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Dinh Q. Lê, Chincha Norte Island. Production shot of The Colony (2016). Photograph courtesy of the artist.

BIRMINGHAM.- Ikon, in collaboration with Artangel, presents The Colony (2016), a major new commission of video work by acclaimed Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê, from 27 January to 3 April 2016.

In three parts, featuring newly filmed footage, The Colony is loosely based on 19th century depictions of a cluster of islands off the west coast of Peru, rich in guano, a powerful fertilizer. Exploring the drama of absurdity, greed and human suffering, all for the brown gold of bird excrement, Lê’s narratives revisit three important episodes in the islands’ brutal history: the 19th century imperial wars between Spain and its former colonies Peru and Chile; the horrific fate of the indentured Chinese labourers; and the US Guano Act of 1856 that authorised over one hundred claims for uninhabited islands, reefs and atolls in the Pacific and Atlantic.

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Dinh Q. Lê, Chincha Norte Island. Production shot of The Colony (2016). Photograph courtesy of the artist.

As the first of Dinh Q. Lê’s film installations which does not directly reference the Vietnam War, The Colony marks a significant development in his practice. However, the plight of individuals caught up in the currents of history which has characterised some of his most powerful work to date remains central to this new commission

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Dinh Q. Lê, Dormitory and worker kitchen on Chincha Norte Island Production shot of The Colony, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The islands in Lê’s films are home to huge colonies of birds, where mountains of guano have built up and when its fertilizing properties were recognised, the deposits became one of the most valuable natural resources in the world. In the mid-19th century, the islands were contested by different powers – Spanish, American and Peruvian – each determined to exert control over their exceptional natural wealth. At the height of the “Great Guano Rush” bonded Chinese labourers were forced to work there under brutal conditions to collect the guano. Nobody lives on the islands now, but harvesting still occasionally takes place.

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Dinh Q. Lê, Dock and Housing on Pescadores Island Production shot of The Colony (2016). Photograph courtesy of the artist.

For The Colony , Dinh Q. Lê has filmed the islands from a number of different perspectives, from a boat circling the land and from video drones giving a bird’s eye view from above. Also we see labourers involved in the back-breaking work of harvesting, transporting and loading the guano onto boats. The arid and unforgiving landscape and the drones’ unmanned explorations of empty and abandoned buildings, with their traces of existence from past inhabitants, leave viewers in no doubt of the human suffering and isolation that form part of the islands’ story.

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Dinh Q. Lê, Guanape Island Production shot of The Colony, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue and includes an interview with the artist by curator and writer Zoe Butt and texts by Dr Frank Uekotter, Reader in Environmental Humanities, University of Birmingham and Moira Roth, Trefethen Professor of Art History, Mills College, California. The Colony is commissioned by Ikon, Artangel, Han Nefkens H+F Collection and Proyecto Amil, Lima. It is supported by Arts Council England and the private patronage of the Artangel International Circle, Special Angels and The Company of Angels, with the additional support of Catherine Petitgas, Shoshana Wayne Gallery and private collection, New York.

This commission follows the partnership between Ikon and Artangel in 2012 to commission and present And Europe Will Be Stunned (2007–2011), a film trilogy by Israeli artist Yael Bartana.

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Dinh Q. Lê, Guanape Island Production shot of The Colony, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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Dinh Q. Lê, Guanape Island Production shot of The Colony, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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