LOS ANGELES — In the days leading up to the April 2018 inter-Korean summit, K-pop girl group Red Velvet was one of several South Korean bands that performed at a concert in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Among these cultural envoys were multiple generations of pop and rock legends, but it was Red Velvet’s earworms that proved decisive in flexing the south’s soft power in the region, with none other than the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, singling them out as the reason for attending the concert in person. The thousands of Angelenos attending Red Velvet’s sold-out concert in Pasadena this Thursday have at least this much in common with the North Korean leader, whose fondness for the K-pop quintet is shared by millions of fans worldwide.
Political spectacle, corporate influence, and state power are some of the themes of Take My Money / Take My Body, an exhibition by curators Narei Choi and Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE). Using the global phenomenon of K-pop as a critical lens for popular media and consumer culture, the exhibition makes a case for the ways in which K-pop fandom itself is a contested battleground for cultural affinities and political ideologies.
Pop groups and their fan bases have been weaponized and made to conform, making K-pop seem like as much of a vehicle for social control as it is for soft power. Jiwon Choi’s artwork “Parallel” juxtaposes personal reenactments of K-pop personas, historical news footage, and interviews with her grandfather, a survivor of the Korean War, as a way to suggest connections between K-pop, militarism, and the ongoing division of the Korean peninsula.
In Levi Orta’s “Singing Alone,” leaders across the political spectrum perform songs in front of adoring audiences; in one video, Russian president Vladimir Putin sings Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” at a charity fundraiser. In this installation, musical performance creates the illusion of vulnerability, making sometimes ruthless heads of state out to be sympathetic and accessible. Even the Dear Leader’s admiration for Red Velvet is a signal to the world that he is, like many of us, unable to resist the saccharine charms of “Bad Boy” and “Red Flavor.”
Other works point to the ways in which technologies and networks further alienate individuals from lived political realities. The animated reenactments of the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict in Peggy Ahwesh’s “Lessons of War” are drawn from actual newsreels from Taiwan in which violence and suffering become memes to be circulated across social media. Gelare Khoshgozaran’s ongoing work “U.S. Customs Demands to Know” leaves a glowing trail of Iran Post parcels that make visible the transnational exchanges between the artist and their mother during a time of economic sanctions that leave them vulnerable to government surveillance.
In an untitled work by Olivia Campbell, cardboard portraits of K-pop stars and fans are interspersed with those of the artist’s friends. Portraits of black men signify not only the presence of black K-pop fans, but also the often uncredited influences of African American musical traditions like hip-hop and R&B in K-pop. The exhibition’s title seems especially germane in this work as it asks whose bodies and cultures are at stake and who gets to profit from their taking.
At its most cynical, K-pop is designed to put forward an “idealized Korean modernity” that has proliferated at the expense of social goods like fair labor conditions and mental health. It is, not unlike the art market and other culture industries, governed by corporate interests and a hunger for global audiences. In spite of these issues, or perhaps because of them, K-pop and contemporary art have shared affinities and antagonisms that the show’s curators take pains to explore. In Take My Money / Take My Body, the radical and reactionary possibilities of K-pop, an ostensibly apolitical genre operating in a politicized sphere, reside within the audiences who shape its meaning and significance.
Take My Money / Take My Body continues at LACE (6522 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles) through February 24.