[Mikhail Karikis, a Greek artist based in London, has created “Seawomen,” a video installation focused on the sound architecture of Jeju haenyeo. Tom Trevor, director of Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol where “Seawomen” has shown, accompanied him in his recent return visit to Jeju. This is Part 3 of our conversation; Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 here.]
[Part one of this two-part interview is available here.]
AH: In this context, it might interest you to know that there is a current trend – from marketing to everything else – but there's a current powerful trend on the word 'healing'. And this is a society – by which I mean not just Jeju but all of Korea – with multi-layered trauma for an entire century, including the last part of the century which saw too-swift development in a post-conflict society that wasn't prepared for that. And so you've got an entire century of trauma, and ten years ago a first attempt at “well-being” and “LOHAS” movement, but that assumes a baseline of health and now there's some realization, and growing realization, that the baseline of health isn't there. And there's a great deal of mental distress. So there's this sudden – you'll see it everywhere – this sudden urge and almost an overuse of the word “healing” – but of all words one could choose, I'm all for the overuse of that one. So there's a shift in consciousness going on right now.
TT: Well, yes, and of course, throughout the massacre, the haenyeo kept the whole society going, and they've been a kind of foundation. And rather than go into a nostalgic and heritage view of that, we need the haenyeo to –
AH: – to understand their deeper purpose, you should pardon the expression.
MK: Actually, in relation to this, one thing that I was very interested in when I was surrounded by the haenyeo and their work was the degree of intuitive work and wildness, and this connection with nature and the elements, and their self-sufficiency. I'm not interested in creating a project that preserves it, I'm not interested in heritage, it's not really about that. It's more about how – by observing that, witnessing that, experiencing that – can it change the way in which we operate? And although it was very hard working on this project, I think that for the first time in my work as an artist I felt hope, I have to say. I feel that my work before the haenyeo project was quite bleak, but after the haenyeo project, I felt that if there can be a community that can operate independently, to a certain degree, against the current trend of globalization, even though they're vanishing, there is a glimmer of hope that we can see a small model, a small example, of how that is possible. And I feel that a lot of things that are happening in Europe – I'm not very familiar with other parts of the world – but artists' movements, some of the ones that connect with food processing and other things like that, or environmental issues, in a way follow a very similar model to that of the haenyeo. And I found that particularly empowering and hopeful.
MK: Yesterday we met the director of the Stone Culture Park, and he said that he's very disappointed with the current aesthetic of the haenyeo community: the aesthetic of what they wear, and even their breathing, the sound of the soul, is not the same any longer. And I actually felt very happy about that, I felt very happy – he was not very keen on the clash of the different patterns, the floral pattern on the plastic floor with imitation mats and multicolored socks and rubber suits [depicted on the 'Seawomen' program cover] – but I actually find that very interesting, because they are able to somehow adopt these things but still retain a kind of integrity. And there's something very contemporary about – I find some of their aesthetics, their choices, very funky, actually.
AH: Yes, there's nothing quite like – and I've seen this several times – there's nothing quite like, rather than seeing her coming out of the sea, when diving in a place a little bit away from the haenyeo facility, you see a very fat grandma in a wetsuit with her goggles on top of her head riding in on her motorbike with a big bag of sea urchins on the seat behind her. I love that.
MK: It's a kind of clash of different moments in time.
AH: Yes. They're managing their former ways, but in new contexts. And they're able to incorporate just enough modernity without sacrificing too much –
MK: Yeah, without actually compromising the integrity of their practice. And I think that's great, actually!
AH: Moving on, where is your installation expected to show from now?
MK: The next stop is a museum called Nottingham Contemporary, which is in the UK, between July and September, and then after that, it's going to Essex, in the context of a festival called “Shoreline” – the one in Nottingham is called “Aquatopia” – and then it's going to Sydney, in the context of the Biennale of Sydney, Australia, from March until June of 2014.
Karikis at Bonte Museum. Photo by Anne Hilty
AH: But you're hoping to have it here before that.
MK: We are hoping to bring it to Korea before that. Oh, I forgot Mexico. It's showing in Mexico in April, in connection with the Jacques Cousteau Foundation.
MK: So it's a show that connects with the sea, and marine life, and will be in Mexico. Oh – and it was shortlisted for a show in Rome, where they actually saw the work, but for various reasons I had to withdraw from installing it. However, the work was seen by a panel of curators and was shortlisted for an international art prize.
AH: You will have a show especially for the haenyeo? Or have you shown it, or even parts of it, to any of them?
MK: I haven't shown it to any of them – this is my first time in Jeju since I finished the project, because my schedule has been quite busy, and I'm here because I'm hoping to fix dates for the shows, to make the work accessible to the haenyeo. And if that doesn't materialize, I'm determined to make a DVD, a shorter, edited version of it, and take it from one camp to another to show it on their televisions.
AH: And there's the possibility of the haenyeo festival in the fall.
MK: Of course.
AH: Ultimately, what is your hope for this project? And, what is your ultimate wish for the haenyeo community? You've expressed a lot of the latter aspect already.
MK: For the project, once an artist creates a piece of work, usually they hope that the work will receive some sort of visibility, that it reaches wide audiences and for the audiences to appreciate the work as a work of art but also the themes that are presented in the work. So far, I'm very happy that the work has been presented in very good contexts and that it's going to be in the biennale context so it will receive a lot of publicity and will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. So I'm very happy about that.
AH: And your hopes for the haenyeo community? You've talked quite a lot about it already, so I'm wondering what more you would like to add.
MK: I hope for the haenyeo to find a way to achieve some kind of recognition and happiness within their community. I don't think it's for the state, or for me, or for anyone else to determine what's to become of the haenyeo community. They are perfectly capable to lead their own future. We just need to create, and this is what I think I'm trying to create, the right kind of ground for people to receive that, to understand what the haenyeo might wish or the context of their wishes. And I think that sometimes in politics, positions are taken that are really removed from the actual reality on a particular profession or community. So if we become sensitized to what their work is about, and what their community is about, then we might be more accepting of the decisions that they might want to take, that the haenyeo community might want to take for their community.
AH: Which is really ultimate empowerment, rather than doing anything for them. And that leads me to my last question, and it's a big question for me and my work as well, and that is, how can you give them a voice – in this case, an international voice – but I know your focus is on giving disempowered communities a voice in whatever ways you can through your own work, and of course there are many ways to give them a voice. But how to give them that voice of their own, rather than becoming that voice for them?
MK: Yeah, in a way that's what I've said. To paraphrase, I'm not speaking for them; I'm not interested in that. What I hope for my work to do is to sensitize people, because I think it has a very sensitive approach to their community, to sensitize people to their issues, to their work, their community, and the themes that are important to them.
AH: Thank you, Mikhail. For your interest in Jeju haenyeo, for your deep understanding of the significance of their community and its purpose in the cultural narrative, and for your beautiful and meaningful portrayal of these 'sea women'.
– Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home.
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