film installation

Mikhail Karikis, SeaWomen (2012)

November 26, 2015

seawomen

The baddest gang on the planet don’t ride Harleys out into the California desert. They ride mopeds around a South Korean island and dive for octopus in the choppy North Pacific.

Bad-meaning-good is maybe not the word, but the sea-women are certainly tough cookies. Aged between 60 and 90, they explode all your preconceptions about gender and growing old.

From the age of eight they have been trained for a female only profession: collecting seafood and wild pearls from around the coast of the island of Jeju. Men, it should be said, need not apply.

That’s because the sea-women benefit from a) womanly fat distribution (useful in cold water) and b) a tax break under Confucian law. The law fails to recognise the labour of Korean women.

For a moment, let us set aside the problem of a Western artist conducting a study on yet another remote tribe. (Can someone explain if this film does the sea-women a disservice?)

It is surely in fact a great service to women from around the world. And dare it be said, not just women, but anyone with reservations about growing old. In this film, old women rule.

And when they peel off the wetsuits and masks, the hats and floral slippers come out and you realise they come from the same planet as the grandmothers you encounter riding the bus.

Karikis is as interested in sound as he is in film. His starting point for this 27 minute, two-channel tribute to the sea-women is the whale-like whistle they make while at work on the waves.

This siren song is part of the fabric of the installation, along with rolling thunder and a beautiful folk tune which the women would sing while rowing. All blend into the natural context of the island.

Jeju is now a tourist destination, and quick to see which way the wind blew, the sea-women sent their daughters (and, one can only hope, sons) to the university to study tourism.

That could be why they co-operated. Karikis may have been a tourist when he first visited and his film is great PR for an island which the children of the sea-women will one day inherit.

SeaWomen can be seen in the Founders’ Room, Brighton Dome until December 1. It is part of the 2015 Earsthetic Festival.

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