sun performing Heungbuga in the K-music festival
- The Zandari Festa showcase at Liverpool Sound City
- Ensemble E-DO, at the Rich Mix in the K-music festival
And my top three:
3. Cha Jin-yeob – riverrun, with visuals by Vakki – an absolutely spectacular three-act solo which brought the Festival of Korean Dance at The Place to a satisfying close.
2. SsingSsing at Pizza Express Soho and the Purcell Room, opening K-Music 2018. This was the musical event I knew I was going to regret missing, and the feedback I’ve had from everyone is that I was right. What a shame that the band is breaking up this year.
1. The National Changgeuk Company’s Trojan Women at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of London International Festival of Theatre. Who’d have thought that two hours of undiluted han could be so totally gripping?
Exhibitions, art and design
Exhibitions this year, partly as a result of the UK-Korea year of cultural collaboration, have ranged widely across the land. Young In Hong’s The Moon’s Trick travelled to Exeter; Haegue Yang, Yunchul Kim and Suki Seokyeong Kang have been in Liverpool; and a project involving a Scottish artist, a Danish Korean-born adoptee, a tattooist’s needle and the DMZ received its premiere in Derry, Norther Ireland.
The exhibitions have explored a broad range of themes, from the very high tech (Yunchul Kim, Jheon Soocheon, both at the KCC) to the low (Seung Ae Lee’s laboriously-executed pencil-drawn animations and Juree Kim’s collapsing architectural sculptures made of moistened clay); and in media ranging from the earth-bound – Hay Joung Hwang’s Silver-gilt-winning Eco City Garden – to the much more insubstantial – Bongsu Park’s Dream Auction work-in-progress.
There have been three high-profile outdoor installations too: Lee Ufan outside the Serpentine Gallery, Suh Do-ho near Liverpool Street Station and Kimchi and Chips in Somerset House courtyard. White Cube has continued its exploration of Korean artists, with big solo shows for Kim Minjung and Lee Seung-taek; and spaces for hire have hosted short-lived group shows such as 4482, making a welcome return to the Bargehouse after a break of a few years, and Hey Siri, What am I doing? (held in a gutted two-up, two-down terraced house in Peckham Rye)
Pick of the year
Looking back over the year, the shortlist of exhibitions I’ve enjoyed includes the following:
- Lee Seung-taek at White Cube Masons Yard
- Hay Joung Hwang’s LG Eco City Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show
- Group show: The Real DMZ, at New Art Exchange, Nottingham
- Made in North Korea – Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration
And my top three:
3. Group show: Hey Siri, What am I doing? at Safehouse, Peckham. What was nice about this intimate exhibition, apart from the artwork being interesting and stimulating, was that many of the artists were there to chat about their work.
2. Yunchul Kim: Dawn Mines Crystal, at the KCC: full of joyous geekery, oozing so much futuristic technology that you thought you might have walked in to an episode of Star Trek.
1. Lee Bul: Crashing, at the Hayward Gallery – a huge and carefully thought out retrospective of this major artist which merited several visits to do it justice.
Hallyu, fun and pop culture
This year I’ve lost count of the number of K-pop and dance cover competitions, club nights, cosplay meetups and other get-togethers. People are getting together and sharing their love of K-pop in general (or BTS in particular) and simply having a good time (or commemorating a sad event). There is enough interest in Korea beauty products for there to be a pop-up store at Westfield and meetups with a beauty YouTuber, and enough passion out there to empower LKL’s youngest contributor to persuade her dad to take her from London to Sheffield for the day to attend a one-day festival. Maybe my comments above about reaching peak K-pop were premature.
Finally in this section, one thing I’m happy about is that Kingston Council now seems to welcome having an annual Korea-related event in its market square, celebrating the fact that the borough hosts the largest Korean community in the UK. Although the Chuseok event this year was a little bit miserable because of the rain, it nevertheless generated huge enthusiasm among the visitors.
2018 seemed to have more food events than previous years. I managed to count three demonstrations of temple food cooking and two demonstrations by a kimchi grand master. A trendy Marylebone eatery hosted a pop-up by a trendy Busan eatery – and very good it was too – and at the homelier end of the scale we were invited to share food cooked by North Korean exiles. Meanwhile it seemed that outside of London people are getting more comfortable with Korean flavours: BBC radio’s main food panel show had a Korean feature in the summer.
We were lucky to have visits from Kim Aeran, Jeong You-jeong and Ahn Jung-hyo to discuss their work; and visits from Brother Anthony, Krys Lee and Choi Jeongrye to host poetry translation sessions. The monthly Korean Literature Nights hosted by the KCC explored a wide range of current and less recent literature in translation, the earlier sessions in the year dovetailing nicely with a season of film adaptations.
Campaigning and social issues
It was the year that we started talking about some sensitive matters from the ROK’s modern history which haven’t really been aired much before, such as the Daejeon massacre (thanks to the SOAS Centre of Korean Studies) and the Jeju 4:3 incident (thanks to Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum), while queer issues were addressed by Heezy Yang and Jeram Yunghun Kang, the latter of whom talked about homophobia in the military.
Connect North Korea was established as a UK Charity and started its work with North Korean exiles in New Malden, and hosting fund-raising events which also gave opportunities to meet North Koreans – such as Mr Choi, the central character in Roxy Rezvany’s documentary Little Pyongyang.
Academia, current affairs and other talks
SOAS continued to promote a programme of free seminars during term time (my own favourite this year related to the Joseon Dynasty state forestry system) and also a half day focus on colonialism and its reverberations; BAKS organised a one-day conference in Oxford on the agency of Korean women; and the LSE repeated its full day sessions on South Korea and North Korea – though the subtitle of the latter (“Before He Presses the Button“) was chosen before the unexpected thawing of relations on the peninsula. The change in inter-Korea relations prompted two hurriedly-organised conferences on peaceful reunification, while the more predictable passage of time gave Chatham House the opportunity to review the Moon Jae-in presidency one year on.
We were lucky to have visits from artists Lee Ufan, Lee Bul, Kim Ku-lim and Haegue Yang; and the British Korean Society presented a talk by the UK’s two ambassadors to the Koreas – now a regular feature in its programme. But possibly the most interesting talk this year was another one organised by the BKS: a compare and contrast of the English and South Korean judicial systems, presented by a Korean and an English judge.
Event of the year: BTS at the o2
While all the above commentary has been a highly personal selection, it would be remiss of me not to put aside personal preferences to celebrate the joy, exhilaration and fulfilment brought to thousands of fans both young and not so young by the hardworking, talented and super-fit boys from BTS. Without a doubt, their Love Yourself performance at the o2 is a deserving winner of Event of the Year.
Thanks as always to all the event organisers and sponsors.
LKL’s listing of all events in 2018 can be found here.