Din Q. Lê explores colonial exploitation of resources in 19th century Pacific.
Dinh Q. Lê is known for his subtle and poetic revisions of colonial history, linked to his birth country, Vietnam. In his latest video installation, he explores the exploitation of resources off the coast of Peru, which in the 19th century provoked conflictual relationships between various countries and caused a great deal of human suffering, much in a similar guise as what is happening today closer to the artist’s home, in the South China Sea.
Mountains of guano cover a group of uninhabited islands off the coast of Peru in the Pacific Ocean, deposited there by sea birds such as the Peruvian pelican, booby and Guanay cormorant that feed on the plentiful, richly nutritious fish of the area. The Chincha Islands were once, in the 19th century, a strong point of contention between countries that already had a presence in the region – nearby Peru and Chile, Spain and the United States. Meanwhile, British merchants and middlemen sent large contingents of bonded Chinese labourers to harvest the manure to take back to Britain and trade.
The United States responded to disputes by passing the Guano Act in 1856, which allowed the imperial power to seize uninhabited islands, reefs and atolls anywhere in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. As the history of imperialism unfolded, the Guano Wars of 1864-1866 broke out to gain control of the islands, home to a rich agricultural resource abundantly gifted by nature, during a period that is recorded in history as the Great Guano Rush.
Reader in Environmental Humanities at the University of Birmingham, Frank Ueköttor gives a detailed account of that period of time and the history of Peruvian guano in his essay “War, Peace and Guano” published in Dinh Q. Lê’s “The Colony” exhibition catalogue. He writes that
The Chincha Islands were not destined to make world history. They were small, they did not have a permanent human presence, and they were at a distance from the main trade routes. They had no strategic value and little in the way of scenery. But commodities have an ability to catapult remote places onto the stage of global history. The story of eruvian guano echoes the stories of Saudi Arabian oil, Californian gold, or bananas from Central American republics. These commodities are more than just stuff from a place. They are the stuff that makes a place.
Guano is essentially birds’ droppings and was extensively used as a precious and potent fertiliser, rich in nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, before chemical ones were invented and commercialised. A natural resource that caused such extensive territorial disputes in the Pacific Ocean, guano is the focus of Dinh Q. Lê’s lens in his new video installation “The Colony”, now on show at Artangel in London until 9 October 2016.
The videos feature newly shot film in the Chincha Islands as well as found footage from the Internet. Alongside the videos, the exhibition also features a number of 19th century maps and photographs of the Chincha Islands, taken in 1865 by the renowned American Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, and a selection of Illustrated London News bulletins on the islands and guano trade.
“The Colony” is part of The Artangel Collection, an initiative to bring outstanding film and video works to the United Kingdom, developed in partnership with Tate, supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Foyle Foundation and using public funding from Arts Council England. “The Colony” was commissioned by Artangel, Ikon Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima, with support by Shoshana Wayne Gallery. The exhibition toured the UK, from Ikon in Birmingham in early 2016, to Derry Void in Northern Ireland until 2 July, and finally Artangel in London.
“The Colony” makes a powerful connection between what happened off the coast of South America more than a hundred years ago and what has been the focus of contention in the South China Sea, where China lays claim to the majority of islands that apparently hide rich natural oil and gas resources, as well as the sea itself, with its abundant fish. Various countries in the region, including Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are in continuous abrasion with the giant of the East. Dinh Q. Lê seems to suggest that, as the saying goes, History repeats itself.
As James Lingwood, Co-Director of Artangel, and Jonathan Watkins, Director of Ikon, write in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue,
The islands afford an extraordinary location for Lê’s new work, but they are not its only subject. The world’s powers continue to wrestle for control over actual and potential natural resrouces in the Middle East, the Arctic and the Antartic and, significantly for an artist now living back in Vietnam, in the South China Seas where competing claims over tiny islands mark a new period of colonial conflict.
