By the middle of the 19th century the islands had become mountains of guano. 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. War was triggered by Spanish, American and Peruvian forces scrambled for control of the islands and in 1856, the US Congress Guano Act enabled it to seize uninhabited islands around the world. The advent of chemical fertilisers saw the islands re-colonised by birds. Architectural traces of the conflicted past remain in ruins.
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.
The Colony is part of The Artangel Collection, an initiative to bring outstanding film and video works, commissioned and produced by Artangel, to galleries and museums across the UK.