Eleanor Antin’s mid-twentieth-century artwork Blood of a Poet Box is a found object repurposed as a quasi-reliquary, blending the cultural vocabulary of conceptual art, the archive, the medical specimen, and the Church.
The green box contains one hundred glass slides. Each slide contains a blood sample that Antin drew out with a sewing needle from a poet in the New York City scene of which she was a part. It is the blood of her friends.
She defined ‘poet’ loosely, and she included artists, performers, and dancers among those who bled for her. She gathered the blood at art events including readings and performances in which the artists were centre stage.
It has elements of a specimen collection, taxonomized and labelled. Yet the medical quality of the work sits uncannily alongside the home-made improvisational aesthetic, which is particularly marked in the list of signatures from the poets, alongside her own signature as the work’s creator. The distinctive differences between the poets are rendered as variations in handwriting and not just in blood type.
This box is thus more than a specimen collection. It can also be compared to a portable reliquary, in which the poets of the city are enshrined. Unlike traditional relics, though, this material was gathered when its donors were alive. Rather than signalling martyrdom, their blood indicates ongoing vitality, and the sites where art is produced: deep within the marrow, the heart, the mind—the places where blood courses and flows.
Diane Wakoski, one of the poets included in Blood of a Poet Box, wrote of Antin’s collecting of relics in a 1965 poem responding to the work.
Collecting is more than just an attraction to objects. Antin explored her own identity in and through her relationships with the artists she knew, in the words of Wakoski’s poem: ‘weaving’ and ‘attaching’ them. By creating an archive as a ‘group portrait’, her box filled with blood samples was also a ‘self portrait’.
And in her collection of these samples, she rendered her artistic circle saint-like. ‘Brought near’ (Ephesians 2:13) by blood as well as in spirit, proclaiming their truth boldly, being ‘made for good works’ (v.10), they are displayed as ‘alive together’ (v.5).
Wakoski, Diane. 1973 . ‘A Long Poem for Eleanor Who Collects the Blood of Poets’, in Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch (Los Angeles Black Sparrow Press), pp.119–20
2 And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. 3Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— 9not because of works, lest any man should boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. 17And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.