Drudgery captured by drones: The Colony

Installation view of The Colony (2016) three screen film installation courtesy of Dinh Q. Le  and Artangel

This three screen video installation by Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê was a huge success for Artangel when it was shown in the cavernous exhibition space at 133 Rye Lane, Peckham in the summer on its tour of the UK. It was filmed on the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru where over centuries indigenous bird colonies have created mountains of guano, a prized resource before the advent of chemical fertilisers, which resulted in intense international conflict over exploitation rights.

Lê uses camera mounted drones in a variety of modes to document the grim working lives of local labourers  which he contrasts with startlingly beautiful images of the natural and industrial landscape. Aerial shots of thousands of ground nests created by the dense bird colonies evoke a pockmarked alien planet. A drone stealthily cruises through abandoned buildings tracking down the traces of their former inhabitants. In his most dramatic sequences he records  work gangs  shovelling guano into black sacks  and stacking them at ludicrous speed into architectural structures resembling giant ziggurats waiting to be exported.

Throughout Lê pays tribute to the versatility of his new technological equipment by featuring the drones as subjects in their own right giving them almost birdlike attributes as they swoop perilously close to vertiginous land forms. 2016 has been the year when drones have become the video artist’s favourite new tool and Lê has been the most successful I have seen so far.

On my visit I was lucky enough to catch a terrific dance piece inspired by Lê’s work, choreographed by a group of students from Lewisham College and sensitively performed in the space between the three screens. Their ability to evoke the poignancy of the island’s birdlife through movement and sound will stay with me for a long time!