A drone whizzes around a desolate island inhabited by a colony of seagulls; empty, dilapidated buildings speak of prison-like living conditions during former times; labourers lugging sacks of bird excrement onto boats remind us about the exploitation of human beings for global trade. Before reading any literature, one can discern that this compelling three-part video installation, The Colony, by Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê deals with imperialism, greed and disputes over land and natural resources.

Born in South Vietnam in 1968, Lê fled with his family by boat to the US in the late 1970s. For the past decade, he has been based in Ho Chi Minh City, where he co-founded Sàn Art, a non-profit contemporary art organisation. Much of his work has been concerned with the Vietnam War and the plight of individuals embroiled in geopolitical turmoil.

Dinh Q. Lê. Colony of Peruvian Booby on Pescadores Island. Production shot of The Colony (2016). Photograph courtesy of the artist.

For The Colony, Lê turned his attention to the history of the Chincha Islands off the west coast of Peru. In the 19th century, these unpopulated islands were discovered to be rich in a barely-known commodity, that of guano, more commonly known as bird manure. This prompted transnational conflict over land ownership between Spain and its former colonies of Peru and Chile between 1864-1866. Lê recognises a similarity between this conflict and China's reclamation of land in the South China Sea, which is contested by the US and Vietnam. Indeed, some of Lê's footage comes from surveillance videos that he found online of the American military flying over the South China Sea to make clear to China that America does not recognise its territorial claim.

The title of the installation was inspired by Kafka's short story, In the Penal Colony. It transpires that the abandoned dormitories in The Colony were built in the 20th century for indentured Chinese labourers. Today, however, it is male Peruvian workers who are brought to the Chincha islands and live in makeshift camps during harvesting periods.

Dinh Q. Lê. Dock and Housing on Pescadores Island. Production shot of The Colony (2016). Photograph courtesy of the artist.

What makes the installation arresting is the diversity of filming. Lê filmed the islands from a boat, a bird's eye view and by using a drone. The drone serves to express that the history of the Chincha Islands should not be ignored and relates to how drones are being increasingly used for gathering information.

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