For many of us, the Vietnam War is shaped by Hollywood blockbusters highlighting the terror of the skies. Helicopters chop their way through conflict and surveillance. Napalm bombs drop, frying victims below. Highly toxic Agent Orange deforms the unborn. Himself once a displaced war refugee, Dinh Q. Lê’s work up until recently has focused on interweaving these movie screen images with the experiences of real victims of the conflict in Vietnam.
In his Artangel exhibition ‘The Colony’, Lê continues his confronting fascination between fact and picture making, portrayed largely from an aerial perspective. An imposing three-screen film is accompanied by a display of publications from the mid-nineteenth century. They detail the aftermath of The Great Guano Rush on Peru’s Chincha Islands - not the Gold Rush but the poo rush, for guano is a rich fertiliser produced by bird excrement. It was extracted en masse from these and other islands until the 1870s when chemical products became dominant, though it continues to be harvested today.
Drone cameras play a starring role in the films. They feed us glorious overhead perspectives, floating among seabirds and sweeping across pock-marked landscapes. They escort us through abandoned workers’ buildings, documenting their lives and harsh conditions. They surveil today’s guano shovelers as they stack bags of dung like the beginnings of pyramids. The drones then reveal themselves as characters, hovering menacingly, evoking the mechanical spiders from Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’. Daniel Wohl’s soundtrack pounds with dull engine throbs, accentuating the darker side of this real-life narrative.
Lê conveys the ambiguity of technological invention. The drone provides aerial advancement in filming as well as killing. Like the helicopter discussed passionately in his film ‘Farmers and the Helicopters’ (2010), it is a machine which hides human responsibility. In a conversation with Zoe Butt, (Executive Director and Curator of San Art, Vietnam), Lê states that when ‘... 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.’
‘The Colony’ is a multi-themed show within a simple construct. Lê reveals the US, Spain, Chile and Peru all flexing their geographical muscles and, along with Great Britain, profiting from the islands’ resources. This unavoidably extends to today’s claims and counterclaims of land ownership literally from the top of the globe in the Arctic to its Antarctic south. Onscreen visions of the sea also allude to Lê‘s passionate concern with China’s role in the South China Sea dispute, introducing further political narratives. Particularly moving are the ghostly shadows of the bonded Chinese labourers. Those who didn’t suicide worked in desperate conditions and lived in squalor. They were the virtual slaves of then and point towards the 12 million plus forced labourers of now, as claimed by the International Labour Organisation.
In an otherwise unused building in Peckham, the dusty atmosphere alerts our senses. Lê then takes us on a journey from the expansive skies of the Chinca Islands to the murky conflicts of other nations battling for power over limited resources. All the while he reminds us of the human cost, described by economist E F Schumacher as the ‘symptoms of loss’, and probably the true measure of the substance of humanity.