Mikhail Karikis, a Greek artist based in London, has created “Seawomen,” a video installation focused on the sound architecture of Jeju haenyeo.
Karikis recently returned to Jeju in order to arrange a show of his work on the island, accompanied by Tom Trevor, director of Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts in Bristol, UK, where 'Seawomen' has shown. Below is my conversation with the artist, including guest comments by Trevor. – AH
[Part two of this two-part interview is available here.] --
AH: Please bring us up to date on the development of 'Seawomen'.
MK: Following my last visit to Jeju, when I went back to my studio I looked through hours and hours of footage which had been filmed during three different trips and in three different seasons. I was trying to find a way to construct any kind of consummate manifest that made sense. The idea that I was working towards was that of essaic work; this is what I wanted to present to audiences, a day at work for a haenyeo, in sound and in images. And so I worked with this in mind, and I created 'chapters'; there are 5 moving image chapters that follow different haenyeo communities: the ones that go on the boat and are more highly skilled, slightly younger ones, some very old ones, going out [on the boat] and going into the sea, diving – so there's underwater footage, coming back, coming into the camp. There's another sequence of a camp that was deserted, because that day they were on strike, and I feel that this is also a part of work, to fight for the right to work for equal pay. Then in terms of sound material, it became 5 chapters, and it traces, in a very edited way, different moments of their day. So – diving when the sea is calm, and the sound of sumbisori, returning and having a bath and the sound environment in that, singing in the camp, cooking, and then debating.
AH: Did you note any themes or motifs along the way?
MK: I wonder if you could be more specific.
AH: Well, generally, themes attributed to the haenyeo might be, living with the environment, a sense of purpose, wellness in one's later years – and motifs might be more along the lines of women in community, or women's cultural spaces.
MK: Well, obviously the theme of women's work was from the beginning very apparent in the work, but this is almost too obvious. And there were other themes that came up throughout the process, one of them being the notion of work in relation to old age; the notion of purpose and also fun at work, and in old age, is something that we're not familiar with. And the representation of female bodies, active female bodies, in their 70s and 80s, is something that we're also not very familiar with. And that is a theme that runs throughout the work. Obviously, there are a lot of other parallel themes as you've mentioned: community, activism – I was very struck by their democratic debates in the camps, and I started thinking about the sounds they created within that context, which really completely shifted my thinking of their community. I started thinking of that particular part of their aural culture as the transphonic composition of democracy. Democracy is very noisy, it's very clamorous and messy, and I really appreciated witnessing and documenting that. There are motifs that I guess maybe tie in with mythology to some extent, so there's the idea of women and their elemental connection with water and the sea, and the sub-autocratic kind of environment, was something that became apparent as I was editing the material. I was able to express it further in the first installation of the work by installing the video in a certain separate chamber that people had to go into, to dive into, also having the installation in dark space, that people descended or went down into. So there were these ideas of the descent, going down to a different world, whatever that world might be. Of course, it is a very political and real world, but there is another dimension to it which is more mythical.
Karikis at Artspace C, owner Ahn Hyekyoung, with works by Jeju artists Yang Mi-kyoung (haenyeo painting) and Kim Young-hun (dongjaseok sculpture). Photo by Anne Hilty
AH: Where has it been installed to date?
MK: It was first shown in London, in a space called The Wapping Project which is a former hydraulic pumping station, so there was a site specificity to this installation. This space had once been flooded with water, so I filled it with 'water', that is, through the sound and image of water. After that, it was installed in public space, in a museum called Arnolfini, which is in Bristol, and the work took a slightly different form; the video material was divided into 5 different screens. And then after that, it was shown in a coastal place called Aldeburgh, within the context of Benjamin Britten's centenary. So that's where it's been shown so far.
AH: And how about audience reception?
MK: It's been great! I was slightly overwhelmed in London, because I didn't expect people to be so moved, and I didn't expect people to spend so much time in the installation. To actually feel and experience the material takes about half an hour, but some people would stay for over an hour – and I started getting worried that they had fallen asleep or something. But then I had conversations with some of them, which were very interesting. So audience reception was particularly positive. I found that women had a kind of different relationship to the work than men.
AH: Maybe a closer identification?
MK: They felt an identification, I think, yeah. And also – they were moved, but at the same time, there were some women that told me they felt empowered, in that there were actual representations of older women's bodies that are active, and they're celebrated.
