Artist Radha Chaddah wants you to take closer look at the coronavirus. Like, on the molecular level
One year into the pandemic, Chaddah is sharing a different kind of COVID story
This month, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is debuting new work from local artist Radha Chaddah. Called IAM, this digital exhibition is actually the first act in a series of four short films that she aims to produce between now and the end of 2022. It's a "COVID story," says Chaddah, but one that offers a perspective beyond the anniversary of its impact on life and culture and toilet-paper consumption. "I wanted to present a piece that makes people think about the coronavirus in a different way," she explains, "one that pulls them out of the realm of fear and puts our imaginations into the realm of curiosity."
It's scientific curiosity that Chaddah's talking about, and her own extra-curricular inquiries first sparked the series. For several years, Chaddah has produced work that splices art and science, a practice she began while doing grad studies in molecular neurobiology. "If I had to describe it simply, I would say that I make art about invisible realities, often using the tools of research science," she says, and in January of last year, she was gripped by news of the novel coronavirus' discovery.
"I started researching: reading research papers, looking into how it was that [the virus] actually affected the human body," she says. "How does it get into the cells? What's its replicative life cycle?" Chaddah wanted a closer look at the structure of the various molecules associated with the progression of COVID-19 in the body, and there is, it turns out, a trove of free material online. Using animated 3-D renderings (sourced from this digital database), Chaddah began reviewing the files: blowing them up with a video projector, and using the trees in her own backyard as "a kind of green, living stage."
I wanted to present a piece that makes people think about the coronavirus in a different way, one that pulls them out of the realm of fear and puts our imaginations into the realm of curiosity.- Radha Chaddah, artist
"Being able to rotate, manipulate these molecular models, I could create this amazing immersive environment," she says. "[It's] a creative interpretation of the life cycle of this pathogen. That story had to be told through movement."
Part one of IAM (the film appearing on the Aga Khan's website) is called "Dance of the Molecules." Recorded on Chaddah's property in September, it features two dancers: Allie Blumas (who choreographed the piece) and Lee Gelbloom. Their bodies, along with the leafy setting, serve as a screen for Chaddah's projections: a swirl of firecracker colour and pattern, built from found digital models. Quite literally, the viewer is looking at an illustration of how the coronavirus infects the human body and then replicates. (The very first images, for example, are close-ups of the virus' spiky surface, she explains.) And in tandem with this molecular drama, the dancers interpret the process.
"We chose to shoot it as a film because this is the only way to bring our work to the public in this pandemic time," says Chaddah. "But when the pandemic passes, the plan is that we could present it in a dark park setting."
Over three more short films, Chaddah says she plans to continue the narrative. With each chapter, the story's focus will zoom out, so to speak. In part one, she's concerned with COVID-19's impact on a molecular level. By part four, the story will cast its attention to the cosmos. Us humans are always a part of the story, but we're not the centre of the action. And instead of framing the coronavirus as a threat, it is simply something that exists, a fascinating entity to be observed and considered in concert with all things.
"We've taught ourselves over a millennia to believe in the dominion of human beings, that we exist at the top of this hierarchy and that, you know, we are in control of it," says Chaddah, "and we are not."
"In order to be able to make our way forward with less fear," says Chaddah, "we need to reframe our thinking about nature and our place in it, I think."
Radha Chaddah. IAM: Dance of the Molecules. Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. www.agakhanmuseum.org