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Living sounds of the seaLondon artist captures the unique songs and sounds of Jeju diving women
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승인 2012.03.20  10:18:31
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"I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I got so excited and said to the driver, 'Stop the car! I think I hear seals — there must be seals nearby!"

Greek artist Mikhail Karikis, based in London since 1993, thus described his first encounter with Jeju diving women, called haenyeo in Korean, in April of 2011: before seeing them or having even learned of their profession he heard the sumbisori, the eerie whistling sound that these diving women make upon surfacing in order to quickly expel the toxic gases from their lungs.

Karikis, holding a BSc in Architecture ("now studying the architecture of sound") and both MA and PhD in Fine Arts, is a permanent lecturer and researcher at the University of Brighton. He is an interdisciplinary artist, using multiple media with an essential focus on sound — particularly that of voice — and identity, and has shown his work in more than 10 countries including the Venice Biennale as well as both Seoul and Jeju. He has also released seven albums, three of them solo, one featured by the internationally renowned pop star Bjork.

▲ Jeju diving woman at work. Photo courtesy Mikhail Karikis

From his Web site: "Mikhail's work emerges from his longstanding investigation of the voice as a sculptural material and a conceptual compass, which he employs to explore notions of difference and impossibility, professional identity and human rights."

On March 16th, the artist again held an exhibition in Jeju, as part of the inaugural show of Artspace C in its new Jungangno (Gu-Jeju) location. In a video installation entitled "Sounds from Below" which depicts a UK coalminers' choir vocally recreating the sounds they recalled from their now-extinct profession with a stunning backdrop of the British countryside, Karikis likened these men to the haenyeo of Jeju.

"I wanted to give voice to a disempowered group," he explained to those in attendance, "to represent what they remembered from their working days and a profession — and community — that's now been lost." He has done several similar projects and deeply understands the healing power of his work.

▲ Photo courtesy Mikhail Karikis
▲ Photo courtesy Mikhail Karikis
▲ Photo courtesy Mikhail Karikis

Citing the haenyeo's difficult and dangerous manual labor, their unifying songs and sounds, the community in which their profession is situated and its potential for imminent extinction in the face of modernization, he described his "Sumbisori" project.

Karikis visited Jeju a second time last November and again this month, each time recording various sounds representative of the haenyeo profession: in addition to the haunting whistle he compared to the "siren song" from his native Greece, he captured the vocal "life of the community" in the form of the women's talk about their work and economic matters, family issues, territory, a debate about the membership of elderly haenyeo, and the various sounds directly associated with their profession.

During the first visit he spent time with the haenyeo community of Ohjo-ri in the east, going out twice on their boat; he also intended to visit the haenyeo of Beophwan-ri, near Gangjeong Village on the southern coast, but the divers were on strike at that time and thus not working. In his second visit, he focused on the haenyeo of Daepyeong-ri, near the Jungmun tourist resort.

Working closely with Dr. Choa Hye-Gyoung, a Jeju scholar of the haenyeo culture, and interpreter Hyun Dong Hak, he also visited the haenyeo school, museum, and an oxygen hyperbaric chamber treatment facility. Regarding the latter, he cited the "jamsu-byeong" or divers' syndrome and compared it to the coalminers' sickness, explaining, "I wanted to know the effects of diving on hearing and breathing."

While here, Karikis debated with local scholars and artists the questions of 'organic feminism' and cultural preservation as related to the haenyeo. He shared that in his interview process, he asked many of the women if they wanted their daughters to enter their profession, referring to the intergenerational transmission necessary for its continuance. His question was universally met with derisive laughter and the divers' strongly expressed disagreement and the coveted "better life" for their progeny.

▲ Jeju's basalt coastline. Photo courtesy Mikhail Karikis
▲ At the haenyeo clinic. Photo courtesy Mikhail Karikis

Now returned to the UK where he is compiling — or perhaps, composing — his "Sumbisori" project, Karikis will exhibit this work regarding the Jeju haenyeo in May at Wapping Project London, to coincide with the Summer Olympics being held there. The exhibition will then tour nine other cities in the UK, and an audio CD will also be produced and distributed.

He describes his work as "oto-biographic": telling the story of a people, or a culture, 'by ear' [through sound]. In this way, Karikis will do his part to tell the haenyeo story to the world, "giving a voice to this disempowered and disappearing community."

Anne Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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