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For the past two years, Jordan Eagles has been bathed in blood. Sort of.
The New York-based artist has spent much of his artistic career working with animal blood, but has turned to a less conventional source. In his latest exhibition, Eagles utilizes blood collected from gay and bisexual men. Himself a gay man who was once rejected from donating blood, Eagles hopes that the exhibition will challenge and start a conversation over the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current policy of effectively banning blood and tissue donations from gay men.
“I’m viewing this piece as a work in progress that will always be a work in progress until the policy is changed,” Eagles says.
Blood Mirror, on display at American University Museum’s Katzen Arts Center, focuses primarily on a four-cornered glass box standing 7 feet tall. Inside are nine thin glass panels, stacked together and arranged vertically, smeared from top to bottom with the blood of a gay, bisexual or transgender man who is currently prohibited from donating potentially life-saving material due to the FDA’s lifetime deferral policy. The box is capable of holding up to 170 panels.
The men who contributed their blood come from an array of backgrounds, races and generations from within the gay male community. They are Rev. John Moody, an openly gay priest from New York City; Kelsey Louie, CEO of the HIV/AIDS organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC); Dr. Lawrence Mass, co-founder of GMHC and one of the first to report on the AIDS epidemic; Anthony Woods, an Iraq war veteran discharged under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; Loren Rice, a transgender man married to another transgender man; Oliver Anene, the LGBT activist in Nigeria forced to seek political asylum in the United States; Ty Spicha, a gay man whose identical twin brother is able to donate blood simply because he is heterosexual; Blue Bayer, a bisexual father of two; and Dr. Howard Grossman, the former director of the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the medical advisor on Blood Mirror.
Each of the nine subjects was asked to donate a full pint of blood, the amount of the average blood donation. Before donating, all the men underwent a rapid HIV test to determine that they were HIV-negative.
“It’s not about being gratuitous with the blood,” says Eagles. “It’s about being respectful of it and how we present it in context to the whole issue. Two of the panels are literally seven or eight drips. It’s literally good to the last drop. You want to utilize all of it, because it’s very valuable material.”
While the men were donating, they were filmed and interviewed about their personal life stories and their perspectives on the current FDA policy. The footage, captured by filmmaker Leo Herrera, was compiled into a 44-minute video that airs on a continuous loop as part of the exhibit.
Eagles constructed a smaller second case, drawn to scale with Blood Mirror, which is packed to the brim with the medical waste — gloves, needles, blood bags, collection tubes and more — generated from the two days during which the blood was donated.
Eagles also mixed the remaining blood of all nine men together and brought it to lab technician Joe Osmundson, who added his own blood to the mix and prepared slides, which can be viewed through a microscope in the exhibit hall. From the slides, fashion designer Jonny Cota created a flag. Eagles soaked a thread in the mixed blood, which Cota then sewed by hand into the flag, which is titled Blood Flag.
“Blood donation, in America, has historically been something that people always did,” says Eagles. “The flag pays homage to the fact that this was something that was part of our nation’s history in terms of patriotism. Hopefully, one day we can raise that flag when the FDA makes a fair policy.”
Eagles is easily riled when speaking about his subject matter.
“I’ve gone through a lot of different emotions over the past two years,” he says. “There was a lot of anger. And it’s not hard to get me pissed off over this, given how ridiculous the [FDA] policy is.”
But most important to Eagles is whether he successfully shares the life stories of his nine subjects and puts faces and names to those affected by the lifetime deferral policy.
“That’s the point: all of this could have been used to save lives,” says Eagles. “So it has this component of respect. And a lot of people invested their energy in this, and so you want to make sure you do right by everybody, who put their time and effort and love into this.”
Jordan Eagles: Blood Mirror is on display to Oct. 18 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. A public program, moderated by Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern and featuring some of the donors, plus a performance from the Rock Creek Singers of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 6, from 7-9 p.m. For more information, call 202-885-1300, or visit american.edu/cas/museum.