K-pop, why this music industry is so attractive to the art world

South Korea. During the last “Museum Summit” organized last March in Hong Kong, Inkyung Chang, president of the National Museum Foundation of Korea, highlighted a paradigm shift. Starting from the principle that museums “serve as mediators between collections, visitors and the rest of society”, she highlighted the driving role of K-pop celebrities in attracting younger generations to cultural institutions. Formerly considered illegitimate, they have now become the cherished target of museum communication, including that of the Korea National Museum which experienced a peak in attendance and sales in its store after the visit and the performance of the boy band BTS on its forecourt in 2020. This role is also heritage: the South Korean government relies on K-pop actors in order to amplify the influence of its cultural heritage. Added to this is the recognition of K-pop personalities as collectors on the art market. Designed for the general public, the K-pop industry has managed to penetrate the elite circles of the world of art and culture.

Promoting museums

Art critic based in Seoul for more than ten years and founder of the online platform Seoul Art Friend, Andy St. Louis notes a similar phenomenon concerning the role of RM (Kim Nam-joon), member of the group BTS, as as a powerful promoter of the contemporary art scene: “It’s the so-called “RM effect” that happens every time he shares photos of an exhibition he visited on his Instagram account. » The number of visitors increases instantly, sometimes to the point of creating long queues.

This effect is intrinsically linked to social networks that all K-pop actors master perfectly. In this regard, the gap with museums is striking: RM currently has 45 million subscribers on its Instagram account (74 million for that of BTS), compared to 146,000 for the National Museum of Korea and 250,000 for the MMCA, main public museum of modern and contemporary art in South Korea. Only a fraction of the star’s subscribers could constitute a significant increase for the National Museum of Korea and the MMCA in Seoul, whose attendance saw a sharp increase in 2022, with 3.4 and 1.8 million visitors respectively.

Influence in contemporary art

In addition to its role as a cultural promoter, the K-pop industry is also the subject of museum exhibitions, such as “CONNECT, BTS,” the 2020 multi-site exhibition [voir encadré ci-dessous]. “KP.OP, Korean Contemporary Art”, the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA Taipei, organized in 2014 was an introduction. Conceived by curators Yoon Jin-Sup and Han Ji Yun, this exhibition presented the works of 19 Korean artists, including Kimsooja, Yeesookyung and Osang Gwon, in the Taiwanese public museum. It was less focused on music and more on the influence of popular culture on the visual arts.

More recently, “Hallyu!” The Korean Wave”, is in a similar vein while opening up to all Korean creative industries, from cinema to music, including fashion and the visual arts. Held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the exhibition received support from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea.

K-pop has also become a source of inspiration for contemporary visual artists. Sin Wai Kin, a non-binary Canadian artist, previously known as Victoria Sin, worked on the concept of boy band in his video installation It’s Always You (2021). The artist is particularly interested in gendered segmentation and the visual universe of Korean groups, a favorite material for his interdisciplinary practice centered on performance and video art. Sin Wai Kin considers the boy bands like a “perfect medium for thinking about how identities are constructed”, a subject at the heart of his work on gender and sexuality. This deconstruction enterprise takes on Debordian overtones when the artist conceives the K-pop industry as “a capitalist machine” aimed at stimulating “a very strong feeling of desire among young people”.

Uns public sculpture celebrating a song

The involvement of K-pop actors in the promotion of cultural heritage takes various forms. It stands out in particular through the K-Pop World Festival organized since 2011 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea. The final of this competition will also take place at the Korean cultural center in Paris on October 21. The country’s diplomatic and cultural network has thus fully integrated K-pop into its policy and its actions to promote Korean culture.

Other government entities, CHA (Korea Cultural Heritage Administration) and KTO (Korea Tourism Organization) follow the same line. THE boy band Monsta X thus participated in the “Visit Cultural Heritage” campaign in 2020 orchestrated by CHA. As for KTO, the Korean tourism office collaborated with Leenalchi, an independent “pansori pop” group, a musical genre inspired by traditional “pansori” singing, for its “Feel the Rhythm of Korea” campaign. The series of musical videos produced in 2021 to promote tourism in major Korean cities, including Seoul and Busan, is as original as it is colorful.

Another aspect of this mix of genres is the inauguration in 2019 of a monumental bronze sculpture in homage to “Gangnam Style”, Psy’s 2012 global hit. Designed by Korean artist Hwang Man-seok and installed in the very district of Gangnam, the work places K-pop in the urban landscape of the capital, like the Charging Bull (Arturo Di Modica, 1989) of Wall Street or Cloud Gate (Anish Kapoor, 2006) from Chicago. Remember that this hit inspired Ai Weiwei to make a parodic cover of the song’s clip in which he appears handcuffed, in reference to his imprisonment by the Chinese authorities. Censored in China shortly after its broadcast in 2012, the video was followed by a second produced by Anish Kapoor in support of the artist. Beyond the anecdote, we note here the virality of K-pop at the heart of the art world.

