Sunday, July 30, 2006


What moods may a Convention unleash. Bad or good I am exhausted by them, need a day for the live currents to work their way through my system. And weeks till the energies have all converted themselves into paperforms.

This one, the third convention run in Israel as an enterprise of the Israeli Origami Center, fell in time with the mixed moods of war. As an activity often laced with the guilt of escapism and childish indulgence, origami had its basic existential qualities stretched here to the limit. Most people were----glad, one way, not to have to watch the news for three days; but guilty at it too, at not using this time to help somehow with all that’s going on (if only by keeping in touch and commiserating), or to care for their families. For the handful of Northerners it was a chance to crawl out of the bomb shelters for a time and rub their eyes. Then there were all the young people—they haven’t been called up yet, but you know they will be soon. (I worry especially for GN; for L.S. They are dear to my heart.) Escaping into paperfolds can feel like a good way of getting out, of gaining some space for perspective. Or maybe not: escaping isn’t always the right thing to do.

The guest that the IOC brought over was John Montroll. What a fine man. What respect for the privacy of the activity of origami, for the one, the one-on-one, and the small-group setting; for pursuit of this activity despite or against a mocking attitude from the larger society, on account of its supposed frivolity or waste-of-time. Nor has the smaller society , that’s given to odd fits of adulation, turned his head. Not from him will you hear this “Master” talk—despite all that he’s done. I imagine that there are real risks an origami professional must run--of pretentiousness, or rank commercialism, delusions about the importance to society of one's enterprises, etc. None of this seems to have tainted John in the slightest. Origami for him stands on its own, without need of outside justification (of the 'social-betterment' or 'scientific-application' varieties). It is what it is: that's quite enough. But it’s not the be-all and end-all either.

The convention was held at Kibbutz Tze'elim, in the southern-desert part of the country near my town. Hence the dromedary motif---a familiar, roving icon of the landscape in which I live.

Monday, July 17, 2006


An origami blog had better be a goad to productive work—or else it’s mere reporting, and there are plenty of people who can do a better job at that than me. But sometimes events won’t leave you a clear mind or heart for work; and then words aren’t a bad substitute. Words—the right words—something more than the inarticulate ‘Wow’ that a new piece or display elicits for itself (though the wow is crucial). Words that strike home; words that infuriate; or melt hearts; words that can trigger in oneself or another an active investigation—on a sheet of paper, not leaving it to a lazy eye to drift along these sentences—: Is it like this, or is it like that?

I started talking about categories of sculptural origami a few posts ago, but by no means have I done justice to all that’s happening out there in the world—happening now, as I speak, wasting time on this computer that’s probably better spent on a sheet of paper.

So far the ideas have been these. There is a way of folding that highlights the ‘paperiness’ of paper. I noted the fan-shape as an example; but also I think one of the reasons people harbor a secret fondness for origami bats has to do with the flat expanse of paper draped between those thin spans—the paper turning into skin, which in fact it always was; and then the little folds gently marked to indicate a fragile body, just a hint of bone or tendon, doing the evocative-body work that origami does so well.

But you can also fold ‘against the grain’ of paperiness, by shifting the stress to the three-dimensional. Here there is ‘flat’ three-dimensionality, with flat surfaces bounded by straight lines (at the limit, at right-angles to other surfaces); and then there is ‘curved three-dimensionality, when the surfaces are not flat, and especially when the surfaces meet each other along clearly marked curving lines. In the latter the mind gets confused about what it sees, thinks it is looking at a solid object.

Clearly missing from this list is work of the sort pioneered by Giang Dinh. I will speak of its expressive potential some other time; for now let’s just consider the medium, the look of this sort of folding.

