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Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami

June 15, 2012 by Susan Bell in Art, Exhibit, Featured, Features with 0 Comments

Inside a building in Little Tokyo, a swarm of locusts hovers menacingly in midair. Dare to move a little closer and you will see something extraordinary, for this threatening-looking plague is actually made out of bank notes, with each insect intricately folded from one uncut sheet of 21 one dollar bills.

This chilling installation is currently on display Downtown at the Japanese American National Museum as part of a major exhibition entitled “Folding Paper: the Infinite Possibilities of Origami,” which is on show until August 26. Featuring 140 works by 45 international artists from 16 countries, this ground-breaking show is the first museum exhibition to explore the history of paper folding in the East and West, present works by contemporary artists from all over the world and demonstrate the impact of origami in such diverse realms as design, science and the global peace movement.

Mask, 1999. Eric Joisel. Paper (folded wet and coated) on wire, Photo courtesy of the Mingei International Museum, San Diego.

Mask, 1999. Eric Joisel. Paper (folded wet and coated) on wire, Photo courtesy of the Mingei International Museum, San Diego.

The locust swarm is the work of Sipho Mabona, a Swiss-South African origami artist who is now considered one of the most accomplished paper folders in the world and among the first to specialize in origami installations. Each complex, anatomically correct insect – and there are 144 of them — took him five hours to fold. Mabona is the perfect illustration of a new generation of international paper folders who are demonstrating that the ancient Japanese art of origami has evolved from a simple folk craft into a highly sophisticated and dynamic contemporary art form capable of making powerful political and social statements about our modern society.

According to Mabona, the transformation of money into locusts is a reference to the large multi-national investment corporations that take over smaller companies throughout the world and then discard them for quick profit. In German-speaking countries in Europe, such companies have recently been referred to as “Heuschrecken”, or locusts, spreading in swarms and greedily devouring local businesses.

Mabona chose to fold the locusts out of U.S. currency, as the dollar is the globally recognized symbol of capitalism. Each insect has been masterfully designed so that George Washington’s head appears over the wings and upper back while the words “In God We Trust” is emblazoned across their foreheads. The mention of God reminds us of the Biblical references to swarms of locusts sent to punish those who had behaved badly.

This sobering work is fascinating, not just because of the powerful message it conveys, but also because of the unexpectedness of the medium. Origami, long dismissed even in Japan as a simple children’s craft, is finally coming into own as a legitimate art form.

No one knows when the ancient art of paper folding began. Paper itself appeared in its modern form in 2nd century China and papyrus dates back thousands of years before that to ancient Egypt.

However, the earliest references to paper folding in Japan do not appear until the 16th century with written descriptions of folded paper butterflies. By the 17th century, books were printed containing images and instructions for folding birds, boats, flowers and even human figures. Very few, if any, of these early examples of origami have survived today. As exhibition curator Meher McArthur points out: “The fact that folded objects were never sufficiently valued to be preserved, combined with the fragility of the materials used, means that origami has traditionally been, by its very nature, an ephemeral art form.”

Another problem, as exhibition advisor and renowned origami artist Dr. Robert J. Lang notes in his essay in the catalog for ‘Folding Paper,’ was that practitioners of origami came from widely differing backgrounds, from the traditional Japanese metal worker to a circus knife-thrower from Argentina. There was little to unite them or allow them to communicate until Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005), who is widely regarded as the father of modern origami, revolutionized paper folding in the mid 20th century. Not only did Yoshizawa create thousands of new forms, he also crucially developed a universal pictorial language that allowed origami artists the world over to share their designs and techniques.

Another valuable contribution was made by a small, passionate group of folders in Japan who called themselves the Origami Tanteidan, or “Origami Detectives.” They pushed the limits of the art to new heights and also began studying the mathematical and geometric laws governing origami.

