Review of the BTS Exhibition – Map of the Soul ON:E 오,늘

About a month ago, many BTS fans and I were coming down from an exhilarating marathon weekend of virtual concerts. The Map of the Soul ON:E shows featured two nights of live performances plus two replays of those performances over two days. As the last replay came to an end, I consoled myself that the fun wasn’t really over: the corresponding virtual exhibition, for which I’d purchased a bundled ticket, would be opening soon. Thank goodness I still had something to look forward to. It would be the first online exhibition BTS had ever done, and I was intrigued (as always when it comes to their innovations in experience design) to see what such a thing would be like.

‘BTS Exhibition – Map of the Soul ON:E 오,늘’ got its name by mashing up the name of the virtual concerts with the name of BTS’ 2019 traveling pop-up exhibition, 오,늘 (oh-neul), a play on the word meaning ‘today’. (It was also known in English as ’24/7 = Serendipity.’) The virtual exhibition was partially new content, and partially a virtual re-creation of aspects of 오,늘.

Perhaps that is the best way I can describe the exhibition itself, and my experience of it: a mashup. One that was sometimes harmonious, occasionally dissonant, but still enjoyable and engrossing overall. Designing such a mashup is no small challenge. On the one hand, you are re-creating aspects of an existing physical environment that is familiar to some fans (including myself). Visitors had to navigate a virtual space that was made to mimic a physical one; it felt like a map from a 3-D game, complete with a first-person camera. On the other hand, the virtual format presents opportunities to do new things that wouldn’t be possible in real-world spaces. But how do you take advantage of those opportunities in a way that still serves the purpose of the experience? How should realism meet unrealism for the best effect? Questions like these were on my mind for much of the over three hours I spent, in total, in the exhibition.

One of the parts that stood out to me was a display of BTS’ stage outfits. In an area of open space, seven mannequins stood in a long row on a platform, wearing the all-white outfits from BTS’ most recent tour. As you approached the display, the general-area background music faded away, and one of the panels behind the mannequins began to play a video of BTS performing “Not Today” in those outfits at their concert.

White outfits and panther-flanked “Dionysus” set from the Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour, 2019

Yes, I thought, this is what an exhibition is about: putting new focus on familiar material. I could imagine the effect it would have had in person so clearly. The tangible (if untouchable) presence of the clothes BTS really wore. The stylishness of the bold type with the members’ names on the platform to identify each costume, highlighting the different personalities of each design. The excitement of the performance playing on a huge screen and the contrasting stillness of the mannequins, permitting focus on the craftsmanship and textures. But in this virtual world, even when I zoomed in as close as possible, the 3-D models lacked detail. I wanted more than anything to click on each mannequin to pull up a slideshow overlay of close-up images of each outfit, as you might expect from a museum’s online catalogue. It would have helped make up for what I knew was missing from, and what could never exist in, the virtual space: that energy of being up close and personal with stage costumes.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think: Why use mannequins at all? Mannequins are a solution to the restrictions of displaying real clothes in a real space. Why not have BTS virtually modeling their own clothes? I pictured recordings of the guys standing around, bopping to the music, even striking poses and reacting to each other. Not only that, but in this virtual world, many more outfits could have been shown without taking up additional “space.” A UI menu could have been added, where selecting a song from the tour’s setlist would have magically transformed what the mannequins, or BTS, were wearing. (My imagination admittedly has no production budget or schedule.)

This is not to say the designers didn’t embrace the physically-impossible—they absolutely did. Some of this was subtle; for instance, I only noticed on a second visit that there was snow was falling around the virtual Omelas set-piece from the “Spring Day” music video. I thought it was a really nice touch.

Set re-creations like the Omelas facade were among the highlights of the 2019 pop-up exhibition

Other times, their approach was bold. There were two portals in the exhibition: one to “The Abyss” and another to “The Cosmos.” Through these doors, an entirely new scene loaded. The Abyss placed you in a vast blue world of nothingness where an animated whale swam slow circles above you as “Whalien 52” played. The Cosmos was a purple galaxy with faraway planets, starry swaths of sky, and still images of swirling clouds set to the tune of “134340” (aka “Pluto”). Both environments had you feeling suspended in midair. You could look around in every direction, and although you could technically move within the spaces, there was nowhere to go. The purpose was clearly to immerse yourself in an otherworldly representation of the themes in BTS’ music. A door hanging magically in the nothingness could take you back to the main exhibition hall whenever you chose.

