Artist's Statement: The vanishing community of haenyeo all-women seaworkers on a Pacific island

| 07 November 2015 | Updated: 06 November 2015

Artist’s Statement: Mikhail Karikis is the artist behind SeaWomen, a video and sound installation about a fast-vanishing community of elderly sea workers living on the North Pacific island of Jeju

A photo of a group of Korean women in wetsuits preparing to dive into the Pacific
© Mikhail Karikis
"The haenyeo are a little-known, significant group of female sea-workers on the North Pacific island of Jeju. It’s a small patch of volcanic land floating between South Korea, China and Japan.

I was visiting the island with a South Korean artist-friend. She had told me it had an astounding number of 380 volcanoes – all extinct.

As we were driving along the jagged coast I heard a high-pitch sound that resembled something between a whale signal and a bird-cry. The sound was wafting toward us from the sea where I saw a small pod of black swimming silhouettes.

I had never seen or heard so many seals before. I stopped the car and announced that I was going to observe them. My friend rolled her eyes and said, “they are humans.” As I approached the shore, the black silhouettes and their extraordinary sounds became more mysterious.

A photo of a group of Korean women in wetsuits preparing to dive into the Pacific
© Mikhail Karikis
A quest central to my art work has been to research the reasons for the production of vocal sounds which are beyond language and its rules. I would like to think of these sounds as somewhat anarchic, as rebels.

Operating outside the currents of modernisation, the haenyeo are an ancient and fast-vanishing community that now consists predominantly of 60-to-90 year-old women who dive to depths of up to 20 metres with no oxygen supply to catch seafood, collect seaweed and find pearls.

This is a gendered profession practiced only by females. A physiological explanation is the distribution of fat in women’s bodies, which insulates them against the cold and allows them to stay in the sea for as long as eight hours, even during the coldest winter months.

A cultural reason is the attitude toward exposing the flesh and nudity, which was considered to be degrading and was reserved for poor women of low social status; the haenyeo profession was a social stigma.

A photo of a group of Korean women in wetsuits preparing to dive into the Pacific
© Mikhail Karikis
A socio-political factor which contributed to the growth of this women-only profession, paradoxically, is the sexism in Confucian law which, until the beginning of last century, did not recognise female labour, excluding the heanyeo from taxation.

Thus, the diving women engaged in a low-status profession and worked against the will of the state, but brought their untaxed income back home.

A haenyeo may dive up to 80 times a day. Each dive lasts up to two minutes and is punctuated by a combination of sounds, including a high-pitched breathy shriek or whistle; an arguably spontaneous ‘vocal firework’ bursting out of the mouth, which one might mistake for a dolphin or a bird call.

At once alarming and joyous, this sound is as thin as a blade marking the horizon between life and death. The diving women make a living by constantly negotiating the limits of that which sustains them, their breath.

A photo of a group of Korean women in wetsuits preparing to dive into the Pacific
© Mikhail Karikis
But they come prepared. They are equipped with the sumbisori: an ancient breathing technique, which has been practiced for centuries. It was taught by one generation to the next, when new girls started diving at the young age of eight or nine.

The little research that exists on the physiology of the sumbisori reveals that the technique entails exhaling very rapidly all the carbon dioxide accumulated in the body, and quickly inhaling fresh oxygen.

The lungs of the haenyeo shrink from the pressure in the depths and, hungry for air when the diver resurfaces, they expand, causing a violent inhalation and a high-pitched wheezy whistling gasp. These sounds occupy high frequencies above the noise of the sea and are easily identifiable.

The haenyeo have limited vision above water, resulting from the accumulation of condensation in their underwater masks or because of high waves. Therefore, when the women work in the sea, the sounds of the haenyeo could be said to function as aural signals and acoustic location markers which inform the rest of the diving group of each other’s location.

A photo of a group of Korean women in wetsuits preparing to dive into the Pacific
© Mikhail Karikis
To the trained ear of a haenyeo, each sumbisori has a distinctive sound; it is thus a unique acoustic signature, a sonorous ‘identity card’ for each haenyeo, which is produced in the individual mouth and body of each woman.

The sumbisori with its aural production is a work skill – a specific craft which, until at least the 1970s, a young hanyeo began to learn as a young girl and took years to perfect. Like a carpenter who teaches his craft to his son, a haenyeo taught the craft of breathing and diving to her daughter.

The sumbisori is a gender-specific skill that is trans-generationally transmitted, creating an inter-generational sonic bond that ties the community and functions as a sonic signifier of their professional identity.

The professional identity of the haenyeo is connected with the production of unique sounds and vocal practices. In a conversation with the haenyeo researcher Dr Cha HyeKyoung, she informed me that the word sumbisori, literally translated as breath-sound, is also parallel to the word ‘overcoming.’

What did the haenyeo have to ‘overcome’? They were significant motivators of the anti-Japanese resistance movement last century and witnessed the large loss of the male population on the island after the fall of Japanese rule, when American and South Korean forces massacred those suspected of supporting the reunification with North Korea.

It is therefore impossible to listen to the sounds of the sumbisori without thinking of these traumatic events on Jeju island. Beyond its physiological necessity, the sumbisori also becomes charged with communal trauma and the working through of suffering.

I think of the bodily sounds of the sumbisori as a complex cultural sound-object. It is the product of a women’s subculture operating within a specific political, geographical and historical specificity.

During the 1970s it was the leading economic force on the island, creating an economic and social system in which women occupied leading roles – a glimpse of matriarchy in an otherwise patriarchal and sexist Korean society.

But the scale of fishing has changed radically since then, while the women insist on traditional and sustainable (and for some eco-feminist) practices outside the mainstream of industrialisation.

Pollution and the warming of the seas have diminished haenyeo’s profits, and occupational hazards prevent it from being a popular career choice. There are no encouraging economic circumstances that could transform the future of this profession and provide the right incentives for younger women to engage in it.

Certainly, the older haenyeos whom I interviewed invested their money in their daughters’ education, so that the younger generation of women would not have to experience the same hardships.

The profession is declining as the old haenyeo die out and it is hard to envisage the aural practices of the haenyeo community, which form a unique sonic subculture interconnected with skill, without their regular professional practice at sea.

However, as each inhalation is followed by an exhalation, the work practiced by the haenyeo is in a state of perpetual incompletion. This is being negotiating a vacuum. Becoming filled and becoming empty.

This is what the sound of the haenyeo breathing technique suggests – becoming full of oxygen and life, and letting go of life. Like being pregnant and giving birth; holding the mysteries of labour and life-bearing. This esoteric dimension of their community is best expressed in the shamanic practices of the haenyeo.

The activities of the sea-women of Jeju provide an unparalleled representation of the elderly female body as one which has agency, is active, productive and dynamic. And their sounds are a sonic composition of the communal – of a self-organised trans-vocal democracy. They are showing us a hopeful model of purposeful existence that is beyond the capitalist mainstream.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three exhibitions to see this winter

The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
Another Minimalism: Art after California Light and Space brings the work of a select group of well known current-generation artists together with that of two pioneers of West Coast American minimalism, examining the impact of California Light and Space art on artists working today. Until February 21 2016.

Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston
Art from Elsewhere: International Contemporary Art from UK Galleries addresses topical issues such as migration, trade and exchange, social tensions, life in conflict zones and failed ideas of utopia.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter
Two of the UK’s leading figures in contemporary art - Sonia Boyce and Serena Korda - are united for Artist Reflections, installing a figure called Oscar with the venue's George V tiger display.
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