SeaWomen – part three of Work Quartet


SeaWomen, the third part of Mikhail Karkis’s Work Quartet, is a video and sound installation focusing on a fast vanishing community of elderly female sea workers living on the North Pacific island of Jeju – a jagged patch of black volcanic rock located between Japan and China yet part of South Korea. The work was created during Karikis’s residency on the island, when he encountered a group of women called haenyeo (sea-women), now in their late 70s and 80s, who dive to great depths with no oxygen supply to find pearls and catch sea-food. This ancient female profession became the dominant economic force on the island by the 1970s, establishing a matriarchal system. Karikis’s project SeaWomen witnesses the diving women’s insistence on sustainable eco-feminist work practices operating outside the trend 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.

The Installation

SeaWomen is experienced as an immersive twelve-speaker audiovisual installation that evokes the immediate aural environment of a typical working day – diving from the rocks and a boat; selling and sharing their catch; sorting their nets etc. The audio scenes include a rhythmic rowing work-song; the reverberant hubbub of the women’s communal baths and a sudden violent thunderstorm during a pearl-diving expedition and the sumbisori, which is the striking high-pitched and dolphin-like whistling noises of the diving women’s traditional breathing technique. Often mistaken for noises produced by sea-mammals, this unique breathing technique is a trans-generational skill transmitted from mother to daughter, when a new pearl-diver began her training at the age of eight. This soundscape, along with the women’s profession are on the verge of disappearance.

The clip above is from the installation of SeaWomen at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, UK. The work was presented as a 12-speaker sound installation with 5 cube monitors scattered across the floor, each monitor playing one of the five chapters from the film.

This clip is documentation of the premiere of SeaWomen at The Wapping Project, London, UK. The installation consisted of: 1) watercolour portraits of some of the diving women, 2) 12 sound speakers, 3) a single screen HD video projection and 4) a seating area made of woven mats using indigenous plants and methods from Jeju island.

The Single-Breath Portraits

Along with the installation, Karikis composed a series of ink and watercolour portraits depicting the elderly female pearl divers of Jeju island.  Each portrait was completed while Karikis held a single breath.