Screenshots of the Abyss and Cosmos rooms posted to the exhibition’s official Instagram

At first I gasped. It was the sort of thing I was hoping to see from a virtual exhibition. Something totally different and impossible.

But before the songs were halfway done, I started to get antsy. Was that all there was? Nothing to explore or discover further? No changing visuals to match the progression of the song? Perhaps I am unfairly putting video-game level expectations on an exhibition. But it’s difficult not to when you navigate the space and interact with (some) objects exactly as you would a game. Many people are only familiar with virtual environments via games.

Another physical impossibility was the jaguar stationed in a Dionysus-themed area. Its idle animation was on a loop, unchanging even when you got up close to it. Again, I had an initial feeling of delight as I discovered something unexpected. But upon further inspection I questioned whether this attempt at a realistic-looking animal was really achieving the best effect. I think I would have preferred 3-D models of the jaguar “statues” BTS used on tour. There would have been less danger of awkwardly missing the realism mark, and it could have better achieved the drama I associate with their Dionysus performances.

This exhibition was extensive. There is so much more I could talk about.

There was the rectangular room of looping (muted) dance practice videos, over 60 videos in total displayed on only two walls. I could go on about how the sheer amount of content shown in such a small, relatively enclosed space gave me a feeling of the unfathomable hours BTS have spent rehearsing in their seven-plus-year career. About how this content was transformed and re-contextualized by the added text in the space: lyrics from “Black Swan,” a song about the fear of losing one’s passion for music, as well as the same Martha Graham quote featured in Black Swan’s art film video: “A dancer dies twice — once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.” How the effect of this room was made even more rich and complicated by the background music: “Zero O’Clock,” which speaks of struggles (some even directly related to performing) but is ultimately uplifting.

I could talk more about the very beginning of the exhibition: an entryway which led guests through the Magic Shop doors of a giant BTS logo, the significance of that visual metaphor (especially for a virtual experience), and the importance of having such a strong, striking opening.

But allow me to end here, with a reflection on my favorite part.

On the back wall of a set-piece from the “Boy with Luv” music video, there was an open doorway. The doorway framed an image of one of the towering panthers from the opening stage set of BTS’ tour. The darkness beyond the door contrasted appealingly with the bright blue wall trimmed with neon yellow. As I passed through the door and the full image of the stage came into view, the video began to play, and I heard the heart-pounding first notes of “Dionysus.” I remembered what it felt like to be at their concert after weeks of anticipation, realizing the show was finally starting, that BTS had finally appeared. The virtual room I had entered was a dark theater with video playing on three walls, each showing a different angle of the performance. I happily watched the full song. Their performance of “Boy with Luv,” a song from the middle of the setlist, played next. After that, it showed the last song of their concert, the transcendent “Mikrokosmos.” And here I was, just a few days after the virtual concert weekend, still processing everything that meant: the joy of being able to watch from home and the loss of what we were supposed to have experienced in person.

Although the theater was not the most technically interesting aspect of the exhibition, as a music fan it’s hard to beat the experience of reliving the full emotional arc of a concert in a matter of minutes. It also demonstrates one of the things I feel represents BTS at their best: when content (songs, video, anything really) is organized in a way that tells a story. That is what an exhibition should do, too. Last year’s pop up exhibition tackled this goal (and other in-person logistics) by creating a linear sequence of rooms through which you could only move forward. It takes a different kind of design work to achieve that story-telling effect when visitors can freely move around, like what is done for theme parks or in open-world video games, or indeed for some physical exhibitions. And it’s not easy to do. But it’s worth it. Because it was in those moments when I felt like I was being taken on a journey—even for a short time, or through one small corner of the space—that I felt the deepest connection to what the exhibition offered.

BTS Exhibition – Map of the Soul ON:E 오,늘’ was open from October 13 to November 12, 2020.

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