AH: Tom, can I ask you about the experience [of showing “Seawomen”] in your gallery, Arnolfini, and your perception of that?
TT: Well, it was interesting, it was a different installation from Wapping; Wapping was quite a vast hall and the main visual separates off from the sound. But what Mikhail did in our space, it still was an immersive sound environment, and the visual monitors surrounded you, so you still had the sense that you were on a rock [in the sea] as you were on the mats in the middle of this soundscape, and you could also look around, surrounded by the video work. And again, people were very moved, in this emotive and physical experience. Lots of people were quite, sort of, tearful. I could probably talk about that in lots of different ways, as something, I don't know, about object relations, and the oceanic, and there's something about death, too. But generally, it was a really positive response--
MK: --coming so close to, engaging with a profession that's so close to death--
TT: --the idea of death, or of losing yourself in the sea, how it should be.
MK: Yeah. There's a storm scene which is particularly terrifying, and I exaggerated the bass sound, which made the experience of the sound really physical, you actually felt the vibrations in your body, and there was someone who wrote a review and said he actually started feeling nauseous—it's a very visceral experience. I felt that when we showed it in Arnolfini, there was a more precise sound picture, because of the space being slightly more dry, so I thought that was a very interesting difference.
TT: One of the reasons we want to show it in Korea, well, in Jeju, but also in Seoul, is because of its particular relationship to this culture of work and productivity that's so strong in this part of the world. So to me, this piece talks about – well, maybe 'matriarchy' is not quite the right word, but this strong women's community, and a working community, and my impression is of that, within this patriarchal world, this sort of Confucian order that's very dedicated to productivity, and so I've been interested since back before he completed the work. We talked about how to try to bring it here last September to coincide it with the Gwangju Biennale, but it was a bit of a rush. But I think it would be interesting to see it almost as a disturbance of this kind of working culture. So as a curator we talked about placing it in those kinds of spaces, within the office culture.
AH: I might add an overlay to that, something to think about as you continue this process of development, and that is that the shamanism – which is not exactly indigenous but very longstanding – the shamanism is really the antithesis of the Confucian order, and there's been a longstanding ideological and sometimes even a more physical battle between those two grounds. The haenyeo are absolutely and utterly integrated into the shamanic system and vice versa, and Confucianism didn't really take hold on this island very much, except in inland pockets because of exiles from the mainland who were sent here by some of the kings. So that dichotomy is strong, and to insert something from this island in general and from the haenyeo and the shamanic culture in particular – there's quite a lot of shamanism in the mainland, but this is a different experience of that – to insert that, then, into the core of the mainland by way of Seoul--
TT: Yeah, one could see it as a sort of interruption of that. We see this global consumerism as a kind of tsunami, just homogenizing everything in its wake, in this cloned sort of world. And it's interesting because as soon as you try to cling onto heritage, it seems like you've lost the battle and it becomes a kind of simulation of its former self; there has to be a more urgent resistance. So it's quite interesting, in each context we have to be sort of 'zen' about the presentation. In England, this show of haenyeo could become exoticized, but it hasn't felt like that; in Seoul, it could become rather nostalgic, sort of 'heritagized,' and it mustn't do that – it must be something that's active, and current.
AH: Yes, timely. And relevant.
TT: And that's what I think is the charge of this work, as a disruption of this culture of productivity.
AH: And maybe that's part of the haenyeo's current role in this society, to be a pivot to bring some enlightenment for what is being lost and what could be maintained, rather than trying to scramble to regain or recreate it afterward.
AH: It's now in the last throes of being maintained. I don't even mean their profession itself, but the very idea of maintaining a certain amount of tradition rather than separating it from the modern society and just calling it 'heritage'.
TT: I'll just say one more thing. There's a philosopher called Felix Guattari who talks about the three ecologies. (He's dead now, but it was a late essay.) And he's saying that as well as kind of destroying the planet, and also destroying our society – all our bonds breaking down, that it's also destroying our own subjectivity, our mental health, our mind that's dying due to this homogenizing process. And he says that we need to look to the artists as a way of singularizing our reality. So if we're looking for an interruption in this homogenizing consumer culture, and something to combat this awful exaltation of productivity, we need the artists to bring that particularity, and add to that the grit of their particular voice, if you will.
[Part two of this two-part interview is available here.] – Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home.
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