Exhibition Review: Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea E. Manning at Fridman Gallery
By Liz Von Klemperer
To fully appreciate Heather Dewey-Hagbord and Chelsea E. Manning’s A Becoming Resemblance at Fridman Gallery, we must first take a look at their 2015 collaboration, Radical Love. This first project began when Paper Magazine contacted Dewey-Hagbord with a proposal to create a DNA portrait of Manning, who was incarcerated at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth Kansas for exposing U.S. secrets regarding torture in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dewey-Hagbord was unable to see Manning in person, as a strict prison visitation policy did not allow it. Manning subsequently sent Dewey-Hagbord cheek swabs and hair clippings in the mail so that Dewey-Hagbord could extract DNA from the samples. She processed the samples and produced a series of 3D printed, life size “portrait masks” of what Manning potentially looked like. “It gave a kind of visibility back to me,” Manning said of Dewey-Hagbord’s work. Despite Manning’s burgeoning media presence, the world had not seen images of Manning since beginning her gender transition in prison.
Although Manning was originally sentenced for 35 years, she was released in 2017 as one of Obama’s last humanitarian acts in office. A Becoming Resemblance marks the first time Manning will be able to see the portraits created from her DNA in person.
“Prisons try very hard to make us inhuman and unreal by denying our image, and thus our existence, to the rest of the world,” Manning said in her artist statement. “Imagery has become a kind of proof of existence. The use of DNA in art provides a cutting edge and a very post-modern—almost ‘post-post-modern’—analysis of thought, identity, and expression. It combines chemistry, biology, information, and our ideas of beauty and identity.”
The power of the exhibit comes from the placement of masks, which are suspended at eye-level in the middle of the gallery. This crowd of possible Manning’s meets the viewer face to face as they enter the exhibit. The piece stands as a testament to the malleability of gender and identity. Just as DNA can be interpreted in myriad ways, the individual also contains multitudes of understandings.
The exhibition also features an image from illustrator Shoili Kangungo’s Suppressed Images, a graphic comic strip of the collaboration. The piece was completed in 2016, before Manning was released from prison. Today, A Becoming Resemblance serves as a realization of Kangungo’s final panel, in which Manning comes face to face with 30 renditions of her own DNA. A Becoming Resemblance will be on view at Fridman Gallery until September 5.