This is a kind of hyper-wet-folding; but strangely it does not (to my eye) produce the kind of heightened sense of paper that simple wet-folding does. The paper stays visibly a surface, something thin, but it has lost all of its Will-to-Flatness. Lacking any angularity, it does not look like carved plaster or stone either. It has no edges (except the cut edge, which is extensively used being the only real line). It is everywhere continuous, fluid surface. It begins to look like frozen fabric. Like a cloth napkin, perhaps, that you’ve twisted around your finger in a moment of boredom at a dinner party—into a puppet; now it has a hat, a little head poking out; look there’s its cape, with a nice dramatic swirling motion (and now everyone is staring at you). –Anyway it demonstrates that a ‘feeling of two-dimensionality’ or rather ‘lack of body’ can be achieved in a 3D object without the use of flatness, something I would not have expected. The 2D-3D boundary still holds some surprises, it seems.

As to expression, I’ve looked closely at Giang Dinh’s work for the first time today (excuse me readers while I discover America), and some of it is quite moving. I mean, a way has been found to make expressive, individual, reflective art--that usually means to me good faces--and also to suggest movement, drama, powerful bodily motion. Sometimes there is too much drama in the swirling capes and hooded figures, too much clothing or surface and not enough stuffing (soul, body, individuality) inside--but never mind. It is different; it is not easy; and it is this man’s own style, which he has taken very far. I notice also that in recent work he’s taken up the question of combining different styles in one piece—that is, combining fluid-folding (let’s call it that, instead of hyper-wet-folding) with the more mainline origami technique. Yes: that’s the natural and right thing to do at this stage.

Obviously much more needs to be said about Giang Dinh and expressiveness, but at the present I am just noting categories.

I am itching also to talk about the person who seems to be moving fast and far on all fronts toward an expressive origami—Daniel Naranjo. Actually it is not just expressive paperfolds that he is exploring but the whole idea of origami as a special channel for emotive communication. But the time is not yet ripe for remarks or analysis. Daniel is smack in the middle of a creative surge--he too picking up the idea of combinations--and words from an outsider now would only interfere. Readers will have to content themselves for the time being with what Filipe Moreno has written on his blog and with Daniel Naranjo’s own autobiographical comments there. With all due respect to these authors: those accounts are insufficient.

Beersheva, Israel

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Phobic one may be to insect origami, but aren't these Lang Cicadas SIMPLY GLORIOUS? They're made by Herman Mariano, one of the world's really great folders.

(Hooray too for Robert Lang.)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Line, Motion, Form

Distinctive postures and motions
. An animal has not only so to speak its basic anatomical shape, but also often an immediately recognizable way of holding itself or of moving. A rabbit hunches to eat; a horse lowers its long neck and swishes its tail while grazing; a cat stretches in a way no other animal quite does. I’ve tried to capture some of this in origami. Sometimes you can get away with a body that’s not anatomically or representationally accurate, if you manage to nail the motion on the head. This is an old trick that’s been around in traditional sculpture long before it became available to origami; there’s a rich history of twisting, contorted forms or figures in motion, carved in marble and cast in bronze. (Welcome to the Rococo). (Granted, while motion can be interesting in itself it doesn’t have to come at the expense of other artistic virtues.)

A variant of this theme that the real Masters—not the origami so-called ones—knew about was capturing latent motion, a skittish horse for example, or a human whose movement has been arrested by a thought but is about to resume it. This is a bit beyond my present powers in origami. (Let's just wait a few years.) Freud, however, who knew nothing of paperfolding but did have an extensive collection of mantelpiece sculptures and figurines, writes about the theme of latent motion in sculpture very usefully in his essay “Michaelangelo’s Moses”.

What—(free associating now, you’ll have to pardon me, it’s a warm afternoon here in Beersheva and the mind wanders)—is related to this idea about motion and form, on both the origami and the natural history sides?

In origami, long before Brian Chan became BRIAN CHAN or had invented his impossible shrimp, people were trying to squeeze long pointy independent limbs from a square sheet of paper. Some of us (well, me) who could only get so far with this, resorted to a trick. If your limb was long but maybe not long enough, you could always visually continue the line up into the body some ways (with e.g. an outside valley fold) and it will seem longer. My early Cats did this to the greatest effect, but I've used this ploy since to varying degrees in a great many other models too and with my Horse took great pains to carry the lines of the legs all the way up the sides of the body—and to make sure there were body lines in no other place. So, controlling where lines go as well as displaying distinctive motion are ways of sidestepping the problems of limb length and representational anatomy----for those of us who are constitutionally phobic to Insect Origami.

