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Jane Jin Kaisen: Halmang

by Francesca Curtis
Reviews / Exhibition • 13.03.2024

In the moving image work Halmang FIG.1 by Jane Jin Kaisen (b.1980), eight women in their seventies and eighties are seated on a rocky outcrop of the volcanic coast of Jeju Island in South Korea. Set against the dark stone, they fold sochang, long pieces of white cotton cloth associated with women’s labour, which are also a symbol for the cycle of life and death and the connection of humans to the spirit world. Over the course of the twelve-minute film, no words are shared between the women. Instead, close attention is paid to their increasingly animated gestures: the women’s meticulous and methodical folding and tending to the sochang gives way to the more chaotic movements of draping the fabric over the rock face FIG.2. As the women then begin to knot together the strips of cloth they form a large web that envelops the hardened lava FIG.3

The women in Kaisen’s film have lived and worked together for most of their lives on Jeju Island as haenyeo – women free-divers who harvest seafood from the ocean. The islet where they arrange the sochang used to serve as a shrine for the wind goddess Yongdeung Halmang, and is also the point from which these divers would depart for the sea. In the film, the close-up footage of the women’s hands and faces is accompanied by a soundtrack of crashing waves and a recording of the once-banned ‘Jeju Haenyeo Song’, written by the social activist Gwan-soon Gang. Free-diving in Jeju dates back to the fifth century, and was initially undertaken exclusively by men, but by the eighteenth century women dominated the profession. Haenyeo communities are often characterised by a matriarchal social structure, in which women play a key role in societal and political decision-making and the support of their families.

Halmang is the central work of Kaisen’s first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, at esea contemporary, Manchester FIG.4. Vital for understanding the film’s layered history is the vitrine of archival material FIG.5 installed on the opposite wall of the space. Collected over a ten-year period, these materials consist of memorabilia, photographs and publications relating to the organised anti-colonial actions of the haenyeo. This includes Kaisen’s father’s camera and a book written by her grandfather FIG.6, who was the Head of the Commemoration Committee for the Jeju Haenyeo Anti-Colonial Resistance Movement. The movement emerged in 1931–32, led by the women sea divers who protested against the economic exploitation and taxation of their profession by Japanese occupational forces. Photographs and objects collected by Kaisen also explore how the resistance was commemorated FIG.7 after Korea’s liberation in 1945, including shamanic rituals, parades and the establishment of monuments. These materials outline the crucial role of the haenyeo in this period, but they also contextualise a collective history of Jeju Island – one that exists within the landscape so affectingly captured by Kaisen.

It is with the inspection of these archival documents that the artist’s personal connection to – and reverence for – the haenyeo tradition quietly becomes apparent. Kaisen was born on Jeju Island, where her mother and grandmother worked as divers, before she was transnationally adopted and moved to Denmark at the age of three months. In addition to its reference to the shamanic goddesses of the wind and sea, halmang is also a Jeju term for ‘grandmother’. Kaisen’s film is thus a simultaneous reflection on the longstanding haenyeo tradition and her personal ties to the culture. The artist has often returned to her ancestral roots throughout her film-making career. Her four-channel video, Offering – Coil Embrace (2023), for example, was also filmed on the island and shares Halmang’s focus on the women divers and the symbolism of sochang. Although both films possess a melancholic beauty, the folding of the cloth in Halmang becomes almost a domestic act when compared with the slow, underwater choreography of Offering, in which swathes of fabric can be seen floating in the murky depths of the sea.

Kaisen has also returned to Jeju Island to confront its Cold War history, which is frequently framed in her practice through issues of memory, colonisation, modernisation and migration. The relationship between the haenyeo tradition and the political history of the island is also explored in two earlier moving image works, which are exhibited in the gallery’s communal project space FIG.8. In Of the Sea FIG.9 Kaisen reflects upon her grandparents’ involvement in the resistance movement. The artist walks along the black lava shore, carrying items used for diving as well as her grandfather’s book Annals of the Jeju Haenyeo’s Anti-Japanese Resistance, which was published in 1995. The Woman, The Orphan, and The Tiger FIG.10 follows a group of transnational adoptees and other women of the Korean diaspora, exploring transgenerational trauma through oral histories, interviews, public statements and poetry. Although these films are exhibited separately from Halmang, provocative connections can be made with the titular work, as Kaisen focuses on the legacies of conflict embedded in the landscape from which the haenyeo still depart into the sea.

Halmang seeks to make parallels across not only histories, but also geographies. Xiaowen Zhu, the Director of esea contemporary, frames Kaisen’s practice through ‘the interconnectedness of our shared human experience’.1 According to the exhibition wall text, this is uniquely revealed through its presentation in a building that was once part of Manchester’s Victorian fish market. Halmang not only aligns with the organisation’s mission to profile artistic practises informed by East and Southeast Asian backgrounds and their diasporas, it also seeks to draw spatio-temporal relationships between Jeju Island and the United Kingdom through the histories of aquaculture. However, the ways in which these locations are linked is not contextualised beyond the historic use of the esea contemporary building. As the film is exhibited in a conventional darkened environment, this history is also not immediately apparent to the visitor. Therefore, these correlations operate most effectively on a more conceptual level, with the entanglement of the sochang and the landscape representing the ingrained relationships between people, memory and geography. Through the legacies of colonialisation and modernisation, one can trace imagined lines of connection between Victorian Manchester and the devastating impact of industrialised fishing on the haenyeo.

The writer and curator Anne Kølbæk Iversen has described Kaisen’s practice as a ‘presentation of migratory memories, floating signifiers hesitating to embody signification’.2 Halmang reveals this trepidation firstly through its elusive relationship to location, and secondly – and most powerfully – in its refusal to portray the haenyeo in the act of diving. As their community declines, an increasing fascination with their practice is developing in the tourist industries.3 This is what the anthropologist David Berliner has referred to as the ‘UNESCOisation’ of cultural traditions, in which communities are pressured into performing their culture while simultaneously experiencing a sense of loss over their traditions.4 Kaisen, by contrast, shows the divers engaged in another activity: they do not enter the sea, and there are no visual signifiers of diving.

Perhaps this refusal is an allusion to the decline in traditional diving practices resulting from the integration of industrialised fishing methods on the island. More convincing, however, is that it embodies the political need to not spectacularise the haenyeo. In Halmang, the audience bears witness to Kaisen’s intense respect for these women’s lives, their political legacies and their care for traditions under threat of erasure by modernisation. As they fold the sochang, the significance of the divers extends well beyond their occupation; as they carry the weight of history, they confront the memories that haunt the shores.


About the author

Francesca Curtis

is an art historian based in London.


See also

Rebecca Lennon: LIQUID i the Knot Commons
Rebecca Lennon: LIQUID i the Knot Commons

Rebecca Lennon: LIQUID i the Knot Commons

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22.09.2021 • Reviews / Exhibition