Drawn to Blood: Jordan Eagles talks with Darren Jones about his work with corporeal matter
New York based artist Jordan Eagles is known for his inventive use of blood as a primary medium, exploring existentialist concerns of life, death and the spiritual continuum. He recently expanded the scope of his material interests into political activism, by working with human blood, the aim being to initiate dialog and even improve government policy on blood donation. I met with him in his studio to discuss his current projects, the experience of working with corporeal matter, and his practice generally.
What drew you to blood as a medium in the first instance?
I was interested in exploring ideas of life after death and how connected body and spirit are. During that time, I was looking at medical encyclopedias and came across a series of images of childbirth, that were hand-drawn illustrations in black and white, and there was no blood in them, they had edited it out. I understood birth to be a bloody process, so that was odd and fascinating. In considering mortality and spirituality I used those images, enlarged them, photocopied them and adhered them to canvas and dripped red paint onto them with the aim of putting the blood back in. Paint provided flat, lifeless results that lacked charge, so I began using real blood, and it was almost immediate – the charge – was so different from paint, it was a powerful moment. Over several months the blood altered color from vibrant red, to an earthy tone, and from there I learned preservation techniques through trial and error. If you are thinking about immortality, spiritual beliefs etc, then philosophical questions come into play, primarily, that if you’re preserving blood, essentially, the body, are you also preserving spirit? And do the works themselves preserve spiritual essence, not creative energy, but genetic spirit? The thoughts become about existence.
When blood is so ubiquitous a subject today – brutality in movies; normalized, extreme photojournalism – as an artistic material, has its potency been diminished at all?
Everyone has a personal relationship to blood, so regardless of how much it is seen on TV, or in pop culture, it doesn’t change the amount of blood that’s in your body. You’re coming to it with preconceived notions regarding your own experience with blood; women and men for example have different responses to blood – we’re not even thinking yet about violence, but the premise of how blood behaves within you; there is body function, life giving, circulatory systems et al.
Using the blood of animals from a slaughterhouse, one of the thrusts behind that is the idea of regeneration, taking this life-force material, presenting images and preserving that blood in such a way where it evokes life, and life-cycle, the universe, really focusing on the material, and presenting it in a way where it is a natural specimen. There definitely is a sense that the blood comes from a slaughterhouse, and there is an inherent violence in that, so it’s interesting to take something that gives life, that also has hints of violence in it, and create something that is beautiful, or whatever word you would put toward what’s happening, that the pieces emit an energy.
It’s cyclical in a way because some of your work evokes vast cosmologically explosions, supernovas, galaxies, so while they aren’t blood-related trauma, such events are as violent as we can imagine. In a sense then, the violence associated with where the blood comes from is carried through in the imagery?
It’s the death and birth of stars, and the evolution of the universe, and that relates to those initial childbirth illustrations; generally women don’t describe childbirth as a peaceful process. Also, personal growth comes from struggle, it’s an undeniable part of living. But in terms of where the blood comes from, my treatment of it, and respect of it, is drastically different to the violence. With my recent Blood Mirror project, I moved into using human blood and the idea of peaceful giving of one’s blood, that it can be used for live-saving purposes, not about death or disease, but the ability to save a life.
And, most people don’t usually see blood, but it’s here with us right now. It’s contained within us, we’re held together by a thin membrane of skin. Blood is always present, but seen primarily in moments of injury, or for women during menstruation. So, what is interesting about the material is that it is so relevant in so many ways, from the representations mentioned at the start of your question, but there is also science, religion, so many themes to explore. It was my impression that when imagery of blood became more prevalent in society through prime-time shows like True Blood and Dexter, there was a shift in perception of blood, and it became easier for a viewer to approach it without fear. Although, however much it was out there in culture, it is a very different experience to stand in front of the artwork, and be with it.
What struck you about the FDA amending its ban on gay men donating blood, to allowing donation after a year of celibacy, that compelled you discuss the issue through your work?
In 2013 I started thinking about the lifetime ban, on which there was very little conversation. It is something that has always bothered me. I’d tried in my 20s to donate blood, and was unable to because I’m gay. And there was a moment when I thought maybe I could help engage dialog on this equality issue. The first iteration of the project, a December 2014 blood drive, and subsequent preservation in sculpture of the first 9 of an eventual 59 blood donations – existed before the amendment was put in place. One of the many intense components of Blood Mirror was the process of finding and connecting with the donors, because it’s very different working with blood from donors who are alive, and standing with them against discrimination. Everyone has opinions, they joined the project because they wanted to share, contribute and they want their voices to be heard, and so the blood in a way is not silent. I felt that responsibility to the men who participated. We continued working through the FDA’s deliberation process and eventual introduction of the new celibacy rule during 2015, because it occurred to me that the amendment was not the answer we needed, and in fact it was worse.
It is one thing to have an outdated policy that is put in place during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the early eighties, grappling with how to detect for HIV, there was no medicine, there wasn’t even the ability to do testing; medical professionals back then had to do something urgently, and so I understand the drastic step of implementing a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood.
But in 2015 when you had the science and knowledge at your disposal to correct that policy, but instead introduced a one year celibacy, it adds insult to injury. You are not examining the issue from a scientific basis, and that becomes an absolute disrespect. By shifting it in this way you are perpetuating stigma, because here we are in the modern age and we are still saying that it’s gay men who are the only transmitters of HIV, and so we have to be celibate for a year. This is a year after the CDC suggested that gay men at higher risk go on PREP; it was the same year that gay marriage passed; so monogamous gay men in a married relationship can’t have sex with their husband for a year? The premise of how they came to that amendment is ridiculous because it shows that we are not trusting in science, in our scientists and we are making blankets judgements.
What are the purposes, or ideal outcomes of the Blood Mirror Project?