And of Natural History here, what’s there to say? Not much, except to notice that we and other animals seem geared to assessing the potential movement of any given animal just from seeing the shape and position of its limbs and musculature. It’s as if the brain copies out the dimensions and the pivot points of what it sees, performs a model oscillation, and draws quick conclusions as to how fast the thing will go… --Needless to say, as either predator or prey, this sort of figuring is pretty important to just about every creature. In their visual tricks many animals are known to play on this analysis in the way they’re painted: like the origami ploy of carrying a line past its point of independence, the line along the midriff is often drawn in such a way that one's pot-belly is obscured and one's hind-quarter muscles accentuated. Read: (a) not much meat here, and (b) I can run, don’t waste your precious energies on me. It’s too damn hot.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


I’ve said a few things---maybe too much---about this on the Origami Forum, but maybe it’s time to think again about the whole subject in the more leisurely manner that a blog makes available.

Folded paper has different basic expressive tones or potentials---I mean ones that exist quite apart from the choice among various paper types. Manifestly a wet-folded model has a different look than a hard-folded one, regardless of the paper used; and it is this sort of distinction I’m interested in. In an earlier post I discussed the excessive paperiness and vulnerability that comes from leaving the cut-edge exposed—something most origami avoids, or tries to overcome. Its opposite, curved-line folding, tends to impart a greater look of solidity to paper---a clean plaster look, in the case of designers like David Huffman and Richard Sweeney; a stone or ceramic or even wooden look, in my own messier experiments. These are in a certain sense anti-paper qualities. Interestingly when Jeanine Mosely (e.g., in her Bowl) uses modular curving forms rather than continuous ones, and even alternates the colors, much of the ‘feeling of paper’ is recovered, though not all of it.

It occurs to me that the main language of origami being two-dimensional, departures from it in the direction of three-dimensionality seem startling in a positive sense, and in the direction of one-dimensionality (through exposure and reminder of the cut edge) startling in mostly a negative sense. If so, maybe modular curve-folding like Mosely’s stays closer to the ‘language of ‘2’’ by alternating its ‘3’s with ‘1’s.

Three-dimensionality is most convincingly attained through wet-folding (curving planes) or curved-line-folding; but there is also folding that leaves the planes flat in various orientations, each surface bounded by straight lines. (Origami cars come first to mind but there are ever-larger numbers of origami animals too that answer this description). This gives a model a more mechanical, less organic look, that still contrasts with a two-dimensional language but less so than curved lines or surfaces do. In this sense such work is more continuous with two-dimensional origami and so gives a feeling of being more ‘origami-correct’.

Now correctness, I hasten to mention, has never been my strong suit. (I’m invariably subversive; origami for me is fundamentally subversive—of time, to begin with, but that’s already saying a lot). But I am interested in understanding qualities from top to bottom, and one of the ways you can tease out qualities and understand their nature better is by combining opposites within a single piece. This is not strictly necessary: Komatsu’s Lion in so many ways sets a new aesthetic standard (one by the way that Komatsu himself mostly can’t live up to), combining and sharpening recent developments and styles in a way that seems to me perfectly ‘origami-correct’, but to see what his advance consists in you need to hold in mind the forms of animals that preceded it and still surround it in the history of origami. I like to see combinations or even tensions within an actual work, as that adds subversive spice rather than palatability. And subversion—life pushing out—is key.

