BY Haeju Kim in Opinion , Profiles | 10 MAR 23
Featured in
Issue 233

ikkibawiKrrr Collaborate with Korea’s Female Divers

A profile of the collective whose recent project highlights haenyeo – strong, independent divers from Jeju Island

BY Haeju Kim in Opinion , Profiles | 10 MAR 23

One Sunday afternoon in November 2021, I found myself on a beach in Jeju, an island off the southern coast of Korea. Flags decorated with white paper fluttered in the wind and several scaled-down, model bulteoks – freestanding structures in which haenyeo (the female divers of Jeju Island, celebrated for their strength and independence, who collect seaweed and seafood) can change their clothes and take a rest – had been placed along the beach.

A group of elderly women in traditional haenyeo garb walked to the centre of the beach, while a second group of young female dancers, also dressed as haenyeo, walked and danced around them. The elderly women belonged to a local amateur choir and the young dancers were from the Jeju Dance Arts Centre, an organization that stages performances rooted in the history and myths of the island. On this day, the dancers’ evocative movements were inspired by haenyeo gestures: collecting abalone, casting nets, diving the depths, and breathing techniques. Afterwards, the haenyeo choir started to sing, filling the entire beach with their powerful, clear voices honed by years of underwater breath control, the sorrowful lyrics speaking to their harsh life stories.

ikkibawiKrrr, The Jeju Dance Arts Centre, Hado Haenyeo Choir and Hadori Village community, Diving Is with Companion, 2021. Courtesy: the artist

From conception to final performance, the event was a collaboration between ikkibawiKrrr (an artist group then resident on Jeju Island to research ecology and haenyeo culture), the Jeju Dance Arts Centre and Hadori Village community, with participants sharing roles and helping each other in the manner of a village festival. It was a process that reflected the community spirit that characterizes haenyeo work and life. The title of the performance, Diving Is with Companion, was derived from an interview between a professor of sociology and one haenyeo, who noted that diving must always be done at least in pairs: without someone else to rely on, working the water can be dangerous, even deadly. This phrase underscores both the connection between individual haenyeo and the symbiotic nature of their relationship with the natural world on which their work relies. By the end of the performance, some 400 audience members were holding hands and dancing together in a continuous circle of celebration. Elements of Diving Is with Companion – including the bulteok models and a video of the haenyeo choir – were shown at the Museum of Natural History Ottoneum as part of last year’s documenta 15. IkkibawiKrrr connected the haenyeo story with more recent projects exploring seaweed and records of war in the Asia-Pacific region during Japan’s imperialist era (Seaweed Story and Tropical Story, both 2022).

The name of the group – whose members are Ko Gyeol, Cho Jieun and Kim Jung-won – is a neologism comprised of ikki (moss), bawi (rock) and krr, an onomatopoeic Korean word that indicates a rolling motion. The group aims to be ‘moss-like’ in its practice: initially small but progressively spreading to the surrounding environment and continually expanding its boundaries. IkkibawiKrrr prefers to be referred to as a ‘visual research band’ rather than an ‘art collective’, the artists told me, explaining that their practice is closer to that of a band, playing music together. Although only founded in 2021, ikkibawiKrrr had an earlier iteration in Mixrice – a well-established artist collective that likewise investigated ecology, community and questions of diasporic existence, focusing on contemporary immigration issues.

ikkibawiKrrr, The Jeju Dance Arts Centre, Hado Haenyeo Choir and Hadori Village community, Diving Is with Companion, 2021. Courtesy: the artist

Because they so often start with field research, taking the time to build mutual understanding by becoming a part of a given community, ikkibawiKrrr’s projects often take the form of events, performances and workshops. In early 2021, at the request of Gangneung citizens protesting the thermoelectric power plant in their city, ikkibawiKrrr organized Herring Weaving. The performance, which was held on a beach near the power plant, featured participants wearing fish-shaped masks made during a preparatory workshop, designed to help them shift their human-centric perspective and emboldening them to voice their opinions. Here, again, dancing and singing were embraced as forms of community-bonding. These collective dances recall the rapidly disappearing rituals and traditions of agrarian communities, as well as the resulting solidarity so absent in modern society. However transient, ikkibawiKrrr creates moments in which participants feel connected to one another, empowering them to better face what is to come.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘Diving the Depths’

Main Image: ikkibawiKrrr, The Jeju Dance Arts Centre, Hado Haenyeo Choir and Hadori Village community, Diving Is with Companion, 2021. Courtesy: the artist

Haeju Kim is a curator based in Seoul, South Korea, and the artistic director of Busan Biennale 2022.