When in the 20th century the harvesting of Guano abruptly stopped, birds reclaimed the islands, left again uninhabited, deserted. Today, even though on a much smaller scale, the harvesting of the natural fertiliser has resumed on occasion, and Lê landed on the islands to document their present state. Through different perspectives, the artist records the still gruelling manual labour of workers intent in collecting, transporting and loading bags full of guano onto boats, “echoing the burden of their predecessors”, as Artangel writes in the exhibition pamphlet.
Lê follows the conceptual ideas of his previous works to shed light on the plight of nameless individuals, ‘victims’ of imperialist thirsts for power and control and human desire, through an exploration of colonial history. Silhouettes of animated figures representing the 19th century Chinese workers appear on screen, while other scenes in the video show the interior of an abandoned building, once dormitories built for the guano workers in the 20th century. The spaces are dotted with pornographic photographs, left there by the workers, confined in solitude far away from home and from their wives and families.
In a conversation with Zoe Butt, Executive Director and Curator of Ho Chi Minh City-based art space Sàn Art, published in the catalogue, Lê reveals that the installation’s title “The Colony” was inspired by Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, the stark landscapes of which were a constant reminder to Lê during filming. The confinement, the solitude and the suffering of forced labour are concepts that permeate these images of a run down, deserted building, as Lê says:
[…] it must have been much worse for the indentured Chinese servants in the 1850s enduring constant hard labour and physical abuse, confined to islands you cannot easily escape. It must have been a kind of prison, for they were essentially slaves to the British companies who brought them there to harvest guano. To me these dormitories are also a visual reminder of the human cost of desire.
In a continuation of the traditional presence of helicopters in Lê’s work, a symbol of technological and military superiority, “The Colony” was partly shot using a drone, one of today’s deadliest war machines and espionage tools on the market. Talking with Butt about the role of the drone in the work, Lê reveals the flying machine as “an aggressor”,
a kind of alien of the future, but at the same time it is utterly a machine we live with today. It is as if the drone is saying “the future is here”. The drone to me has the visual power to suggest a form of knowledge that invades.
The five-screen video installation is accompanied by an apocalyptic soundtrack by Daniel Wohl, and includes footage shot on the Chincha Islands, as well as found footage taken from the Internet of what is taking place in the South China Sea. Apart from the music, the sounds of birds and the sea, of labourers and of radio exchanges in the air zones above the ocean in Asia can be heard in a cacophony that reminds of conflict and tension. In the conversation with Butt, Lê talks about the power of mediated imagery taken during surveillance operations, such as those included in his work, shot by the American military over the South China Sea:
Some of the footage I include documents the American military flying over the South China Sea. These are surveillance videos that I found online. They are extremely beautiful but when you hear the Chinese radio warning “You are violating our territory” and the American respond with “This is international waters,” the tension is palpable. The point of this American military surveillance over the South China Sea was to make clear that America does not recognise China’s claim of these unpopulated waters, so in a way my sending in the drone to these inaccessible, similarly unpopulated Guano Islands is also a kind of surveillance, of saying that this history, which is a way is being repeated, shall not remain hidden.
The Chincha Islands video ends with an aerial shot of the film crew, in an unexpected move that gives “humanity back the control”, as Butt comments. The cameraman extends his arms to receive the drone descending from a day’s shoot, as if the author (the artist) wanted to recede, in order to challenge the pervasive view that ‘others’ are always responsible, while in fact the responsibility of catastrophe is often in the hands of the collective conscious, as he tells Butt:
[In revealing the existence and identity of the film crew] I’m saying that we, the viewer are in control, that you as viewers are also authors in a way. Today we are accustomed to justifying that someone else is directing the toll of human suffering, but in the end I’m saying it is our responsibility to remember it, to understand it and thus endure that our collective actions matter, our memory matters. When you realise you are looking directly at the cameraman who controls the drone you suddenly realise perhaps that you haven’t asked who is controlling the camera and why.
C. A. Xuân Mai Ardia
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