One of the reasons for creating this sculpture was to be able to say, that all of the blood in this sculpture could have been used for life-saving purposes. The point is that the way the FDA is editing gay men out of the equation is not considering the HIV- gay men who could be donating blood. For example, The Williams Institute’s research suggested that, if the ban was lifted, over a million lives a year could be saved, and that’s gay blood. So, I wanted to invite individuals who would be eligible for blood donation, were it not for this discriminatory policy.
There are two components, there are the first nine men who donated, each with very different lives and stories, and thus they help articulate the issues behind the policy; For example having Rev. John W. Moody, addresses religion and spirituality, or Dr Larry Mass, one of the co-founders of Gay Mens Health Crisis, the first person to write about HIV/AIDS, anchors the project in this sense of HIV/AIDS history.
The second layer of Blood Mirror was a 50 man blood drive, each donating a tube, equalling a full pint which would be added to the sculpture. An important part of Blood Mirror was inviting individuals from the medical and LGBT communities, who were already engaged in this issue, who could make recommendations as to what the proper procedures should be. For example, Kelsey Louie, current CEO of Gay Mens Health Crisis, is a donor to the project, and GMHC have been advocating on this issue; another donor is Dr Demetre Daskalakis, the Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Health for New York City. These are people who were passionate about this personally, and also could speak to the different themes relating to blood scientifically, medically and spiritually.
Recently, I did the Blood Equality Program at the Hammer Museum, and Dr Peter Marks who’s the Head of Biologics at the FDA, recorded a video message in response to the program, that we played there. He talked about how the FDA would like to move toward an individual screening assessment. Currently all potential donors get the same form, one of the questions being, “are you a man who has had sex with another man in the past year?”, and if you say yes, you are excluded. So, what we are working towards, is to realize a policy of individual screening that is fair and inclusive for everyone.
Another component was to help start a blood equality campaign, which is a collaboration between, FCB Health, GMHC, and the Blood Mirror Project, to raise awareness and to create a medical board, which we have done and which the FDA has participated in.
What are the differences between working with animal and human blood?
There are differences; aesthetically – almost the same. With Blood Mirror the time coordinating the blood drives was something I couldn’t have imagined. Producing became the main thrust of my practice for over a year. To coordinate 50 men, with the amount of people required – phlebotomists, medical supervisors, documentarians, assistants, it was full staff environment, with a lot of moving parts. So at the end, in the studio with 50 tubes of blood, you’ve been working 3 months just to get that blood. So there is excitement, that a community of men on PREP, came together. To me the blood drives themselves were art. I had interviewed many of the men who donated, heard their thoughts, and why they showed up. Having communicated with those people, to then show up at the studio that night with the blood, it is as though that blood is speaking to you. It’s a powerful feeling to be pouring that blood into the Blood Mirror sculpture. Working with human blood is different because those donors are trusting me. At the end Blood Mirror invites the viewer to see themselves and their reflection through the blood of the donor individuals, and to see yourself through other people is a timeless conversation.
Part of what makes Blood Mirror special for me is the immensely collaborative nature of the project,from the medical team – led by Dr Howard Grossman to creative partners, advisers, organizational and institutional support, and obviously the many men who donated their blood and voices in the name of equality.
Your work – while underwritten by subjects including religion and corporality – is undeniably beautiful. This is often an often unfairly disregarded notion in contemporary art, derided as not being objective or socially relevant. What are your thoughts on beauty?
It’s a matter of taste of course, but I immediately respond to artwork that hits me on a visceral level. I appreciate going to an exhibition and being wowed by an artwork. I like that immediacy, not just visually – it might be a sound piece or other art-form – and because that is my taste I bring that energy to my practice. Blood is a incredible material and I can do a lot of very interesting things with it. Blood preserved in resin is fascinating to look at (for some people, others won’t be fascinated by it) And I’d say that beauty is a word for my work, but it’s not the only superlative. The way that blood can be edited to generate organic patterns through manipulation of resin intrigues me. Also the way in which blood illuminates helps create a different mood. So when you are considering blood with the resin, with light, and dimensionality, I think of them as painting/sculpture hybrids. Then, there are the additional materials of blood soaked gauze, blood dust, etc. There are a lot of different components involved, even within the blood itself, how it is manipulated, the age of the blood and so on. The combination of all of those aspects does create impact.
I’ve noted before that you espouse an impressive level of professionalism, efficiency and efficacy toward the job of being an artist, both in the studio and after the work is complete. Can you talk about that?
Blood is a very time-based material. So when you make marks, it needs to be preserved at a certain moment to maintain the integrity of color, texture the patterns. So it is happening now, in the present, I have maybe 3 hours and the preservation has to take place. So there is a certain work-discipline that comes with this material. I also find nothing more exciting than the moment a piece is finished. My catharsis is when the piece is lifted off of the table, leaned against the wall and lit for the first time, and there you have the results of that discipline realized.
After the work is completed It then depends what you want to communicate. With Blood Mirror the agenda is different. That project lives primarily outside the art world. We showed it at American University Museum, who were incredibly supportive, which is an art museum – and then is another thrust of that project which is social media – more people have seen Blood Mirror through Youtube or on MSNBC, than they have through the sculpture in person, which is unfortunate because the work should be seen first-hand, but if the idea is to change policy it needed to expand that way.
Generally speaking the reality is that more people will see my work online than they will in person, other than an art fair, or when I did an event on the High Line, what was so wonderful about that was that there were a thousand people at one time, that was amazing. But otherwise you’re dealing with the digital world, So, what are you trying to communicate to your audience, and given what set of circumstances are available at that moment, what’s the best way to do it? Art is a way to communicate with people, and there’s a lot of parts to how that communication plays out. I mean somebody has to do the work! (laughter) someone’s got to do it.