Korean funerary culture on display in Europe

October 4, 2013
A total of 76 historic artifacts from the Kokdu Museum in Seoul are on display at the Leipzig Museum of Ethnography in Germany from Sept. 26 to Nov. 17. / Courtesy of Kokdu Museum

A total of 76 historic artifacts from the Kokdu Museum in Seoul are on display at the Leipzig Museum of Ethnography in Germany from Sept. 26 to Nov. 17. / Courtesy of Kokdu Museum

By Chung Ah-young

Grieving for the dead isn’t so different from culture to culture, but the way of mourning and giving condolences varies from country to country. “Kokdu,” or Korean traditional figurines adorned on funeral biers, is one of Korea’s traditional funerary symbols that bids farewell to the deceased.

The colorful figurines take various forms of humans, animals, or supernatural beings such as dragons or phoenixes and deities, which were used to decorate the funeral bier. They are believed to take care of the deceased’s journey to the other world in traditional Korean society but nowadays such a practice has become a rarity.

A kokdu collection is making its way to Europe to show how traditional Koreans accepted the death of their loved ones through decorations of their biers with brilliant colors and designs.

A total of 76 historic artifacts from the Kokdu Museum in Seoul are on display first at the Leipzig Museum of Ethnography in Germany from Sept. 26 to Nov. 17 and then will be in Belgium from Jan. 28 to Feb. 28 in 2014, Hungary from Nov. 26 to Jan. 15, 2014, and France from April 11 to 20 in 2014.

The exhibition also features a bier made with a traditional carpentry technique without using nails, just woodworking joints. Measuring 453 centimeters in length, 200 centimeters in width and 252 centimeters in height, the bier, was presented at the 8th Gwangju Biennale in 2010. It was reproduced based upon various historical sources. The structure was carried by 24 people.

The exhibition has been planned after the artifacts were shown at “All Eyes on Korea,” the 100-day Korean culture summer festival, prior to the Olympic Games in London last year. It mesmerized European artists and connoisseurs, making them interested in hosting kokdu exhibitions in their own countries.

“I have never seen such a concise, systematic, shapely curated exhibition featuring a Korean funerary bier since I went to the National Folk Museum of Korea during my visit to Korea,” said Jan Stuart, keeper of the Asian Department at the British Museum, last year. “We would like to plan a special exhibition inside the British Museum in the future.”

This exhibition in Europe displays regional differences of kokdu’s and their spiritual meanings reflecting Korean traditional emotions from ancient times to the Joseon era through the various figurines. The show focuses on Korean folk beliefs about kokdu, which can travel between this world and the next, comforting the bereaved family and mourners.

The museum has some 20,000 kokdu, which have been collected over 30 years by director Kim Ock-rang.

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