Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony – art correspondent Ann Jones on bird shit and drones
In my head, the idea of islands all but made of bird shit – though something I vaguely knew to exist – is sufficiently strange and improbable to sit in the ‘things I may have made up’ compartment, so I headed to Peckham to see Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony in a spirit of sceptical adventure half convinced it would turn out that I’d imagined the entire existence of the project. Entering 133 Rye Lane through a door in the adjacent alley, the location had the broken feel of a place where an interesting past – as Peckham’s Electric Theatre, one of London’s earliest cinemas – might coexist companionably with contemporary art, especially when the art in question takes the form of a multi-screen film installation and is an Artangel project.
Climbing more stairs than seemed likely to get to a cinema, I started to think I’d imagined that aspect of the venue’s history. Perhaps the installation just occupied the circle, I thought, wrongly as it turned out. A couple of flights up, my idle ponderings turned to wondering whether the invigilator sitting on the landing had the dullest job in art or whether it’d be quite nice to sit and think with occasional ‘saying hello to visitors’ duties (I have a great capacity for doing nothing at all, so suspect I’d thrive as long as no one expected me to use my initiative at any point). Eventually I reached the space (I’m making it sound like much more of a trek than it was but it’d been a long day and I was in trudging mode, at best) and its past cinemaness was immediately apparent (as were traces of more recent uses such as artists’ studios).
At the heart of The Colony lies a three screen film installation shot on the Chincha islands which lie off the coast of Peru, unpopulated but for a large colony of birds which has transformed the landscape into mountains of guano once a highly contended source of fertilizer and thus of considerable wealth. Digging guano on remote islands sounds soul-destroyingly awful but such was the fate of bonded Chinese labourers working for British merchants in the 19th century; add war into the mix as Spain and Peru fought to regain control of the islands and the United States Congress passing a law – the Guano Act of 1856 – allowing it to take control of uninhabited islands anywhere in the world and the whole thing sounds dreadful beyond words. But what of now? More than a century and a half later, we are, after all, in a very different world. Lê is Vietnamese and his work more typically references the Vietnam war; The Colony extends this to a wider interest in the fate of those living under colonialism. Though the reference point here are the 19th century bonded labourers, aerial filming and the use drones to explore the islands and their now abandoned buildings serves not only to give us an appropriately bird’s eye view of the islands but also roots the work in the technology of contemporary conflict. Smaller screens map the islands, the conflict over them and America’s claiming of other uninhabited islands. Elsewhere in the space, in what was once the circle of the Electric Theatre (one of sixteen such cinemas across London), there are 19th century maps and photographs of the Chincha Islands and articles on the guano trade there from the Illustrated London News.
The films provide a compelling picture of the islands, seemingly long-since abandoned but now once again the site of guano excavation. This is a bizarre landscape: literally mountains of shit. At times we see the evidence of contemporary guano works – clearly relentlessly hard physical work – and at times the shadowy figures of 19th century Chinese workers who seem destined to haunt the place, forever unable to escape the site of their enslavement. For me though the most powerful and beautiful imagery is the landscape and the sea of birds resting on the cliffs high above the sea and so numerous that they become abstracted, forming a pattern in nature that becomes hard to reconcile visually. The buildings are few but the combination of the drone’s eye view and film of the drone’s journey through the space is fascinating both as a view of then (the space) and now (the drone exploring the territory).
The Colony is clearly not site-specific – that it was first shown at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham earlier in the year and is also now on view at Site Gallery in Sheffield is evidence of that – but there is something intriguing about it in the context of 133 Rye Lane with multiple projections onto large screens in a space where a cinema audience once sat facing forwards. The space is recognisable; its use as a gallery challenges this, breaking the spell of cinema. As in the work, past and present coexist harmoniously while occasionally bringing me up short when the materiality of the building permeates my consciousness as I move around the space and let my attention shift from one screen to another. In a way the Electric Theatre is almost as desolate as the abandoned spaces on the Chincha Islands; the past lives of the space survive as a trace. Fascinating as I found the history and contemporary reality of the Chincha Islands, the guano trade and the layers of meaning around conflict in a wider sense that imbue Lê’s work with its real power, it is the abstract beauty of the resting birds, too numerous to distinguish and unaware of their role in constructing their own environment much less the way they have rendered it economically important to man, that will really stay with me.