Leanne Shapton’s novel in the form of an auction catalogue, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, highlights the way in which objects, particularly gifts, tell the story of the relationships that lead to the exchange. In Shapton’s story, the items at auction illustrate the dissolving of a romance. Installation and mixed-media artist Barbara Bloom’s latest book and print endeavor, the limited edition Gifts (Ludion), takes this idea a step further, exploring not only the meaning we endow gifts with, but also the meaning behind gift exchange rituals — particularly that of wrapping paper. Accompanied by text by art historian and print scholar Susan Tallman, Bloom designed eight different wrapping papers, each inspired by a gift exchange or relationship between owner and object. Much like Shapton’s investigation of the detritus that remains after love is lost, in the book’s introduction, Tallman cites Bloom’s “bottomless curiosity about the ways people converse through objects, assigning and manipulating meanings, passing them from one hand to another as stand-ins for love or desire or loss.” Wrapping paper is the detritus leftover from these objects’ “passing” — it’s an integral part of contemporary gift rituals as a signifier of the care taken in preparation.
The project was launched at Printed Matter in November and emerged out of Bloom’s 2010 exhibition Present, at Tracy Williams, Ltd., in New York, which included objects that inspired these wrapping papers. The eight papers feature boldly outlined and brightly colored patterns with symbols of or references to a gift exchange or object. Take the teal paper with horizontal rows of circular billows of smoke that form the word “freud” in lowercase script at the end of the line: this stands in for the story of an engraved cigar box given to Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s, passed down to his daughter, then to another psychologist, and finally to the Jewish Museum in New York. The box demonstrates how an object’s meaning shifts as it is exchanged, while also offering a nod to one of the most prominent theorists of everyday objects. That exchange is central to the original exhibition and this book project. As Tallman writes, Bloom’s work asks, “Is it possible to shift the viewer’s focus from the object per se to its passage between presenter and recipient?” What better to signify this than the paper and decoration used to transform an item into a gift?
A good gift considers more than just an item’s function; it endows the thing with something known only to the giver and receiver. This secret knowledge is akin to the meaning and organization of a personal library. The wrapping paper Bloom designed for the section devoted to her own library illustrates three rows of alphabetically arranged books, the spines all pastel and the titles in bold typefaces, including authors Barnes, Barthes, Borges, and Beckett. Tallman recalls Walter Benjamin (himself included on the printed bookshelf), who wrote extensively on libraries, books, and collections/collectors: “Benjamin’s point is that a personal library is not just a repository of shared knowledge, it is — at least for people who love the books in addition to the ideas in them — a chaos of connectivity, where conceptual alignments, authorial echoes, bindings styles and colors, locations of last reading or original purchase tangle into clumps like the tattered prayer flags on a Tibetan mountain. But that dense web is invisible to the library visitor, who sees only the things on the shelf — title, author, publisher, spine.” Gifts also have a “chaos of connectivity” created at the moment of transference.
Bloom’s designs also explore the varying cultural traditions of this exchange. Bright red wrapping paper with a pair of black shoes printed repeatedly across it references the Chinese tradition of paper gifts for the dead, which are gifted by burning. “A gift is an offering and an offering is a sacrifice,” explains Tallman. Another design shows white figures silhouetted against a black backdrop exchanging a gift box decorated with the same scene, endlessly repeating on each illustrated box. This repeating loop is called the Droste effect. Although the term refers to a repeated event, such as the one on Bloom’s paper, it also alludes to Faberge eggs, Russian nesting dolls, and other gifts-within-gifts in which each new layer is slightly different. As Tallman notes, “A gift done right is more than an object; it is an orchestrated event.” In Bloom’s design, “the loss of surprise is balanced by the gift of infinity, in all its time-and-space-tumbling glory.” The wrapping paper celebrates the moment of exchange by offering it over and over on the very item that it conceals .
Another wrapping paper that describes the event of exchange shows dark black fingerprints on previously folded and creased paper. This paper looks used, suggesting that the gift had been previously given. Tallman explains: “regifting is a social faux pas. This is not the case in other places and other times, and even today prior ownership in the form of provenance can add value to a thing.” Certainly a solid provenance is necessary to properly sell an artwork, and a family heirloom is often more valuable because of its past ownership. With a gift known to have an extensive previous history, it’s hard not to imagine the narratives surrounding it. “This wrapping paper asks to be read forensically,” writes Tallman. “It invites us to work backwards, to imaginatively refold the creases to determine the size and shape of the box, perhaps even to infer the nature of the gift.” Objects can carry not only traces of past exchanges, but also of past owners. The fingerprints on the paper act as literal marks of this — the index of past handling. But without access to forensic technology, these prints are rendered meaningless and untraceable. Tallman astutely points out that by placing them on the paper, Bloom has turned an index into an icon, reminding the receiver of the history of past unwrapping and exchanging.
Bloom’s wrapping paper designs mine the histories of gift rituals, interrogate the meaning objects are endowed with as gifts, and in making these papers available in an expensive artist book and as limited edition prints, she also places value on an object that is meant to be used once and then discarded, giving tangibility to the ephemeral moment of exchange.
Gifts is now available from Ludion Publishers.