Mikhail Karikis And The SeaWomen Of South Korea

SeaWomen (2012), Mikhail Karikis, Listening, Baltic 39, courtesy the artist

One of the stand-out works of new Hayward Touring sound art exhibition, Listening, artist Mikhail Karikis describes in his own words the making of his film SeaWomen: South Korea’s proud and diminishing community of female pearl divers who make the most unexpected, haunting sounds…

The film SeaWomen was shot in a place called Jeju, which is an island off the south coast of South Korea, in 2012. There is this unique women’s community there of ‘haenyeo’, or ‘sea women’, pearl divers; they were mostly in their 70s, but the oldest woman I met was 89. The rise of the temperature of the seas due to global warming has been detrimental to pearl oysters and the women no longer find any.

I was in South Korea and a friend of mine told me to go to the island of Jeju, because it’s a volcanic island. It’s got 380 volcanoes: not active, thank god! So we were driving around the island, and I heard a really high-pitched sound — a bit like a whistle or something like this — so I said stop, I want to see where this sound is coming from. It was coming from the sea. When I saw them, I thought they were seals, because they were wearing these rubber wetsuits – we realised they were humans. So I was really perplexed. I observed them for a while, and not only were they humans making this unreal sound, they were all elderly women. There were too many questions for me not to go back and spend three months living with them to find out more.

I was fascinated by the aural subculture the haenyeo have developed over the centuries, which they perform inside of the work camp using pots and pans and when they are out at sea, diving. What is very unique is their breathing technique, which is called ‘sumbisori’. This breathing technique allows them to dive down to 20 metres and is taught and transmitted trans-generationally from one woman to another; women usually start diving when they’re eight years old. The sound they make is very much like a dolphin or a bird-call, and it’s very specific to that community. It’s a really fascinating phenomenon.

“The haenyeo dive throughout the year and they stay in the water for about eight hours a day, even in the middle of winter, and they go up and down about 80 times a day. It’s incredible”

I found out during this time that the pearl divers created a matriarchal system in the 1970s and the economy of the island was based on pearl oyster income. There was an article in The Guardian about the community and the fact that they’re vanishing, because the profession is hazardous, it’s not as profitable any longer, and this generation is dying out. Younger women don’t want to do it. In fact, these women make sure that their daughters go to university and are educated so that they don’t have to engage in the same profession, which was (and still is) quite stigmatised, because it was reserved only for the lowest of the low of working class women; a stigmatised manual labour.

It is seen as women’s work for different reasons. Men like to say that the reasons are physiological, because of the distribution of fat in the female body which, supposedly, permits women to withstand colder temperatures for longer periods of time. So the haenyeo dive throughout the year and they stay in the water for about eight hours a day, even in the middle of winter, and they go up and down about 80 times a day. It’s incredible.

Another reason is because women’s work was not taxed traditionally; the women would bring all the money back to their families and men couldn’t do that. They had to engage in a form of labour that would bring the money back to the Japanese during the Japanese Empire. Also, there’s something to do with nudity. Now they wear the wetsuits, but that started in the 1960s; before that they only wore white linen pants: they didn’t wear any bras. So that’s another reason why it was stigmatised; it was considered to be a lowly thing to do and to engage in.

SeaWomen (2012), Mikhail Karikis, courtesy the artist

Also, this island suffered.  You might know about the 3rd April massacre on Jeju in 1948, connected with the split of the Korea. There was a revolt on this island, and a lot of people supported the reunification of Korea. In a short period of time, 30,000 people were murdered by South Korean forces in collaboration with the United State of America. So this generation of women, who lost many men, are also responsible for the rebuilding of the island.

Sumbisori, this word that I used to describe the breathing technique, also means ‘to overcome’. So when I had a conversation with the local researcher Dr Cha HaeKyoung about it I asked: “What do you mean overcome? How is that connected with anything?”

She answered: “Well, you need to think about history and what these women have had to overcome”.

So, in a way, the sounds they make, I began to think of them as a non-verbal expression of trauma, and the passing on of that memory of the trauma from one generation to another.

There is very little proper research. The aural recording of the sumbisori that I did for this installation is, to my knowledge, the only recording of this sound that exists.

“I’m not trying to tell the truth and I still want to preserve this mystery of the sound that they create… there is something very mythical about it”

However, this is not a documentary. There are documentary elements — because I follow the women and I document a day of their work — but there is no voiceover. I’m not trying to tell the truth and I still want to preserve this mystery of the sound that they create. It is very connected to work practice and professional identity, but there is something very mythical about it; so obviously, there is a connection between the women and the mythical sirens. There is something about the haenyeo going to the depths of the ocean and coming up again: re-emerging from the depths and making that sound. There is something alluring and evocative about that sound that I think appeals to the imagination.

There are lots of myths about women and the sea world. The Nordic myth of the song of the silkies, for instance: a myth about a seal that falls in love with a man. She makes a deal that she is given legs and feet to walk on the land, but she loses the power to speak. So there is always something about sound when the sea is involved throughout mythology. Interestingly, a lot of the old haenyeo cannot hear because they’ve just burst their ear drums far too many times from diving; the old ones are quite deaf.

The sea women said they had two fears: one is greed. So, if you’re down there, you think, ‘I can catch one more and one more’ – a temptation which can lead to drowning. The other is fishing nets. Unfortunately, in recent years, fishing in the Pacific Ocean has really expanded, and has become this industrial thing. There are stray fishing nets and there are a lot of incidents of women getting caught and drowning.

A couple of years ago, when we were trying to show SeaWomen in Korea, someone who worked in a museum asked me: “What do you think a foreign artist can show us about our culture that we don’t already know?” I thought it was an interesting comment. When you speak to most Koreans they all know what the haenyeo are, they know what they look like, but they know nothing about the sumbisori; the depth of these women’s subcultures, and the extent of their eco-feminist work practice, are quite unknown. So I’m very happy that this is showing at Media City Seoul/SeMA Biennale 2014 in South Korea now.

As told to Laura Robertson

Mikhail Karikis (b. 1975) lives and works in London. Karikis’s artworks have been exhibited internationally, including Biennale of Sydney (2014), Aichi Triennale, Japan(2013), Manifesta 9 (2012) and Venice Biennale (2011); and currently Children of Unquiet at Villa Romana Florence, Italy (2014). www.mikhailkarikis.com

Catch a one-off performance from Mikhail Karikis and Lina Lapelytė on Sunday 30 November 2014, 4-7pm (£6 & £4.50 concessions), at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead — book hereKarikis will present his recent audio-visual performance 102 Years Out of Synch, exploring the striking connections between the invention of sustainable energy production, Dante’s epic poem Inferno, the first Italian feature film, and the sonic imaginary of Hell.

See SeaWomen as part of the exhibition Listening: Curated by Sam Belinfante at Baltic 39, Newcastle, until 11 January 2015 — open Wed–Sun 12–6pm, Thu 12-8pm (free entry). Listening will then tour to the Bluecoat, Liverpool (24 January-29 March  2015); Site Gallery and Sheffield Institute of Arts (11 April-31 May 2015); and Norwich University of the Arts (19 July-17 October 2015)!

More on the SeMA Biennial here

Posted on 27/10/2014 by thedoublenegative