Alongside the actions of the Korean public authorities, we observe private institutionalization initiatives on the part of the “big four”, the four main producers of K-pop, namely YG Entertainment (Blackpink, Big Bang), JYP Entertainment (Itzy, Got7), Hybe (BTS, Enhypen) and SM Entertainment (EXO, NCT). The latter created the SMTown Museum in 2018. At odds with the definition of a museum according to the Icom (International Council of Museums), this place was rather intended to offer a space for immersion and exchange. for fans of the studio’s artists, as well as selling products bearing their image. Recently closed, a program of traveling exhibitions seems to have taken over. For its part, Hybe inaugurated Hybe Insight in 2019, an art exhibition center which dedicated a monographic exhibition to Tom Sachs in 2022. Entitled “Boombox Retrospective”, it brought together around fifteen works by the American artist created between 1999 and 2022, and was organized in collaboration with the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Seoul and the Art Sonje Center. The vocation of this place, however, tends to move away from contemporary art over the course of the latest projects.

Influential players in the art market

The art market has also become familiar with the world of K-pop. A stone’s throw from the sculpture Gangnam Style, Frieze Seoul held its 2nd edition in the COEX exhibition center. Frieze Seoul further highlighted its musical affinities with the launch of Frieze Music, held for the first time in Seoul during the fair [voir ill.]. This initiative was first launched in London and Los Angeles in 2020, but for the first time includes artists from K-pop. APRO, Colde and Khakii gave a concert on September 8 in partnership with BMW. For Patrick Lee, director of Frieze Seoul, it is about highlighting “all that Seoul has to offer”. At the same time, the presence of celebrities on the stands (RM and Jimin) and at the fair’s evenings had a notable media impact. Some voices among collectors and galleries, however, are concerned about seeing artistic creation thus eclipsed by the star system.

APRO concert during the Frieze Music Seoul 2023 event.

© Frieze / Kim Hee Chul

Auction houses have also approached certain personalities, such as TOP (Choi Seung-hyun). In 2016, Sotheby’s Hong Kong called on this member of the Big Bang group as a “guest curator” for one of its sales. An art collector himself, he has developed expertise recognized by professionals, like RM. In 2015, TOP had already co-organized “The Eye Zone”, an exhibition of contemporary Asian art at the Art Science Museum in Singapore in collaboration with curator Lee Young-joo. He also lent works from his collection for “Shooting the Elephant – Thinking the Elephant”, the exhibition dedicated to Haegue Yang at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. At the head of an increasingly important collection, he would consider creating a museum to share it with the public.

“Connect, BTS”: an “artification” of K-pop

EXPOSURE. Conceived and coordinated by Daehyung Lee, the artistic project “CONNECT, BTS” was deployed in 2020 in five cities around the world: Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, New York and Seoul. Daehyung Lee is a recognized and influential figure in the art world: curator of the Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, he is also a member of the board of directors of the Nam June Paik Foundation and founder of Hzone, his own agency “curation” consulting.

This exhibition was not the first of the BTS group (several have taken place since 2015), but remains the most ambitious to date. Bringing together 22 artists, the project is based on two key notions of the K-pop group’s “philosophy”: diversity and periphery. This project was conceived from the dialogue between the curator and Hybe, focusing on the meaning of art and the challenges that young people face, and particularly due to the prevalence of negative narratives and toxic rhetoric on social networks. Hence the principle of “connecting” them to art, while giving a voice to marginalized communities.

Daehyung Lee © Daehyung Lee

Daehyung Lee.

© Daehyung Lee

Daehyung Lee has taken care to collaborate with institutions like the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Gropius Bau in Berlin, while surrounding himself with world-renowned artists, such as Antony Gormley, Tomás Saraceno and Ann Veronica Janssens. In addition to the narrative affinities with the storytelling of the group BTS, this exhibition also resonates with its visual universe which multiplies references to fine arts throughout its musical videos. The music video for “Blood Sweat & Tears” from 2016 (950 million views on Youtube, see ill.) is particularly emblematic with its reproductions of The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Brueghel the Elder and the Pieta by Michelangelo, in an imaginary museum.

Hybe’s motivations may also be financial: the studio is listed on the stock exchange. However, this “artification” strategy tends to distance BTS from the commercial and standardized image associated with K-Pop. A potentially pleasant addition of soul for the group’s shareholders who would invest not only in transferable securities but also artistic ones (or “artified” for the most skeptical). The museum remains an instance of undisputed artistic consecration. Its use allows K-pop to sophisticated its aura, while capitalizing on its popular success. This commitment further cultivates BTS’ status as a “national treasure”, a characteristic of K-pop groups in South Korea, as Sylvie Octobre and Vincenzo Cicchelli point out in their book K-pop, Soft Power and global culture (2022).

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