Art/Data/Health: Shielding

The Art/Data/Heath commissioned artwork “Shielding” explores the impact of the the COVID-19 quarantine on women facing domestic abuse and the paradoxical meaning of home as shelter. News stories around the world have highlighted the significant upsurge in violence and the need for increased support for victims of abuse from both governments and the charity sector, a time when support has been much harder to access because of infection control measures and reduced capacity, especially in the early stages of the pandemic.

“Shielding” installation view

The artwork is inspired by Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929) which states that women need their own safe space in order to flourish and be creative. This notion of a safe space is set against the stark image of the hastily constructed temporary hospital ward that has become such a familiar image in the news stories of 2020. Those locked down with abusive partners have no safe space in which to escape. Movement restrictions aimed to stop the spread of COVID-19 are making violence in homes more frequent, more severe and more dangerous. “Shielding” has become a familiar term for protecting those vulnerable to COVID-19 who are asked to stay home but the reality is for those at risk of domestic abuse the home is not a place of safety and care, and helplines globally are facing an increase of up to one third.

“Shielding” detail

The installation combines traditional feminine crafts such as sewing, embroidery and natural dyeing with healing plants (such as turmeric), with 3D printing based on digital reconstructions of hospital beds from the first temporary hospitals in Wuhan with their rows of identical beds, often with a bizarre jumble of colourful makeshift bedding sourced at speed from nearby factories. The doll sized beds also remind us of Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” (1879) which deals with the fate of a married woman in a male dominated world.

 “Shielding” has been impregnated with actual SARS-CoV-2 RNA (coronavirus) from a plasmid construct. This is a safe, non-infectious reagent for SARS-CoV-2 research (NIBSC 19/304), obtained from the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, UK. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was supplied by researchers Dr Ines Moura and Dr Jane Freeman at the University of Leeds who are working with the SARS-CoV-2 primers and the RNA construct in the development and use of a RT-PCR assay for SARS-CoV-2 detection in faeces.

It is a frequent theme in Dumitriu’s work to incorporate actual genetic material or other materials from the laboratory process in her artworks, such as in her “Plague Dress“. The presence of these bio-materials, even in this safe non-infectious form, allows us to confront some of our feelings about the pandemic, whilst the artwork itself becomes an authentic secular relic of the sublime laboratory and research processes that we are all pinning our hopes on.

This Art/Data/Health commissioned artwork by Anna Dumitriu is particularly relevant in the current crisis where numbers of domestic violence cases have been rising globally, while under-resourced civil society organisations struggle to remain accessible to those who need them most. The commission initially aimed to represent and creatively explore data around domestic abuse through hands on art workshops with staff from Brighton-based charity RISE, but has been adapted to respond to the global pandemic situation in light of the limitations that social distancing has brought.

Since the creative workshops planned by the ART/DATA/HEALTH project were cancelled due to the pandemic, Dumitriu prepared an art kit for the participants instead, which they were able access online. The creative activity prompted them to imagine an ideal a room of their own or a safe and cosy space for a service user, reflecting on Woolf’s writings. It is hoped that in due course participants can work with artist to create miniature bedcovers to be incorporated into the artwork with embroideries that bring their own meaning to the piece.

Dumitriu said in an interview for SENSORIUM in March 2020: “An important aspect is to let this situation inspire work and I am relieved that I have been able to adapt one current art commission to explore the impact of self-isolation and quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the issue of domestic abuse and violence from a global perspective.”

“Shielding” Work in progress computer modelling

This work is commissioned as part of the AHRC funded ART/DATA/HEALTH Project led by Dr Aristea Fotopoulou at the University of Brighton 2018-20. Anna Dumitriu’s project is inspired by the work of community domestic abuse and violence charity RISE.

“Shielding” Work in progress computer modelling