For the past 20 years, Jordan Eagles has experimented with blood, learning through repeated trial-and-error how to keep it from oxidizing into a rusty brown color. The artist’s unconventional medium of choice has sometimes caused onlookers to cringe; not everyone is ready to confront a symbol of their own mortality on the gallery wall. But the experience is vital. Blood may represent a bridge between life and death, but historically, it’s also been used as a wall between people of different races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexualities.
The latest chapter in the artist’s saga of red-soaked objects is a series of posters printed in blood. Starting June 14, “Our Blood Can Save Them” will be installed inside the Center’s Keith Haring Bathroom and inside the window displays of participating Housing Works shops across New York City. Principally, the project confronts the FDA’s classification of gay men in the highest-risk blood-donor category — the same category as IV drug users and people who’ve spent more than five years since 1980 in a country that has mad cow disease. (Even with a clean bill of health, men who have sex with men (MSM) are barred from donating blood because of regulations installed during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.) The project also confronts historical racial bias and transphobia in the military by recreating a World War II propaganda poster in blood from an active U.S. Service Member who identifies as transgender and pansexual.
Eagles and I spoke on the phone about the project and its broader resonance in today’s America. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
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Zachary Small: Blood is a pretty uncommon material for an artist to use these days. How did you start making work with it?
Jordan Eagles: The first painting I made with blood was in 1998. At the time, I was having a lot of spiritual debates with my friend about whether or not there was life after death, and if the body housed one’s spirit. I was undecided, but he was more of an atheist. There were these images of childbirth from a medical encyclopedia that I was interested in because the drawings were very basic, almost like line drawings. And more importantly, the illustrations didn’t feature blood, which I thought was funny given that childbirth can often be a very bloody process. The images struck me as inauthentic, so I transferred them onto acetate sheets and dripping red paint onto them as symbolic blood. But the works were flat and had no energy to them; the paint was just paint. At some point, I covered everything in gesso and started over. I went to Chinatown and bought a pint of pig’s blood.
From there, I spent the first few years experimenting with preservation techniques. Eventually, I began using UV resins and acrylic substrates like Plexiglass to preserve the blood. It has to do with layering the blood at various stages in the resin’s cure time, as well as the age of the blood you’re dealing with. There was a lot of trial-and-error to finding my own unique process
ZS: So what you’re saying is that there weren’t a lot of artists before you who were using blood to create their work?
JE: On the contrary, the reality is that blood may have been the first artistic medium in history. Some of the cave paintings were done in blood. There’s also a long history of blood as a mark-making material. Think about the Bible and how Moses marked the doors of Jewish families in Egypt during the Ten Plagues or the symbolic potency of Christ’s blood in the New Testament.
ZS: How did the concept for “Our Blood Can Save Them” come about?
JE: This piece has been in development since March 2018, but it’s actually part of a larger body of work with multiple chapters. Last year, I showed “Jesus, Christie’s” with the Leslie-Lohman museum, which was a commentary on the auction house’s $450 million sale of the Salvator Mundi painting. “Blood Mirror” started in 2014 and was my first human blood project. The work consists of blood from 59 different people and advocates for equality even as it protests the discriminatory politics of the government’s blood ban.
ZS: And how do you find people willing to participate in this kind of project?
JE: There’s no single way to find participants. For “Blood Mirror,” for example 50 people were advocates for PrEP, each of which donated a single tube of blood. (50 tubes equals a full pint, the standard amount for donation.) Finding those men was different from finding the other nine participants, who came from different backgrounds. One was an openly gay priest while the other was a co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
For my latest project, I worked with various LGBTQ organizations and trans people who could connect me with active service members who are also transgender. Ultimately, my pathway led me through a transgender veterans association, which linked me up to someone who I met and had a really great conversation with.
ZS: Why was it important for this project to include the blood of a transgender member of the armed forces?
JE: Overall, this project is about blood donation and the policies around it. For this work in particular, I wanted to address the status of transgender individuals in giving blood. Although the FDA is not necessarily looking to screen out transgender people from giving blood, I believe that the language they use on screening forms is discriminatory because it can void those people out of the process. If a transgender man is having sex with a man, the FDA would disqualify them from giving blood and require them to stay celibate for a year before trying again. And there’s no medical reason to have a one-year celibacy rule. It’s completely arbitrary. Really, there should be zero difference in the questions you ask me or my mother. Things can get even more complicated for people who identify as gender non-conforming.
When I found out that my blood donor is also pansexual, I thought: here’s a person who could potentially donate blood one day and not the next solely based on the body parts of his partner. There’s something about it that just doesn’t add up. We should all be treated as human beings, individuals. If you want a deferral policy that tells people to wait nine days before donating blood, which is about the window of time for blood testing to show HIV exposure, then enforce that across the board. If you want to tell everyone to stay celibate for a few days, that’s fine, but don’t single out MSMs.
ZS: What is so significant about showing this work in the Keith Haring Bathroom at the Center and Housing Works?
JE: One of my favorite places in New York City is the Keith Haring Bathroom. It’s such a charged space; it’s so intimate that you can imagine the artist working there on his ladder. Haring is something of a playful ghost in the room, and his mural is so celebratory and sexual. And yet, it’s important to note that Haring died not long after finishing it. He died from AIDS complications, and my project is also about ending stigma associated with the disease. That discrimination is the cause of the blood ban agains MSMs in the first place. Juxtaposing these artworks can create another intimate experience.
It’s important that these posters are going up on June 14, which is World Blood Donor Day. The Housing Works stores will put the posters in their windows, and on July 14, all those prints will become available for sale. All proceeds will go to benefit the nonprofit.
ZS: And before we end our discussion, let’s talk a little bit about your subject choice. Why did you decide to focus this work around a World War II propaganda poster?
JE: Like a propaganda poster, we can reproduce our images everywhere. Contextualizing this work in the 1940s, when racial segregation of blood existed, was also very important because it represents the idea that blood donation has been tainted with discrimination from the very beginning. And when I see the solider in this poster saying, “Your blood can save him,” I know it’s not true. My blood cannot save him because I’m a gay man who’s banned from donating blood. But this is a fallen soldier, and right now I’m thinking about all the transgender people in the armed forces who are being threatened, in one form or another, by the Trump administration. This project was in development long before the transgender ban was put into place, but it feels like another version of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
There’s also a sense of time in the project. Inside the bathroom, there’s a 7-foot-tall panel that preserves the original WWII poster in resin with blood splattered across it. We have also preserved the used blood bag, tube, and needle as medical waste that archives the process of creating this work. And because we only had one pint of blood to create these posters, each edition starts to ooze as the blood runs out, eventually creating a faded look to some of the prints. I wanted to confront that history and add the blood of an LGBTQ person to compare queer history to where we are now.
Swann’s first ever “Pride Sale,” a curated auction of material related to the LGBTQ+ experience and the gay rights movement, takes place on June 20, 2019. A corresponding exhibition of works on offer will run from June 15 through the sale.