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BIRMINGHAM, UK — Londoners interested in the arts tend to forget that outside the city there are venues worth visiting. Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, which is currently screening “The Colony” (2016) by Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê, is one such place.
“The Colony” is a video in three parts, each projected onto a separate screen.
Lê has filmed a cluster of deserted Chincha Islands off the southwest coast of Peru, from a number of different perspectives, using video drones to give bird’s-eye views. This is a significant and new development in Lê’s practice, which is known for addressing the experiences of the Vietnam War through videos and elaborately composed photographs.
At first, the video, which is commissioned by Ikon, Artangel, Han Nefkens H+F Collection, and Proyecto Amil, Lima, doesn’t seem to bear any link to Lê’s previous work, which is intrinsically political. A further look at “The Colony,” though, unveils a complex web of references pointing at the history of colonialism and imperialism.
In the mid-19th century, the Chincha Islands were at the center of a now-forgotten resource war that involved major world powers. Spain, the US, and Peru were all interested in exercising control over the territory because of what seems today to be a very unlikely source of wealth: guano, or bird droppings, which were used for fertilizer. Because the sea surrounding these remote islands is naturally rich in fish, huge colonies of seabirds have elected this inhospitable land as their home, building up, over the years, mountains of guano.
Spain, the former colonial ruler of Peru, tried, in vain, to seize the islands by force, while Great Britain instructed navy crews to look for guano deposits during their trips. In 1856, the United States passed the Guano Island Act that authorized US citizens to claim guano from over 100 uninhabited islands and atolls in the Pacific and Atlantic.
Mining guano became a booming business that required extended workforce, mainly coming from China. Chinese laborers were exploited with strict daily quotas of guano to collect under inhuman conditions, until the business eventually ran into trouble, being replaced by alternative fertilizers.
Although nobody lives in the islands now, occasional harvesting still takes place. “The Colony” documents the backbreaking work of some laborers who continue to harvest guano with picks and bare hands. Lê has divided and organized the scenes so that the human presence on the island is only gradually introduced. While the first part of “The Colony” is mainly made up of aerial views of a deserted, arid landscape — accompanied by a disquieting yet mesmerizing soundtrack — the second part shows abandoned buildings that were home to workers living in the islands in the 20th century.
The last sequence, which is the most striking as well, focuses on human labor by showing the impressive structures made of sacks that the workers built up to help with their harvesting. This improbable architecture, made out of practical necessities, could be ruins of a derelict civilization or elements of a dystopian landscape. The dream-like footage of the islands recalls art historical scenes, like Arnold Böcklin‘s “The Isle of the Dead” (1880), but also a stage set of a Hollywood movie.
Lê is perfectly aware of the political implications involved in representing such a reality — no matter how distant from us it seems to be. The story of Peruvian guano echoes global interest in Saudi Arabian oil, Californian gold, or fruit factories from Central American republics. More importantly, “The Colony” hints at recent debates on the control of natural resources in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and, quite significantly, for an artist living in Vietnam, to the current dispute over the South China Sea. With “The Colony,” Lê cleverly weaves the past and the present together, delivering a film that discloses today’s various and dissimulated forms of imperialism.
Dinh Q. Lê: The Colony continues at Ikon Gallery (1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, UK) through April 3.