Blood of a Poet Box by Eleanor Antin

Eleanor Antin

Blood of a Poet Box , 1965–68, Wood box containing one hundred glass slides of blood specimens, 29.2 x 19.7 x 3.8 cm, Tate, T14882, © Eleanor Antin; Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

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Citizens with the Saints

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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).

 

References

Wakoski, Diane. 1973 [1965]. ‘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

 


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