Thirteen miles off the coast of Peru lie the Chincha Islands, three small islands inhabited by large numbers of seabirds. These birds produce what became an incredibly valuable and sought after natural resource among competing imperialist powers during the mid-19th century. Large deposits of bird excrement, known as guano, built up over the islands. This guano is rich in nitrogen, phosphate and potassium and therefore makes a great fertiliser.
In this exhibition Vietnamese artist Dinh Q Lê displays the islands on film in three sections. Large projections fill three whole walls, while two screens laid flat show a seemingly different subject altogether. It becomes apparent that imperialist conflict is the main theme of this exhibition.
Walking around the exhibition space, the sound is grinding. The loud hum of the camera drone is intermixed with the distant horn of cargo ships and workers’ metal tools digging into the dry guano deposits, and the inaudible voices of people. This heavy soundtrack immerses you in the story of these desolate islands.
The first film sequence introduces us to an island. Many shots look typical of a nature documentary, yet the bludgeoning sound surrounding the space reminds us it is a document of how human activity has impacted on this island. At the height of the guano trade 10,000 Chinese workers dug the mineral in appalling conditions.
The second sequence explores derelict buildings. The camera glides through concrete corridors and between rusting metal bunk beds. In this section the drone itself becomes a subject; its controlled movement and appearance feel invasive, with the sweeping shots of ocean and large flocks of birds in direct contrast to this buzzing, robotic object.
Workers in the final sequence are filmed picking and shovelling guano into black bags and carrying them on their backs to a long chute where they are packed on the edge of the cliffs. Thousands of these black bags of guano are stacked up ready to be moved on to cargo ships.
The most fascinating thing about this exhibition is how the artist makes imperialism the focus between two different past and present conflicts. The Guano Island Act of 1856 is seen as the first imperialist exercise by the US, in which it could claim any island containing guano deposits which were not occupied or under the authority of other governments.
On the two screens laid flat on the floor, one plays mobile phone footage of Chinese boats ramming into Vietnamese boats in ongoing disputes over territory in the South China Seas. The second film is taken from inside a Poseidon US aircraft, patrolling the same stretch of water. It is an area believed to hold deposits of oil and gas. The inclusion of this very current conflict highlights the nature of capitalism, its need for constant expansion of power and control of resources.
Dinh Q Lê’s installation is a striking visual artwork and a reminder of what happened on the desolate Chincha islands and how it remains relevant to the big power grabs of capitalist nations today.