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Elderly female divers the stars of Newcastle art exhibition

An exhibition called Listening is devoted to works of art that involve listening as well as looking

Mikhail Karikis One of the Haenyeo, or Sea Women, from Mikhail Karikis's 2012 film SeaWomen, on show at Baltic 39
One of the Haenyeo, or Sea Women, from Mikhail Karikis's 2012 film SeaWomen, on show at Baltic 39

An art exhibition aimed at ears as well as eyes is introducing North East audiences to the largely unappreciated ‘sea women’ of Jeju.

Jeju is an island off South Korea. The sea women, or Haenyen, spend their days deep diving for pearls and seafood in the northern Pacific Ocean at an age when, in Britain, they would qualify for a bus pass.

At the Baltic 39 gallery in Newcastle, London-based artist Mikhail Karikis told how he discovered them by accident.

“I was in South Korea and a friend said we had to go and see this island where there are 380 extinct volcanos,” he said.

“We were travelling around when I heard this really high-pitched sound, like a whale.

“I saw these shapes in the sea which I thought were seals because of their wetsuits. My friend said, ‘They’re not seals, they’re women’.”

The artist discovered that the shrieking noise was a result of an age-old special breathing technique, sumbisori, which enables the women to dive repeatedly.

Deciding the women constituted a fascinating sub-culture, he won their trust and set about filming them for the installation, called SeaWomen, which is a highlight of the new Newcastle exhibition.

“The women were mostly in their 70s and 80s, with the oldest aged 89,” he said.

“They can stay in the ocean for eight hours a day and dive about eight times. They’re incredible.”

Mikhail Karikis One of the Haenyeo, or Sea Women, from Mikhail Karikis's 2012 film SeaWomen, on show at Baltic 39
One of the Haenyeo, or Sea Women, from Mikhail Karikis's 2012 film SeaWomen, on show at Baltic 39

Mikhail learned that the diving came to be deemed women’s work because it was hard and low paid but it was also believed women, with more body fat, were better able to withstand the cold.

The women told him they had two big fears – greed, because the temptation to reach for one more oyster might mean a watery grave, and loose fishing nets which could cause a fatal entanglement.

In one way, at least, said Mikhail, modern Haenyen were better off than their predecessors. Only in the 1960s did they start wearing wetsuits. Before that, they had dived naked.

Fishing stocks are dwindling off Jeju, it seems. But it will come as no surprise to learn that South Korean girls are not rushing to swell the close-knit ranks of the Haenyen.

SeaWomen is part of Listening, an exhibition initiated by Hayward Touring, an arm of the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank, and starting a national tour at Baltic 39, the Newcastle gallery run by Baltic, Gateshead.

Curator Sam Belinfante brought together the work of artists who are interested in they way things sound as well as they way they look.

“It’s an exhibition about the act of listening and the idea is that you are led around by your ears and encouraged to think about different ways of listening,” said Sam, before crawling into a soundproof foam box – officially known as A Million cm³ of Quiet Space ii by artist Haroon Mirza.


This year’s Turner Prize-winning artist, Laura Prouvost, was also at the exhibition launch and is represented by three works, one consisting of an imagined saucy conversation between a pat of butter and an e-cigarette.

“They are light-hearted pieces and we recorded the voices ourselves, just me and Sam,” said the artist whose Turner Prize-winning work was created in Cumbria.

“It was fun to do because I love sound. I almost work more with sound than anything else.”

Other works include Carey Young’s Follow the Protest, a red phone which invites the caller to dial recorded clips of a protest rally; Prem Sahib’s Taking Turns, which sounds like a noisy student party going on next door; and Anri Sala’s Air Cusioned Ride which was filmed and recorded in a truck stop in Arizona.

The artist found that due to a phenomenon called spurious emission, his car radio would alternately emit baroque and country music as he drove within the ring of trucks.

Visitors with time to kill can enjoy Song, a film by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson which shows his three nieces singing a one-minute refrain repeatedly for six hours.

The exhibition runs at Baltic 39, 31-39 High Bridge, Newcastle, until January 11, 2015.


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