There was already a palpable sense of excitement in the air among the many fans lined up outside Sydney’s Halatian Agency when I arrived in the late morning of Saturday 11th January.
We were all here to attend Push and Pull: Jimin and Jungkook, the first exhibition in Sydney of the photography of BTS fansite Rotiful. Many of these passionate ARMYs had pre-purchased VVIP tickets and had been lining up since the early morning, chatting together about BTS’ upcoming comeback on February 21st.
Invited to attend by the organisers, below I will introduce the event and briefly reflect on what fan exhibits such as Push and Pull reveal about K-Pop fandom in Australia.
Push and Pull is, according to both organisers and attendees alike, the very first fansite exhibition in Australia. It was organised by a group of passionate ARMYs from UNSW along with the support of various Australian BTS fan collectives. Exhibitions of fansite photography are a common occurrence in Korea, forming part of a sophisticated culture of fan events through which ARMY (as well as other K-Pop fandoms) celebrate the idols who they adore.
Typically, these exhibitions display hard-copy images that fansites circulate in soft copy online, as well as selling fan-produced merchandise. Such exhibitions are important meeting places in South Korea for fans who often only interact virtually on social media and provide important opportunities to buy fan-merch and swap stories.
The organisers of Push and Pull explained to me that they were keen to run such events in Sydney to bring this fan culture to Australia and provide more opportunities for ARMY to celebrate their love of BTS. The organisers also believed that an exhibition such as Push and Pull had the power to raise awareness of Australian ARMY fandom in South Korea, seeing their event as an important opportunity to raise the profile of Australia as a venue for BTS-related events.
Needless to say, their biggest hope was that the event may attract the attention of Big Hit Entertainment and therefore demonstrate that there is a market in Australia for another BTS concert. Speaking to one organiser, they also mentioned a much more pragmatic reason for running the event: if the aim is to run more such exhibitions in the future, Push and Pull represents an important opportunity to practice so that Australian fans can learn about the complicated logistics of organising such events.
Before the show officially opened, I had the opportunity to browse through the exhibition. The gallery was spacious and Rotiful’s photos had been displayed along two large walls, hung at just the right height for fans to take selfies with Jimin and Jungkook (something that the organisers hoped people would do – the event was designed to be interactive!).
There was a mix of individual portraits of the two idols on stage as well as couple shots showing off the two boys’ close friendship. The photos were mounted professionally and were printed in high quality (and were available for purchase). As an ARMY who biases Jungkook, I happily took a few selfies and found myself fanboying over both of the boys’ good looks and talent. There were some truly devastatingly cute photos of Jimin that also made my heart flutter!
Eventually the doors to the gallery opened and the fans entered the venue. But before any of them made their way to the exhibition floor, they made a bee-line to the registration desk where the VVIP ticket holders were able to collect the large array of merch available for those who had pre-ordered a ticket.
This merchandise – which included photocards, pendants, posters, an acrylic fan and the almost standard supsleeve – was of exceptionally high quality and well worth the price. Ticket holders were also able to buy extra merch not included in their ticket, including a high quality book of all the photos being exhibited, photocard sets for Jimin and Jungkook, pouches and keyrings. Much to the organizers and my surprise, most of this merch sold out in the first 20 minutes! It’s important to note that sales of merch were not for profit, with the organisers explaining to me that these sales helped cover the costs of hiring the venue and importing the art from Seoul.
Over the day, I spoke to many of the ARMY who had come to visit the exhibition and who were busy taking photos of the art (including the predicted selfies). Many were also swapping stories about either the Jay Park concert held the night before at Newtown’s Enmore Theatre or the “I Heart K-pop” club night held in the city. I even met fans who had travelled from interstate for whom this trip represented a “K-pop holiday”!
The common story I heard from ARMY attending the exhibition was that they wanted to support anything related to BTS and were excited by the prospect of future exhibitions of fan photography and art in Australia. One fan explained to me that since there are so few opportunities to participate in K-pop related events in Sydney, she would go to any and every event possible that allowed her to celebrate something which her normal group of friends didn’t quite understand. Another pragmatic fan told me that because it had been a long time since BTS had visited Sydney, coming and taking selfies with Rotiful’s photos of Jungkook and Jimin (her bias) was the next best thing to seeing them.
There were also a few people who had come to the event to celebrate the friendship between Jungkook and Jimin, and I met a number of ARMY who were fans of what is known as the “Jikook” ship. For these fans, the photos of the two idols together interacting cutely were the highlight of the exhibition, allowing them to celebrate the strong friendship between the two. Although the organisers explained to me that the event was not a shipping event, for those who choose to celebrate BTS fandom through shipping, Push and Pull was an unmissable opportunity to meet other Jikookers, share stories and enjoy the interactions between Jimin and Jungkook.
Overall, the organisers were extremely pleased with the success of the event. They told me they had managed to sell around 150 pre-booked tickets, matching numbers for similar events in places like Hong Kong and Tokyo. Fans seemed happy too, many particularly impressed by the high quality fan merch. These fans – as well as myself – hope to see more such exhibitions here in the future (and hopefully in other cities too!).
Thomas Baudinette is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Macquarie University. Among other projects, he examines Australian consumers of Japanese and Korean pop culture and LGBTQ+ K-pop fans. His biases are Yoongi and Jungkook. You can learn more about his work here.