The Sounds of "SeaWomen" by Mikhail Karikis

Preface: As my last couple entries have been centered around Katie Wright and my WILD OBAN kickstarter proposal (which ends very soon on April 30th - still a few hours to donate!) I have decided to transition away from my own practice back into the review of another. SeaWomen by Mikhail Karikis is an inspirational art film that addresses sea life, international exploration, and insight into a fading way of human life - all on a contemporary art platform. Many of the fundamental elements I adore in SeaWomen are aspects Katie and I hope to explore in WILD OBAN. Below is my review of Karikis' video installation from the Listening: Hayward Touring Curatorial Open curated by Sam Belinfante at Baltic39 from September 2014- January 2015. 

Photo courtesy of Colin Davison at

Photo courtesy of Colin Davison at


    Mikhail Karikis is a Greek/British interdisciplinary artist currently based in London. He studied architecture at the Bartlett (UCL) and completed an MA/PhD at the Slade School London. Noteworthy exhibitions include: Danish Pavilion 54th Venice Biennale, MANIFESTA 9 (Belgium), the Barbican, 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale (Greece), Tate Britain, Coreana Museum (Seoul), Arnolfini, and Galeria Eduardo Fernandes (Sao Paulo).  Since 2007, Karikis' work has incorporated musical recordings and performances including compilations with Army Me, Björk, and DJ Spooky. Both his artistic and musical work revolves around the investigation of the voice as a sculptural material with which he may explore ideas of community, human rights, and identity. 


    The haenyeo, literally translating to 'sea-women', are a fast disappearing community of female-only sea workers. On the North Pacific island of Jeju, these free diving women have been operating for centuries outside of traditional gender-roles and professional and industrial modernizations. The diminishing community consists now of mainly 60-90 year old women who dive without oxygen up to 20 meters, for 2 minutes, and up to 80 times per day to catch sea-food, collect seaweed, and find pearls. The use of an ancient breathing technique called sumbisori (breath-sound) allows the great depths achieved and produces a unique aural whistle that contributes to the singular identity of this community. The high-pitched breathy whistle or shriek is released at each resurfacing in order to help adjust to the frequent pressure changes. The technique entails rapid exhalation of held carbon dioxide followed by quick inhalation of fresh oxygen. It is this sound that first attracted Karikis to the haenyeo community.

                          "(I) Asked why they don’t take advantage of the modern development of scuba gear and breathing apparatus they reply, ‘well then we wouldn’t be sea women’". - MK

    Traditionally, the practice was passed on from one generation to the next starting at the age of eight when new girls began diving. A combination of intertwined physiological, economic and cultural reasons exist for the gender-purposed nature of this profession including the fat distribution in women’s bodies and historical attitudes towards nudity being shameful and reserved for those of low social status. In the 1970s the haenyeo community was the leading economic force on Jeju island and the women often served as the primary financial providers for the family. This unusual matriarchal system within an otherwise patriarchal Korean society helped alter ideas of female value and pride (if only locally). At the haenyeo's peak 40 years ago, the community that worked commuted, worked, bathed, ate, sang, and prospered together numbered north of thirty thousand women. Near extinction, the work still provides a sense of pride, economic sufficiency, and life purpose for these strong and agile, aging women.


The Baltic 39's video installation SeaWomen, 2012, by Mikhail Karikis was comprised of a multi-speaker sound installation, a 30-minute looping video, and 10 floor pillows on a large straw mat in the blacked out gallery space. Mikhail Karikis' simple but immersive installation focused on emphasizing the aural qualities of the work by presenting a video with only limited Korean words and without subtitles or voice-overs. Karikis feels that to understand and interact with people, one does not need to understand every bit of linguistic information. The only sounds in the video are those of the ocean, the boats, and the women working and communicating with one another. Images of the diving - viewed dominantly from the water's surface - are broken with prolonged scenes of the elderly haenyeo eating communally, cleaning and weighing their catch, washing, singing, and commuting on boats and scooters. The entire day and work process is represented throughout the film, though not always in a chronological fashion.

The stripped back video style allows for sounds to be clear and attention grabbing and for each scene change to be a deliberate addition to the narrative. In the haenyeo's story, each various vocal sounds connects to a certain activity in their day. The whistling marks the dive, the work-song is used in transport, a distinctive shower splash marks the end of the day, and chatter vibrates in the communal dining hall after work. Central to Karikis' research has been vocal sounds that are beyond or without language. Without a frame of reference the sounds of shrieks, gibberish, yelps... are meaningless but in context these specific sounds can help mark the identity of a community. Karikis arranges the different sounds elegantly and with very little self indulgence with the exception of some overlaid singing and wave audios on longer transitions. Despite conflicting with the seemingly unaltered representations of the rest of the work, the audio track additions do aid in creating sensations of time moving on without change.

In the Listening: Hayward Touring Curatorial Open exhibition the importance of the whistling sound and its role in identifying the community is well understood. But were it not for the themed curation, the viewer could easily overlook the significant aural qualities of SeaWomen in exchange for the fascinating subcultural issues of age, gender, and the communal eco-feminist dimension of the sea-working. This by no means weakens the work, but allows for the viewer to direct their attention to whichever elements they find most appealing. The inclusion of the floor mats mirrors the manner in which the haenyeo eat and discuss business matters. This informal viewing presentation lends itself to an intimate relation with the video as viewers relaxed, leaned back, and tended to stay far longer with Karikis' work than is often seen with video installations.

SeaWomen by Mikhail Karikis at first appears as a straight forward documentary but this is far from correct. The artist used the space to welcome the audience and link their bodies to the customs of the haenyeo. He cycled nonlinear scenes to emphasize the role of time in the sea, the women's work, and the women's lives. He paralleled this cycling to the natural filling and emptying of life sustaining breath and centered a video around a sound that marks the transitions between the two. This moment of transition is vital to appreciating the history behind the non-lingual sounds of the sumbisori. SeaWomen enticingly explores an individual sound that stands for a community with a long history of strength, pride, and love of the sea.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - will lead you to a Vimeo promotion clip of SeaWomen. More information may be found on the artist's website: