Interview with Jonathan Watkins, Dinh Q. Lê, The Colony, Ikon Gallery

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, in collaboration with Artangel, unveils The Colony (2016), a major new commission of video work by acclaimed Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê. Opening on 27 January, 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 fertiliser. Through new island footage shot from a number of different perspectives, Lê explores the drama of absurdity, greed and human suffering from the past to the present. We speak to Ikon Director Jonathan Watkins about this powerful new piece, which marks a significant development in the artist’s practice.

A: Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony offers a visual survey on the political and social history of a cluster of islands off the coast of Peru. How does the artist explore the islands’ brutal past through this new video installation?
JW: Dinh Q. Lê is a subtle artist, not overly didactic. The Colony conveys a clear political position – against slavery, against imperialism, against unsustainable industry etc. – through editing and ‘framing’ rather than hammer-blow dialogue. The islands’ brutal past is seen as an absent presence.

A: The exhibition reflects upon the delicate themes of absurdity, greed and human suffering. In your opinion, what makes video the ideal medium to portray these subjects, in particular the islands’ strenuous history?
JW: Video is not especially appropriate when it comes to absurdity, greed and human suffering. Arguably, literature does it better. That being said, photo and video evidence of bad things happening has an immediacy that touches us like nothing else, making us feel that we are ‘right there’, and the footage we have is very effective in that way. History is another thing, coming through in between the lines.

A: Can you offer some insight into Lê’s practice, and how does this recent work relate to previous pieces?
JW: Dinh Q. Lê is very concerned with post-colonialist politics. This work is extraordinary for him because it takes us beyond Vietnam, requiring us to focus on a cluster of islands off the coast of Peru. But then again, we see the United States playing a villainous role. And it turns out that the ‘guano islands’ have quite a lot in common with islands in the South China Sea.

A: The Colony refers to wars and horrific events. How will audiences at Ikon respond to the work? Does the installation differ greatly from previously exhibited projects?
JW: The exhibition, on the face of it, is a very pleasant experience! Sweeping aerial views of islands and wildlife in the Pacific Ocean. It is an immersive art work, with uncomfortable implications, and so bears resemblance to other recent Ikon exhibitions such as Yael Bartana’s trilogy, And Europe Will Be Stunned (2012) and Stuart Whipps’ Why Contribute to the Spread of Ugliness? (2011). The good looking style of The Colony is a kind of Trojan Horse.

A: As Director of Ikon, are there any particular scenes, visuals or messages that remain with you after viewing the work?
JW: I suspect that others, like me, will be thrilled by the panoramic views of the Chincha Islands – little land masses in vast seas – touched by the probing camera work in the workers’ dormitories, at least slightly horrified by the sheer amount of physical effort involved in harvesting. Figures are not languishing in this landscape.

A: What drew the gallery and exhibition collaborator Artangel, to bring The Colony to the UK?
JW: Artangel asked us to nominate an artist for a partnership scheme, part-funded by Arts Council England, and we quickly thought of Dinh Q. Lê. At Ikon, we often work with artists from South East Asia and thought perhaps Artangel might appreciate some input from this part of the world. And our audiences appreciate news coming from outside the all-too-familiar Euro-American axis.

Dinh Q. Lê, The Colony, 27 January – 3 April, Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, B1 2HS.

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