Take an ordinary thing and work it into a picture of society. It's a formula that worked well with Salt: A World History, in the East Enders tea making of Britain from Above and here in Spirit of Jang In: Treasures of Korean Metal Craft at the Powerhouse Museum. There are many nooks and crannies here known only to the devoted, and this show takes place in one of its lesser known niches upstairs on level 4. 'Jang In' means 'craftsman', and this exhibition takes you from older, golden treasures to the clean lines of modern Korean design using things of crafted metal as its theme.
A collection of golden artefacts dominates the first third of the exhibition. Older archaeological finds are arrayed in special glass cases: a horn-like golden ornament, a crown and a reconstructed saddle ornament decorate with only the wings of thousands of jewel beetles. Tiny figures of gold or bronze are engraved with all the delicateness of renaissance reliquaries — many are Korean reliquaries themselves. Beauty here is in the details, requiring much bending over and leaning in. But there are rewards in tiny wisps of gold which seem to have been accreted more than forged, or a seemingly art-deco metal Phoenix at rest on a flower blossom. These are joined by everyday things like dinner sets, or metal tableware whose use rotated with the seasons.
At the back is a collection of modern Korean pieces. It includes the stark, sharp edged designs of Lee Kwang-sun, a collection of work by local Korean Australians and Lee Kyung-ja's vision of Nirvana, a populated sea of miniature Buddhas each stained with the designs of a different dream. Whether you're at the Powerhouse for Love Lace, or seeking things Korean directly, there's really no excuse for not searching out this show's little hideaway.
Image: Cloisonné hair pin by Powerhouse Museum/National Museum of Korea.