Looking Inward with Speculative Portraits

Envisioning new modes of portraiture

by , May 2022

Hershman Leeson, Lynn, Room #8, 2019; © Lynn Hershman Leeson, SFMOMA Collection, Courtesy of the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco Photo Credit: Franz Wamhof

From animation of human emotions to an archive of an artist’s work encoded in DNA, Speculative Portraits features new media works by contemporary artists Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Rhonda Holberton, Mika Tajima, and Gail Wight. The exhibition, on view through September 5, 2022, explores how artworks that draw from scientific research or technology can expand how human identity and expression are depicted.

For Tanya Zimbardo, assistant curator of media arts and exhibition curator, Hershman Leeson’s Room #8 (2006–18), a major new acquisition, served as a key point of departure for the presentation; the work marks the conclusion of the Bay Area artist’s 12-year investigation into the biological nature of identity. The resulting installation is viewed through a laboratory window consisting of two vials glowing in a spectral blue light and reflected in a mirrored box. One vial contains the artist’s archived work “coded” within synthetic DNA created with Twist Bioscience, the other a custom antibody created with the help of biomedical researcher Dr. Thomas Huber of Novartis Labs that features amino acids in its molecular structure that spell out “LYNN HERSHMAN” — coincidentally, just the right amount of letters.

“If you think of artists as antibodies, going into a toxic space of culture and trying to identify the diseased parts and heal it, that’s a life project,” Hershman Leeson reflected in a 2020 Artforum interview. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve lived long enough to be able to use DNA to make some sort of haiku of my life. While the vials containing DNA and antibodies in Room #8 are physically small, they represent much of what I’ve ever lived and most of what I’ve thought.”

Dewey-Hagborg, Heather, Radical Love, 2016; Accessions Committee Fund purchase, © Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Radical Love (2016) by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, meanwhile, underscores how advancements in DNA phenotyping—a technique most common in crime analysis and forensics—can entrench gender identity stereotypes. Through a collaborative process with whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea E. Manning, the work consists of two 3D-printed faces based on an analysis of DNA from hair clippings and cheek swabs Manning sent to the artist from prison. Dewey-Hagborg created two life-sized face masks, one that was algorithmically gender-neutral, and one that was assigned female. The differences in the two portraits underscore the biases and misconceptions behind these purportedly objective techniques.

Mika Tajima, Human Synth (Los Angeles), 2019 (installation view); collection Mihail Lari and Scott Murray; © Mika Tajima, Photo: Katherine Du Tiel

Other pieces in the exhibition include Mika Tajima’s Human Synth (Los Angeles) (2019), a projected animation that mines Twitter feeds from Tajima’s home city of Los Angeles and then displays the collective sentiment of a population in real time, by making it visible in the mesmerizing form, shape, hue, and speed of digital smoke. “Tajima brings together here old and new forms of prediction, the ancient method of smoke divination with predictive sentiment analysis,” says Zimbardo.

Bay Area artist Gail Wight likewise reflects on emotional states but gestures to the psychopharmaceutical industry and its role in claiming that various mood enhancers and cures can be found by altering neurochemistry. Wight revisits One Hundred Links (for Rousseau) (1992/2022) for this show, an early poetic piece that presents an array of neurotransmitters in tests tubes labeled with a state of mind — terms derived not only from drug companies, but also from literature and folklore.

Holberton, Rhonda, Best of Both Worlds, 2016; Purchase through a gift of Nion McEvoy, © Rhonda Holberton

Through Microsoft 3D Kinect scanning technology, Bay Area artist Rhonda Holberton renders a pixelated figure that goes through various Vinyasa yoga poses in a virtual landscape. The transitions in the digital animation Best of Both Worlds (2016) parallel our experience of switching between selves in front of a computer screen. While the psychic shifts in digital space can feel traumatic for some, Holberton believes it also increases awareness of the fluidity of identity.

Together, the works in Speculative Portraits explore the intersections of art, technology, and science to reflect on how we understand and present our biological and digital selves. Scientific and technological advancements, from medical breakthroughs to our climate of online hyperconnectivity, have led to positive societal contributions; however, they have likewise introduced various ethical challenges.

As Zimbardo notes, the exhibition not only “creates an intergenerational dialogue, including three Bay Area artists in the show who have pioneered new forms of media,” but also “considers how artists navigate around structures of pressure and control, using contemporary tools to reflect on our world today.”

“Speculative Portraits” is on view through September 5, 2022 on Floor 7. Learn more and plan a trip here.

Audrey Wang

Audrey Wang

Audrey Wang is the Digital Content Associate at SFMOMA where she creates and publishes online content for the museum. Audrey graduated from Northeastern University and has worked at WGBH and NBC. She's not a Bay Area native but has firmly planted her heart in San Francisco and enjoys watching movies and biking in her free time.
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