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.

Infirmary on Chincha Norte Island. Production shot of "The Colony", Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

Infirmary on Chincha Norte Island. Production shot of “The Colony”, Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

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.

Guanape Island. Production shot of "The Colony", Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

Guanape Island. Production shot of “The Colony”, Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

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.

Pescadora Island. Production shot of "The Colony", Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

Pescadora Island. Production shot of “The Colony”, Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

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.

Dormitory and worker kitchen on Chincha Norte Island. Production shot of "The Colony", Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

Dormitory and worker kitchen on Chincha Norte Island. Production shot of “The Colony”, Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

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.

Guanape Island. Production shot of "The Colony", Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

Guanape Island. Production shot of “The Colony”, Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

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.

Chincha Norte Island. Production shot of "The Colony", Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

Chincha Norte Island. Production shot of “The Colony”, Dinh Q. Lê, 2016. Commissioned by Artangel, Ikon, Birmingham, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. Image courtesy Dinh Q. Lê.

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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Related Topics: Vietnamese artists, video, installation, archive, environment, trauma, political art, war, gallery shows, events in London

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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