Jordan Eagles remembers trying to donate blood in his early 20s and being told he couldn’t. The 41-year-old artist, who is gay, was turned away due to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) policy, not to accept blood donations from men who’d had sex with another man “even one time” since 1977. The lifetime ban was implemented in 1985, an early response to the AIDS epidemic, but it lasted for more than three decades before being tweaked to be slightly more inclusive in 2015.
“I was pissed,” Eagles recalls. “I reached over the table and grabbed my paperwork. I thought, 'You’re not filing me as some reject in some cabinet. Hell no.' That feeling of anger stuck with me. It was always that ‘even once’ that was a punch to my gut.”
At the time, Eagles was experimenting with using animal blood from slaughterhouses in his art. He'd preserve the blood in plexiglass and UV resin to create glistening, mesmerizing sculptures. But his fury about the FDA's discriminatory policy endured, and in 2013, Eagles decided to channel his emotions into art challenging the ban.
One result is Blood Mirror, a seven-foot-tall block of UV resin filled with human blood donated, under medical supervision, by 59 gay, bisexual, and transgender men. The sculpture, created in two phases between 2014 and 2016, is currently installed at the Museum of the City of New York as part of the exhibition Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis.
Then there’s Jesus, Christie’s, which Eagles created last year and is on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York through February 10. Eagles embedded a catalogue from the auction house’s sale of Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting ever sold, with medical vials containing the blood of an HIV+ undetectable long-term survivor and activist, conflating the values of the art market with those of our healthcare system.
Both mark Eagles’ first forays into using human blood in his art. But unlike dripping works by Hermann Nitsch or Ron Athey that provoke visceral reactions, Eagles’s are imbued with a quiet, spiritual quality despite the outrage that drives them. (Fittingly, Blood Mirror debuted in 2015 at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City, where it stood like a contemporary reliquary in a historic vestibule.)
Eagles has had to rethink Blood Mirror, which initially featured donations from nine individuals, since its conception. In 2015, the FDA revised its controversial ban, announcing that gay and bisexual men can donate blood if they abstain from sex with men for a full year—a condition heterosexual donors and LGBTQ women don’t have to meet.
The change came a year after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began recommending the use of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 92%. Eagles felt the FDA’s updated blood donation guidelines ignored medical advances and perpetuated stigmas, which angered him even more.
“I realized this is absolutely worse than a lifetime ban—which I can see, out of hysteria and not having the right tests, goes into place,” Eagles says. “But fast-forward to 2015, and PreP has been out for a year… Now you’re just spitting in the face of science.”
To address the decision, he organized another blood drive, again under the supervision of medical professionals, and invited 49 men on PrEP to each contribute a tube of blood. Eagles also donated a tube himself. The resulting pint—a typical blood donation—was added to Blood Mirror, fortifying a monument that represents potential but wasted resources.
Among these donors are Dr. Lawrence D. Mass, co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis; Reverend John Moody, an openly gay priest; and Oliver Anene, a LGBT Nigerian activist on political asylum in the US. The voices of Eagles’ collaborators can be heard at the Germ City exhibition in a short video by filmmaker Leo Herrera, in which they explain why they feel current FDA policies are ludicrous.
Contextualized in a science-centric show that explores how disease affects New York City’s communities, Blood Mirror highlights how “there’s essentially an FDA-imposed quarantine on gay people,” Eagles says. In his artist's statement for the sculpture, he cites a 2014 UCLA Williams Institute study, which estimated that lifting the ban on men who have sex with men would increase the total annual blood supply in the US by two to four percent, and could be used to help save the lives of more than a million people. However, this study focused on the effects of lifting the lifetime ban. There are no updated figures on how the US's blood supply or how many people would be affected by the current 12-month ban as studies have not been performed, according to the Williams Institute.
Eagles unveiled Jesus, Christie’s a year after Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was auctioned off for $450.3 million. Twelve vials of blood—representing the FDA’s 12-month celibacy requirement—were donated by an anonymous HIV+ individual with an undetectable viral load.
“It is an absolute miracle that this donor who was fighting for his life 30 years ago now cannot transmit HIV,” Eagles says. “This piece speaks to how we choose our priorities. You’re going to spend an obscene amount of money on this painting, but why do people in this country not get the treatments we need? Why is the government taking money away from HIV/AIDS funding to create detention centers for children?”
Eagles is currently building up this series, making additional works that pair appropriated images from history and pop culture with blood donated from individuals who cannot transmit HIV. One recent piece features two blood vials embedded in an Incredible Hulk comic book from 1994. In this particular issue, the superhero has to decide whether to save a friend dying of AIDS.
Given its source material, one question Jesus, Christie’s brings to mind is how Eagles considers his own artwork as commodity. As a collaborative protest piece made of many people’s biological matter, Blood Mirror seems like an odd sculpture to place on the market. But Eagles says that although it is for sale (and all donors have signed release forms), he plans to donate all potential proceeds to a yet-to-be-decided charity.
“My hope is that one day, someone extraordinarily wealthy will buy it and donate it to a museum that can care for the work and use it to raise dialogue,” he says. In an age when revolutionary leaps in science still confront persistent prejudices, it’s a conversation that will likely continue.
CLARIFICATION (January 22, 3:49 p.m.): This story has been updated to clarify a point with more updated research on the effects of a lifetime and 12-month ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.
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