On September 3, 2016, Site Gallery in Sheffield opened The Colony, a new film installation by Vietnamese artist and filmmaker Dinh Q. Lê, which immerses the viewer in the desolate environment of the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru. The panoramic scenes of timeless and desolate islands gradually reveal a sublime landscape with a complex history. Home to huge colonies of birds, by the middle of the 19th century the islands had become mountains of guano. Discovered to be a potent fertiliser, guano quickly became one of the world’s most valuable natural resources. British merchants controlled its trade, using indentured Chinese labourers working under brutal conditions.
Meanwhile Spanish, American and Peruvian forces scrambled for control of the islands and war broke out. In 1856 the US Congress passed the Guano Act enabling it to seize uninhabited islands around the world. Once chemical fertilisers were developed at the start of the twentieth century, the trade of guano collapsed, and the islands were recolonised by the birds. The islands have not been permanently inhabited for more than a century, but labourers return to harvest the guano by hand every few years. Accompanied by Daniel Wohl’s elegiac soundtrack, Lê films from a boat approaching the islands, cameras on the ground and drones circling above to capture a bleak landscape haunted by its brutal past. Architectural traces of the conflicted past remain in ruins.
The Colony was initially presented at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham (27 January – 3 April, 2016), before being exhibited at Void in Derry (14 May – 2 July, 2016). Francesco Dama has written for Hyperallergic that “With The Colony, Lê clearly weaves the past and the present together, delivering a film that discloses today’s various and dissimulated forms of imperialism.” For The Colony, Lê has filmed the islands from a number of different perspectives, a boat circles the land while drones give a bird’s eye view. The arid and unforgiving landscape and the drones’ unmanned explorations of empty and abandoned buildings, with their traces of former inhabitants, leave viewers in no doubt of the human suffering and isolation that haunt the island landscapes.
The Colony was commissioned by Artangel, Ikon (Birmingham), Han Nefkens H+F Collection, Proyecto Amil (Lima), with additional support from Catherine Petitgas, Private Collection, New York, Shoshana Wayne Gallery. Produced by Artangel and TANQ Studios, this project was supported by Arts Council England, Artangel International Circle, Special Angels, Guardian Angels and The Company of Angels. The Colony is part of The Artangel Collection, an initiative to bring outstanding film and video works, commissioned and produced by Artangel, to galleries and museums across the UK. The Artangel Collection has been developed in partnership with Tate, is generously supported by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Foyle Foundation and uses public funding from Arts Council England.
Dinh Q. Lê was born in Hà Tiên in then South Vietnam in 1968. In the late 1970s, his family escaped by boat before eventually settling in the US where he completed his education. He is the co-founder of Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he has been based for the past decade. In 2010 he was awarded the Prince Claus Award for his outstanding contribution to cultural exchange. Lê’s work has been included in many international group shows including Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany (2012), the 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008), the Gwangju Biennial (2006) and the Venice Biennale (2003). He was the first Vietnamese artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010). A major survey exhibition, Dinh Q. Lê: Memory for Tomorrow, was presented at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2015.