K-pop as you've never seen it before: Seoul exhibition offers a glimpse behind the curtain

Daydream Believers, by record label Hybe, shares backstage stories of how the likes of BTS and Seventeen made it

From left, V, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Jimin and J-Hope, aka BTS. EPA
Powered by automated translation

The launch of Hybe Insight’s temporary exhibition should be music to the ears of dedicated K-pop fans after its permanent home was closed in January.

Launched in Seoul two years ago by entertainment powerhouse Hybe, the former exhibition space was shaping up to be the genre’s equivalent of the Motown Museum in Detroit. Hybe operates as a K-pop record label, talent agency and production company, among other things related to the entertainment industry.

Local and international fans would frequently fly in and wait in the snaking queue to see the awards, memorabilia and costumes dedicated to Hybe’s stable of musical talent including BTS and Tomorrow X Together.

Perhaps the museum was a victim of the company’s success.

Last month, Hybe announced record first-quarter earnings of $39 million, a 44 per cent increase from last year’s periodic figures.

Such momentum meant the company acquired more promising labels such as Belift Lab and Pledis Entertainment, in addition to launching a new generation of potential stars like solo artists Hwang Min-hyun and Baekho.

As a result, the museum reportedly had to make way for more dance studios and production rooms.

Besides, with the genre yet to reach its promise of global domination, perhaps it was too early to be celebrating achievements with more hits to be made and streaming records to break.

This kind of forward-thinking partly informs The Daydream Believers, a new exhibition that has been launched by Hybe in Seoul’s central Gangnam district.

Running until August 27 and spread across two levels, it features new photographs of the company's current artists and provides a general glimpse of the work behind the visual representation of K-pop stars today.

What's on offer?

Details are relatively sparse when it comes to The Daydream Believers.

In a brief statement on the official Twitter account, it is described as a "photo exhibition of Hybe Label artists" including BTS, Seventeen, Tomorrow X Together, Enhypen and Le Sserafim.

Albeit brief, those few words have been enough to ensure the K-pop faithful come out in force.

Forward booking and online payment are mandatory with late afternoon slots booked up to three days in advance.

Once inside you enter a reception hall with a large screen featuring an interview with Shin Seon-hye, the photographer behind the exhibition's images.

She says the ideas of the photo shoots “were to capture a scene where they create their work", and how each set of images corresponds to the various artists' established aesthetics.

Going backstage with K-pop stardom

Where western counterparts often make it look so effortless, K-pop artists, through documentaries and video blogging, are transparent about the road to stardom being one of hard work.

The exhibition gives some of that insight by faithfully recreating a backstage room with a range of tight dressing rooms and make-up areas.

The throbbing sounds of an expectant crowd murmur from the speakers, thus allowing the space to feel like a haven.

Also featured on the ground floor is the recreation of the minimal photo studio where Shin took 31 official portraits of the five groups' members.

Except for the digital screens, showcasing blurry images of the artists (to be revealed upstairs), the space looks jarringly empty.

The younger fans love it and take selfies around the room.

I shudder at the thought of spending 12-hour days smiling in front of a panoply of cameras.

Detailed recreation of photo shoots

Titled Towards Our Dreams, the second half of the exhibition looks at the arduous process behind capturing the perfect image of a K-pop star.

On the second level, I am ushered into a lit-up version of a photographer's dark room. Encased within glass panels are some of the reams of camera film used in the photo shoots.

With the idea being that these are the images that didn’t make the final cut, I see brooding images of BTS member Suga and a slightly perplexed Hoshi from Seventeen.

The section’s centrepiece is a large warehouse space replicating the photography studios from all the band’s shoots, in addition to final images from the session.

The setting for BTS was an atelier where members were snapped dressed in what resembles white art smocks.

For Seventeen and Tomorrow X Together, the backdrop was nocturnal and dreamy with a mix of dark blue and a sepia orange.

With Enhypen and Le Ssefarim down the pecking order in terms of sales and popularity, it’s apt their separate sessions took place in a cosy bedroom setting.

The idea behind their reflective expression seems to be they are still dreaming of truly hitting the big time.

There is plenty of merchandise

Hybe wants you to buy the official merchandise, and there is plenty for fans to get their hands on.

So much so that a friendly attendant is on hand to give me my own branded shopping bag at the gift shop.

A collection of each artist's exhibition photos are sold separately, in addition to solo images of each member and Hybe-branded tote bags and T-shirts.

Even if you don’t buy apparel, you are encouraged not to leave empty-handed.

A photo booth is set up to print out black-and-white photos of visitors.

“One photo only,” the attendant, who has clearly learnt from past experience, said. “No photo shoots.”

Beware of taking photos

For an exhibition so enamoured with photography, it has a stern policy regarding visitors taking their own snaps.

Basically, you are only allowed to take photos in the reception hall and the gift shop. The rest is out of bounds and offenders will be asked to delete their photos, before going to their phone’s "binned files" and deleting them all over again, permanently.

This is all done by staff displaying the deft mix of exuberance and determination that made K-pop the behemoth it is today.

Open daily, 11am-6pm; until August 27; $27; 66 Bongeunsa Ro, Seoul, South Korea; www.weverse.io

Updated: June 23, 2023, 6:12 PM