This is a review of the opening of Mikhail Karikis' exhibition at Artspace C, Jeju City. Click here for a previously published two-part interview with the artist by Anne Hilty. - Ed.
“I thought they were actually dolphins or seals…[it was] not quite a human sound,” Mikhail Karikis says of the first time he heard the “sumbisori,” the high-pitched whistle produced by the haenyeo, Jeju’s women divers. Karikis, a UK-based artist and academic specializing in human sounds that exist outside of syntax, immediately recognized the importance of what he what he was hearing.
This moment along the Jeju coast led to the creation of SeaWomen, a film installation depicting the haenyeo that premiered in the UK in 2012 and which opened on May 9 at Artspace C, Jeju City.
SeaWomen features footage of the haenyeo played over the sounds of their community. Many sounds, most notably the sumbisori, are never seen in their production, thus creating an almost spiritual distance between the visible location and the spirit of the community.
It is the sumbisori which forms the artistic centerpiece of the film. In a recording for the Jeju opening of SeaWomen, Karikis says, “This is a very unique phenomenon that you can’t find anywhere else…[the sumbisori] is a cultural product of the community of the haenyeo.”
He writes that the sound carries with it the tradition of the haenyeo’s role in resisting imperialism, as well as the bodily significance of an entirely female community passing down a tradition of breathing through generations of mothers and daughters.
The cinematography balances the juxtaposition of the bleak seas and the bright, almost gaudy aesthetic of the haenyeo. One shot features a haenyeo seated amid pink plastic stools against a background of dark volcanic stone; another shows only a patterned sock atop a patterned floor mat.
Yet paradoxically, it is this very juxtaposition that makes the haenyeo seem such a natural part of their environment – not despite, but because of the plastic bags that hold their catch, the haenyeo are shown to be as much a part of coastline as the shore crabs that move on split frames, or the dolphins or seals for which Karikis had first mistaken these women.
▲ Mikhail Karikis at Artspace C on an earlier visit to Jeju. His SeaWomen will be showing at gallery until May 27. Photo by Anne Hilty
SeaWomen also features still photography, as well as a number of watercolor portraits of haenyeo. Karikis created each portrait in the space of a single breath, thus connecting his work to the work of his haenyeo subjects. Jeju-based scholar Anne Hilty, in her opening comments for SeaWomen, aptly described the creation of these portraits as “a deeply meditative and almost prayer-like act.”
The interplay of sounds such as the sumbisori with footage of rough seas, crowded tables, and spreads of colorful marine organisms creates a sense of comfort and solidarity even in an externally harsh environment.
There is no overt show of strength over the ocean in SeaWomen. Instead, the most powerful aspect of the footage is the way in which it makes a workspace, such as that of the Jeju coastline, seem entirely casual.
The haenyeo move seamlessly between water and rocky coast, but their action is its own assertion. In a location where the haenyeo are often glamorized for purposes of tourism, such a portrayal is deeply refreshing.
Anne Hilty introduced SeaWomen to its first Jeju audience by telling of the effect it had upon audiences in the UK:
“People in attendance often remained seated long after the video had ended, in silent contemplation and too overcome with emotion to leave… many reported that they were deeply touched to see elderly women in such a powerful and engaged and purposeful role in their communities, not forgotten or meaningless, but every bit as important as the goddesses of their mythology.”
Karikis’ goal, according to Hilty, is to “let the world hear the voice and the sounds of these extraordinary women.” Thanks to SeaWomen, the sounds of the haenyeo have reached audiences across continents. Now, those sounds have at last returned to Jeju.
SeaWomen by Mikhail Karikis
May 9 (Fri) to 27 (Wed)
Art Space C, 3/4F, Jungangno 69, Jeju-City
Special Program May 14. (Wed) 7pm
A discussion between Dr. Hong Sunyoung and haenyeo from Daepyeong Village, Seogwipo City
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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