Lang himself is responsible for another giant leap forward in the 1980s. An eminent former physicist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Lang gave up his brilliant career as a scientist to devote himself full-time to his passion for paper folding. (Like Mabona, Lang is now regarded as one of the world’s foremost origami artists.) His development of a design technique he dubbed “circle packing” was also discovered independently at around the same time by Japanese biochemist Toshiyuki Meguro. This technique revolutionized paper folding because it permitted artists to design multi-appendaged origami creatures.

Many such creatures are on show at the exhibition, including the stunningly lifelike “Pangolin,” by French artist Eric Joisel and Lang’s own eight-legged “Emperor Scorpion,” with its impressive pincers and deadly curved tail.

While many origami artists excel at representational figures, whether complex, naturalistic or stylized like the fantastical work of American Jared Needle whose half-rabbit, half-dragon “Bunny God” is inspired by the whimsical creatures of Japanese anime, others prefer to create geometric forms or abstract constructions. American Jeannine Mosely, a graduate of M.I.T. with a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science, believes paper folding is a way of bringing mathematical formula or theorem to life. Her 30-faced poetic Triacontahedral Orb resembles the multi-colored craters of a perfectly symmetrical moon.

British artist Paul Jackson takes a philosophical approach to origami, McArthur explains, preferring forms “that appear to have been ‘discovered’ in the paper, rather than ‘contrived’ from it.” His exquisite hand-colored pastel bowl shapes are folded and then released, allowing them to find their own form, like the petals of a blossoming flower.

Visiting the exhibition, it is often hard to believe that these intricate, complex and expressive paper sculptures are created out of a single square sheet of paper with no cuts, no glue. The exhibition also takes a fascinating look at how origami inspires design, whether it be in the realm of architecture, fashion or animation.

Origami is a sculptural art form that shares, with architecture, strong links with mathematics, science and engineering. It is not surprising that architects in recent years have begun looking to origami for design inspiration. A note-worthy example is the prize-winning Klein Bottle House designed in 2008 by architectural firm McBride Charles Ryan on the Mornington Peninsula in Australia. As its name suggests, the holiday home is based on origami version of the Klein bottle, which like a Mobius Strip is a non-orientable surface, but which, unlike the Strip, has no boundaries in the same way a sphere has no boundaries. The resulting building is daring, unexpected and playful in its design, featuring topographically uniform but visually distorted surfaces which create unique interior and exterior space with planes and angles that call to mind the precise, abstract folds of origami.

Visitors to the exhibition can admire the work of two contemporary fashion designers, Los Angeles-based Monica Leigh Rodriguez, whose red silk satin organza evening gown was inspired by an origami box and crane and Japanese-American Linda Tomoko-Mihara, whose star-tessellated off-the-shoulder dress and matching shoes were each folded from one sheet of white parchment.

Visitors can also enjoy a variety of films about origami, including Mabona’s innovative commercial animation for Japanese sports company Asics.

Another conceptual work with a more upbeat message is Israeli artist and peace activist Mira Golan’s work “Two Books,” showing origami figures tumbling from the pages of books representing the Koran and the Torah to join together in a message of reconciliation.

And while Mabona’s plague of locusts can be interpreted as a warning against the evils of unrestrained capitalism run amok, he believes his work also carries a message of hope.

“Although a locust swarm is scary,” says Mabona, “where there is the ability to transform, there is hope. In origami, paper is folded into forms, like these locusts, but the forms can be unfolded again. The creases will remain, but the paper can be folded again into something else — perhaps butterflies.”

Images Courtesy Japanese American National Museum & the Artists

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About Susan Bell

Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, Susan Bell is an internationally published journalist. She has lived in Paris and London and is now studying architecture in Los Angeles where she owns a mid century vintage design business. Her writing has appeared in The Times of London, The Los Angeles Times, Wallpaper, LA Weekly, Marie-Claire, The Sunday Times, The Scotsman and The Sunday Telegraph. She dreams of living in a Schindler house and traveling across America in a vintage Airstream.

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