The Korean Cultural Centre’s current exhibition is arguably it’s most intriguing. Rather than the usual exhibition format of original artworks, the kokdu (Romanised from 꼭두) exhibition displays museum artefacts created by anonymous artisans from the past, and places them in the context of art that is relevant to the modern day.
This unique marriage of history and art has attracted and captivated an array of culture vultures, whilst the “funerary” concept has appealed to London’s mass of K-horror enthusiasts and others with an interest in the macabre. Yet those expecting a dark and mournful display will have been disappointed. This colourful exhibition reflects the certain, optimistic and joyful perspective on death and the afterlife that prevailed during the late Joseon Dynasty (late 19th to early 20th century).
The belief here was that someone’s passing away shouldn’t be filled with sadness and reflection, but should be seen as a celebration, a continuation of life, and a progression to a better place. What’s more, everyone regardless of wealth, lifestyle or popularity, was entitled to a triumphant send-off to the “other world”.
A focal point of this ceremony was the lavish funerary sangeo bier, which was supported by 24 men in a festive procession. Its purpose was not only to carry the body, but also the spirit. Hence, it was decorated with spiritual emblems such as lotus flowers signifying reincarnation, phoenixes (bongwhang) representing flight and ascension, and dragons (young) symbolising protection and nature. I found it humbling to know that such a beautiful and intricate bier wasn’t reserved for royalty or aristocracy. As the exhibition states, “in death, we are all rich; we are all as one”.
The bier would also carry 46 kokdu, or “companions for the journey to the other world”. These ornamental wooden figurines served a multitude of purposes including friendship, companionship, spiritual guidance, protection and entertainment for ordinary people during and after their journey to the “other world”.
Continuing the theme of universality, almost every walk of life, role and profession was included as a kokdu figure, mirroring the perceived importance of each and every member of society in life, as well as the afterlife.
The most-featured type of kokdu was a “spirit guide” to ensure the safety of the soul on reaching its spiritual destination. The familiar character of a teacher with a cane frequently acted as a “spirit guide”. “Guards” were also essential, often epitomised by the image of a soldier, sometimes on horseback and brandishing a weapon. “Carers” were presented in the form of housewives, mothers or grandmothers, whilst “entertainers” were acrobats or clowns.
As I perused the display and examined the figures, their joviality and charm struck me. One of the KCC employees described them as “toys for the afterlife.” I’m not sure how literally this was meant, but their aesthetic likeness to dolls or children’s toys was undeniable. Their dual purpose of comfort and pleasure was also toy-like, as a quote from the Kokdu Museum’s website states: “Kokdu are compassionate beings. Kokdu console our griefs, and share the weight of our suffering” (at the end of a life, just as toys do at the beginning of one).
As an aside, I couldn’t help but notice similarities between England’s “Punch” figures in terms of being a spritely, jolly-looking character from folklore, with a somewhat darker side. Although Punch is still a popular children’s character, he has also morphed into a figure of horror, appearing in cult film The Wicker Man amongst others. Kokdu may seem less sinister; however their association with death mixed with their upbeat connotations gives them a mysterious and eerie aura. I wonder if their modern-day presence will ever transcend the museum / exhibition onto our movie screens?
The Kokdu: Korean Funerary Figures exhibition has resonated with myself and other Londoners in so many ways. Seeing the too-often-avoided subject of death explored on an open platform, and the act of mourning challenged with happiness, respect and unification has been refreshing. We are also entirely privileged to have such a profound insight into this special part of Korea’s history here in London. On a less formal level, I found solace in the kokdu figures themselves. Their memorable, comforting appearance and meaning has stayed with me, and I feel that I know them well enough to call them companions of my own.
The Kokdu: Korean Funerary Figures Exhibition will remain at London’s Korean Cultural Centre until 8th September, and if you’re in Korea, you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the Kokdu Museum itself. Let us know what you think!