HD video, stereo sound, 16 min
Courtesy the artist
SeaWomen focuses on the work and unique sonic sub-culture of a community of elderly female sea laborers called haenyeo who live on the isle of Jeju?a jagged patch of black volcanic rock that belongs to South Korea and floats between Japan and China. The majority of these women are between 60 and 80 years old and practice an ancient breathing technique? the sumbisori?which was passed on from one generation to another when girls began to be trained at the age of eight, and enables the women to dive to great depths for pearls and seafood. At once alarming and joyous, and often mistaken for birds or dolphin whistles, the sound of the sumbisori is as sharp as a blade marking the horizon between life and death in the dangerous daily life of the haenyeo. This low-status female profession was a social stigma but became the dominant economic force on the island by the 1970s, establishing a matriarchal system in an otherwise male-dominated society. However, reduced quantities of pearls and the pressures of globalization in the last three decades have marginalized the community. Now these sea women and their profession are on the verge of disappearance.
Mikhail Karikis’s audiovisual installation creates an immersive experience. Through sound and image it depicts the old women’s day at work, their collective activities, and the reverberant noise of their communal spaces. The dangers of the work of the haenyeo become vivid in Karikis’s recording of a sudden violent thunderstorm during a pearl-diving expedition, which is followed by a lively traditional work-song recorded in the women’s camp.
Karikis’s SeaWomen witnesses the diving women’s insistence on sustainable eco-feminist work operating outside trends of industrialization. It observes the reversal of traditional gender-roles, the women’s deep sense of community and egalitarianism, their collective economics and their sense of professional identity, purpose, fun and independence in later age. [Mikhail Karikis]