Tuesday 15 January 2013

The SeaWomen of Jeju

Anyone who still feels incensed at the government's plans to increase retirement age should spare a thought for the women of Jeju Province, who are the subject of a sound and video installation on show at the 
Arnolfini Arts Centre. SeaWomen is the story of the island's women divers aged between 60 and 90 years who everyday venture out into the open sea to fish for food, seaweed and pearls. Their story is a remarkable one, largely unheard of (especially by me) but with a sad reality that this unique way of life is slowly dying out. 

I must confess that prior to receiving my invitation for SeaWomen I had never heard of the island of Jeju (pronounced Cheju or Quelpart to Europeans). So that I could fully appreciate the story of these amazing women I undertook some research. Here are just a few facts about this island;
  • It is pronounced Cheju or Quelpart to Europeans
  • Jeju is dominated by Halla-San a volcano standing over 1,950 metres and is a World Heritage site.
  • The island was caught up in the 1948 uprising during Korean government's attempts to quash anti-communist activities.
  • Primary economy is tourism with people flocking from the Korean mainland and much of East Asia to enjoy the island's sites and tempered climate.
  • Chosen as one of 28 finalists for the New 7 Wonders of Nature campaign.
  • Was one of the host cities during the 2002 World Cup.
Up until 19th century Jeju's society was very much like any other of its time with the men as principle breadwinners who would go out diving into the North Pacific for food, seaweed and pearls. However this became unprofitable due to the men paying heavy taxes whereas the women payed very little and so take over what was deemed a fairly low level function. Soon the women showed tremendous diving ability increasing the island's production and export of sea goods. This earned them the name Haenyeo meaning sea-women, or the mermaids of Jeju. The result was that the haenyeo became incredibly wealthy and over time Jeju became a matriarchal society, operating outside the trend of growing industrialisation by insisting on this sustainable practice. It is however a way of life that is slowly dying out, most likely due to the island's increasing popularity as a tourist destination which has taken over as the principle source of income.

During a three month residency on Jeju, Greek/British artist Mikhail Karikis stayed with the Haenyeo recording their work and lives. The finished work is an audio and visual installation, a combination of five video chapters and sound bites played through a series of monitors and a twelve speaker sound installation. The exhibits aims to create an immersive experience for the audience, giving them a real sense of the haenyeo way of life. 

The five video chapters focus on several aspects of the Haenyeo daily routine of heading into the choppy waters (be it by boat or from the rocky shores) of the North Pacific and diving to depths of twenty metres collecting seaweed, and catching an assortment of Marine life including colourful starfish, lobsters as well as an array of fish and octopi. To watch these women don wet suits and weights before diving into the sea with the grace and energy of women considerably younger is awe inspiring. In fact you forget that the practicing Haenyeo have been working this way for nearly six decades or more with only their weather worn faces perhaps hinting at their real age. Yet this is more indicative of the effects of a long time in a harsh profession. You also get to see the women relaxing after a hard day's work sharing their spoils, preparing and enjoying meals together. Combined with the audio excerpts of the women's work song, banter, and sounds of the sea with the boat taking them out to the best fishing spots, it really makes you feel as if you are experiencing their lives first hand. At one point I was so immersed in it all that I found myself rocking as if I were on the boat and could even smell the sea. 

All in all SeaWomen is an experience that needs to be felt to appreciate. It tells a more effective story through a simple medium than most documentary recordings relying on sensory perception to convey an experience rather than the more conventional storytelling or narrative of printed material. After an hour of sitting on the floor level with the monitors and surrounded by the speakers, you really do come away with a sense of just how unique and amazing the Haenyeo way of life truly is. It is perhaps even more poignantly sad  that this way of life could all together vanish (even in my lifetime). Whether it will champion their cause or act as a record of the haenyeo for posterity, SeaWomen is an exceptional piece of work with Karikis having succeeded in capturing the essence of a fascinating way of life.

SeaWomen is currently showing at the Arnolfini Arts Centre in Bristol until 20th January. Admission is free.

Image Credit; Mikhail Karikis SeaWomen 2012 All Rights Reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment