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Exhibition Review

Superman is Dead, Our Ignorance Killed Him: Jordan Eagles at AEIVA

Alexandria Deters

Apr 08, 2021

The first time I remember coming across Jordan Eagles' work was in the 2018 exhibition Germ City–Microbes and the Metropolis, an exhibition that examined the complex history of New York City’s everlasting battle against infectious diseases. Eagles’ work on view was Blood Mirror (2015-Present), and it was powerful to see the work in an exhibition that showed not only do we try to cope with unfortunate situations but also search for solutions. Blood Mirror is emblematic of two main components of Eagles’ practice: the use of blood, and that it directly confronts the ban on donated blood from queer men[1].

 

Eagles’ work has a feeling of individuality and a life source. That is in part due to his favorite material, the use of blood. And often it is human blood. Unlike other artists in the past and present that have stepped into this taboo material, coming off either camp, redundant, grotesque, or even at its worst, degrading and unethical, Eagles’ work doesn’t bring up these negative cogitations. Rather, Eagles' work is a reflection of his obsession with the material used in the practice, and what the raw element says. Furthermore, it is important for Eagles that the audience assemble ideas together and pull out conversations, unpacking the details in his work by creating a new journey. 

 

Eagles’ current solo exhibition, CAN YOU SAVE SUPERMAN? II, curated by Eric Shiner, is on view through June 14, 2021, at Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA). It is the second iteration of Eagles’ successful online exhibition and for this version, AEIVA has works displayed in their gallery space in parallel to the online presence in the original virtual exhibition. 

 

 

Untitled (detail), 2018
84 x 28 x 3 in.
Original 1971 Action Comics, used blood collection bag with a needle, residual blood of a gay man on PrEP, plexiglass, UV resin
Courtesy of the artist / Photograph by Kris Graves

 

 

Eagles’ is aware of the serious nature the material brings, and he brings a sense of dark humor through familiar imagery, our comic book heroes. The exhibition exemplifies not only the serious and urgent message Eagles brings but also the ridiculous nature of the issue; why in this day and age, when all blood is tested, are we turning away willing blood donors? Not to mention we are wasting potential life-saving resources?

 

I am unable to see the physical component of the exhibition this time, but having seen Eagles’ work in person many times, I have no doubt they are making a visual impact on the audience. Viewing his work virtually, and after leaving the page (the exhibition), I am left with the same strong impression as when seeing the work physically.  
 
What makes the second iteration stronger than the first, even without seeing the physical component, is that a larger scope of works is included in the exhibition. Both iterations focus on how Eagles uses plotlines from comic books to call attention to discriminations in our current blood donation laws. Yet in the second, he is able to explore the impact of those laws on various groups within the queer community. Besides Superman, Eagles shows how other “iconic characters are situated within storylines that revolve around blood donation, healthcare, HIV/AIDS, racism, and stigma”[2].

 

 

Untitled (HULK/AIDS), 2018
15 x 12 x 3 in.
Original 1994 The Incredible Hulk, In The Shadow of AIDS, blood of a gay man on PrEP, blood from HIV+ undetectable donor, collection tubes, residual blood, plexiglass, UV resin 
Courtesy of the artist 

 

 

The 2018 work Untitled (HULK/AIDS), hits you in such a way, it makes your heart cry. The work is composed of a copy of the 1994 comic book The Incredible Hulk, In the Shadow of AIDS, issue #420, framed in plexiglass. This copy of issue #420 is specially altered by Eagles, having two small holes expertly cut-out of the cover. Two collection tubes filled with blood are placed in the newly created holes in the comic book. The blood in the tubes is the residual blood of a gay man on PrEP[3] and of an HIV+ undetectable long-term survivor. The cover of issue #420 is all black, and in the right bottom corner there is a glow from a single lightbulb illuminating the Hulk standing over a hospital bed holding tightly the hand of a man who looks confused and scared; even just from the cover, a viewer can assume the storyline is likely dark and ominous.

 

And the story was. In it, we learn the tragic end of “Hulk’s friend Jim – an African-American man dying of AIDS – [who] wants the Hulk to transfuse his radioactive blood so it can save him. Inevitably, Hulk refuses to do so and his friend dies in the end”[4]. In 1994 being diagnosed as HIV positive was seen as an uncontrollable curse. there was no AIDS Cocktail, which was not available until after 1995[5]. Yet, the Hulk in 1994 potentially could have saved Jim by transfusing his own blood, but he chose not to, afraid of the results[6]. 

 

Through his materials, Eagles is able to connect the decision Hulk was faced in 1994 to the plight of gay men today.  By displaying prominently, the blood of a sexually-active gay man who is negative, blood that could save people, but whose blood is considered tainted because of the gender of himself and his sexual partners. And the other, an HIV+ undetectable long-term survivor, reminding us that AIDS/HIV is not a death sentence anymore and should be viewed as some exotic uncontrollable curse. Just like today when we could accept blood from anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, but outdated laws (our ‘Hulk’ if you will) have decided for us, they have decided because of their own prejudices, to not accept donated from all legal and willing adults, I’m left asking; how many have died because of prejudices like these?
 

 

 

Untitled, 2018
84 x 28 x 3 in.
Original 1971 Action Comics, used blood collection bag with a needle, residual blood of a gay man on PrEP, plexiglass, UV resin
Courtesy of the artist / Photograph by Kris Graves

 

 

With the guidance of Eagles works, we are able to see the continuing legacy of comic book heroes grappling with real-world problems, in this case, from a distinctly queer viewpoint. Eagles’ choice of subject, familiar comic book heroes, exposes people to the queer community and a topic that they may not be familiar with. By employing familiarity, Eagles makes “uncomfortable” topics more approachable. 
 
When I saw the first iteration of this exhibition, Can You Save Superman? (Jun 10 - Dec 1, 2020)[7], it was strictly virtual. The design layup of the website, combined with the length of the curator’s essay it felt like the curator, Eric Shiner, had a very large presence in the show. Almost as if Shiner’s essay was the work itself. In the essay, Shiner used Eagles’ work as a starting point to describe his own take on HIV/AIDS, stigma, discrimination, art history, and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Shiner describes his life and experiences growing up as a gay cis-man in the United States through the height of the AIDS crisis, and the discriminations queer men face continue to face, in particular the medical world. When Shiner finally reaches to discuss Eagles’ works and viewpoint, it is already the 8th paragraph of the essay.  
 
It was exhausting to read for the first time in June 2020, his experiences of life in New York hit too close to home. I was scared and angry like everyone else and honestly, why would I want to read about what I am literally going through? However, when I reread the essay in line with the second iteration of Eagles’ show which opened this year on January 18, 2021, I felt seen. Not because I myself am a gay man, but I was able to have some distance and relate Shiner’s experiences more broadly, as well as to my own. Having now traveled outside New York, I also realize how unique the experience of living in the city last year (complete lockdown, quarantine, protests, etc.) was NOT the experience of most people in the USA. His essay now feels like a time-capsule of a particular moment in history, from a very particular view, a unique experience. What I originally thought to be a long-winded piece of writing now is part of the larger scope of the show.
 

 

 

Will You Save Superman?, 2018
20 x 20 x 3 in.
Blood of a gay man on PrEP, used latex medical gloves, paintbrush, studio tarp, digital print, plexiglass, UV resin 
Courtesy of the artist / Photograph by Kris Graves

 


While reading Shiner’s essay, I scrolled through various works in detail. My screen is filled with IV fluid bags, test tubes filled with blood, a drawn woman screaming in horror, and blood encasing like a protective nest in a comic book. The works on view are all made with the Blood of gay men on PrEP, the blood that if tested would most likely come up as ‘clean’.
 
Shiner eventually breaks down the plot of “Attack of the Micro-Murderer”, and how it relates to the current FDA Blood ban and even our current social woes. Shiner eloquently states why Eagles Superman feels so needed and necessary. It is because right now, “Each in our own way, we hope for a fast end to this seemingly endless plague, just as we may secretly wish for a superhero to descend into our midst to rescue us from this unseeable menace. Jordan Eagles makes us realize that WE are that hero and that collectively, we can lobby the powers that be through protest and transparency to force change to happen"[8].
 
What I love about Eagles’ work is how it can inspire you to learn more, do more, go out, and research. Comic books historically have been a reflection of contemporary struggles; asking questions society is facing. In 1971, Superman delved into the new 1970 law[9] that made it illegal to pay people for donating blood, that from then on people could only donate blood out of altruistic reasons. 

 

 

American Carnage 6/14, 2018
81 x 53 in.
Blood of a gay man on PrEP, digital print, Dibond 
Courtesy of the artist 

 

 

People at first were dismayed with the thought that blood might run out; assuming people won’t give away their blood for free. As it turned out, many people still donated. Instead of people selling their blood out of desperation for cash, they were donating out of the goodness in their hearts. But 1971 Superman didn’t know that, and just like when Superman was used in WWII[10] to promote wartime efforts, Superman was once showing us our ‘citizen duties’. 
 
It’s fascinating to unpack this history on my own time, but through it, I also discover, similar to Shiner and Eagles, the parallels with struggles faced today.  Shiner asks the viewer (or in this case reader) to, “Imagine if you will for a moment if YOU could save Superman. Would you help?”[11].  I think the answer is obvious. Most people would say, of course! The question we should ask is if you could donate blood, would you? Or better yet, are you the type of person that even donates anything? The answer is that many queer men say YES! Let me donate, let me help![12] But unlike when Superman needed blood a call went out to all residents of Metropolis to donate, even if all showed up, many who could help would be barred. 

 

 

Untitled (detail), 2018
84 x 28 x 3 in.
Original 1971 Action Comics, used blood collection bag with a needle, residual blood of a gay man on PrEP, plexiglass, UV resin
Courtesy of the artist / Photograph by Kris Graves

 

 

If Superman was in Metropolis today, the original storyline would have to have changed. Instead, due to the ignorance of the citizens of Metropolis, Superman would not have received all the blood he needed. Qualified donors were turned away. Superman died. The Metropolis citizens’ ignorance killed him. 
 
We have the opportunity to change that potential fate. Slowly, we are seeing the change occur, but we must continue to fight until there is a genuine level of equality in all areas of society. Eagles’ works remind us of the freedom that many take for granted, also that society’s outdated and unscientific prejudices we continue to accept, results in tragically wasting blood as a lifesaving resource. 

 


 

For more information about the shows in the article:


CAN YOU SAVE SUPERMAN? II
Works by Jordan Eagles, Curated by Eric Shiner
January 18 - June 14, 2021 
Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, 
Birmingham, AL


CanYouSaveSuperman.com
With: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, Visual AIDS, Blood Equality, GMHC, New York City AIDS Memorial, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, University Blood Initiative, and The New York City HIV Planning Group 

 

[1] “In 1983, in an early response to the AIDS crisis, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented a lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. More than 30 years later, in 2015, the FDA updated its policy to allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood, but only if they are celibate for a full year. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic and due to massive blood shortages, the FDA updated the policy, allowing gay and bisexual men to donate blood if they are celibate for three months. There is no celibacy requirement for heterosexuals, regardless of their risk for contracting HIV.”
[2] Press Release, Can You Save Superman? II. 
[3] PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is medicine people at risk for HIV take to prevent getting HIV from sex or injection drug use. When taken as prescribed, PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV.
[4] Osborn, Nicholas. “SUNDAY CLASSICS: THE INCREDIBLE HULK #420: IN THE SHADOW OF AIDS”.

[5] “Understanding ART for HIV
[6] Osborn, Nicholas. “SUNDAY CLASSICS: THE INCREDIBLE HULK #420: IN THE SHADOW OF AIDS”
[7] Can You Save Superman?, curated by Eric Shiner, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, June 10 -December 1, 2020.
[8] Shiner, Eric. “I Am. I Am. I Am A [Super] Man.”
[9] “History of Blood Transfusion” from American Red Cross. 
[10] Karp, Lauren N. Thesis: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way: What Superman Teaches Us about the American Dream and Changing Values within the United States”, Oregon State University, Master of Arts, presented Jun 4, 2009.
[11] Shiner, Eric. “I Am. I Am. I Am A [Super] Man.”
[12] Morrison, Tony, and Joel Lyons. “Gay men speak out after being turned away from donating blood during coronavirus pandemic: 'We are turning away perfectly healthy donors’”, Hood Morning America, Nov 20, 2020.