Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Wendy Vogel, Artforum, June 24, 2019

“To break the cell is to trespass the most intimate of spaces,” intones Heather Dewey-Hagborg in T3511, 2018, a multichannel video that centers on her obsession over an anonymous saliva sample she purchased online in 2016. We learn through a (potentially fictional) series of narrated letters that the saliva came from a mysterious entity called Donor T2305. The artist then sent off a portion of the material to get genetically tested. Upon receiving the results, she profiles the donor—a male, dark-haired fortysomething from the Saint Louis area—and finds a match named “Michael Daniels” on social media. The tension quickly escalates as Dewey-Hagborg attempts to replicate part of the specimen by infecting it with a simian virus; she also stalks the laboratory where “Michael” originally gave his saliva. She eventually provides some of her own DNA, labeled T3511, to the same facility. The pixie-haired Dewey-Hagborg, who resembles Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, plays the role of the lonely mad scientist—or, in this case, infatuated biohacker—to dramatic effect. The project is imbued with shades of the Pygmalion myth, and the video’s epistolary form calls to mind the 1997 novel I Love Dick, Chris Kraus’s feminist ode to the male muse. “Michael, your secrets are safe with me,” concludes Dewey-Hagborg with romantic irony.


The psychological horror of T3511 outweighs the emotional impact of the artist’s two other projects in the exhibition, though they are no less impressive as feats of biological engineering. For the installation Lovesick, 2019, Dewey-Hagborg has created a virus that increases the amount of the “love hormone,” oxytocin. The work Spirit Molecule, 2018­–19, features a greenhouse where tobacco, morning glories, and passion flowers are being infused with DNA from a botanist’s deceased grandmother. While tobacco is a medium described by the artist as a practical “workhorse” for genetic splicing, the implications of permeating it with a dead loved one are evocative. After all, poets have dreamed of consuming their objects of affection for centuries—ethical boundaries be damned.