The Colony is a new film installation by Vietnamese artist and filmmaker Dinh Q. Lê on the site of one of London’s earliest cinemas, Peckham’s Electric Theatre which opened in 1908. Lê’s films immerse the viewer in the desolate environment of the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru.
Home to huge colonies of birds, by the middle of the 19th century the islands had become mountains of guano. Discovered to be a potent fertiliser, guano quickly became one of the world’s most valuable natural resources. British merchants controlled its trade, using indentured Chinese labourers working under brutal conditions.
Meanwhile Spanish, American and Peruvian forces scrambled for control of the islands and war broke out. In 1856 the US Congress passed the Guano Act enabling it to seize uninhabited islands around the world. Once chemical fertilisers were developed at the start of the twentieth century, the trade of guano collapsed, and the islands were recolonised by the birds.
The islands have not been permanently inhabited for more than a century, but labourers return to harvest the guano by hand every few years. Accompanied by Daniel Kramer’s elegiac soundtrack, Lê films from a boat approaching the islands, cameras on the ground and drones circling above to capture a bleak landscape haunted by its brutal past.