So that it mattered to me, among all the accolades that Joel Cooper’s work is rightly garnering for itself, that it is also an achievement in contrasts. Obviously the flat forms and straight lines are being contrasted with the rounded ones, but more than this—and more subversively—a repeatable, indeed repeated, and in principle teachable, set of mind-numbing folds is contrasted here with an unrepeatable, unteachable shape: a human face, that will come out differently every time it is made and in the hands of anyone less than an artist will come out deformed, grotesque or just goofy: in the polite parlance of origami, a ‘mask’. This work makes what I like to think as the statement: that mind, calculation, and endless precise labor has its place, and ornament even more so, but art, or heart, rises over or out of these, literally protrudes, a transcendence that keeps its material roots completely in view. This is subversive specifically of origami, because part of the social compact that sustains public origami is the idea that art is reduceable to mechanism, and if only you are able to repeat a sequence of folds on your sheet, however laboriously, you’ll be in the position of the artist or creator—you’ll be inside the thought. --There is of course truth enough in this illusion to keep the compact going; but it only goes so far.

To be continued---needless to say.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Eggs Came First

For very many bird species, you can see pretty clearly that the egg-shape of the body is important to them—is part of what the bird looks for in choosing a well-shaped mate, in the same way that an hourglass female figure seems to matter terribly to us Modern Humans. You can see this in the way the eggy line on the bird is tightly defined: it’s not just a matter of us viewers reducing what we see to groups of abstract egg-shapes (though of course we do that too).

If you ask why this is, there's a standard explanation for how well-defined forms like tails, body shapes, or striking colors develop: The females want them. Here presumably, in some species, some females had at first a slight predisposition to egg shapes (maybe this helped them care better for their brood). Males who could capitalize on this susceptibility by being a bit egg-like themselves did better with the females. The offspring of such unions then would have inherited both the eggier shape (in males) and the greater susceptibility to that shape (in females). This goes round and round, generation after generation, till you end up with a well-defined form like the one above. Or anyway that’s how the ‘Darwin-Fisher hypothesis of ‘runaway sexual selection’ --the most venerable of the theories on how fancy features evolve--would work, if applied to this case.

For a fleeting moment you might think the reason for the egg shape is ‘developmental’ or ‘functional’. That is: birds come from eggs, so maybe it is simpler to grow in a way that retains the original shape while adding the minimum number of relevant appendages. Unfortunately for this ‘functionalist’ idea, its not just birds that come from eggs--and not even just turtles and lizards and dinosaurs and such. We all do; and the egg shape is by no means as equally pronounced in us all. No, this seems to me an aesthetically-driven phenomenon: the curvature that we see is playing a role in its own selection. (I concede there is one ‘developmental’ explanation that’s remotely plausible: small birds that lay very large eggs will have their outer shape determined by what they’re carrying inside.)

Now, how would you go about proving any of this—even the observation itself, which is an Obvious Visual Fact for me but may not be so for everyone, or anyone, else? But the advantage of a blog like this, is you can raise suggestions, make observations and not worry if they’re testable, or are already established scientific facts, or will be hooted down by academics (who won’t sully their reputations by admitting to be reading this). That’s the advantage too of not being owned by a University and obligated to publish in research journals (I admit, there are disadvantages). And it’s the advantage of dabbling in origami which is inherently an outsider’s occupation, and is inherently free, and is inherently inconsequential. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong (at first). You are free to conjecture—exactly as free as you are to flex the paper this way or that. Nobody is going to get hurt.

>Added October 2009:

The idea of a bird retaining in its body-shape the basic form of the egg it came from (with just a head-blob and some tail feathers glued on) I have not seen anywhere, certainly not in the respectable biological literature which would never go out on a limb with this sort of observation. Which is a shame: fearlessly noting the basic features of the natural world as one sees them is left to others, to marginal types. But here there is a wonderful poem I came across recently by the ever sure-footed Richard Wilbur, whose job it is to observe and record. He speaks similarly of “the oval form of sleep”—not in reference to the egginess of bird outlines, but of the shape of the first pseudo-leaf of the cotyledon as it emerges from the earth:

* * *

Having talked myself into it, here is another conjecture: still in the general realm of bird-shapes, but no longer now about egg-forms.

This one is about Owls. They always have these strange, haunting faces. I suggest we pay attention to this fact, as it’s universal among all owl species. Those faces will strike fear into the likes of us, who used to be small tasty foot-high morsels until quite recently.

Now if you look more closely, a lot of owls don’t just have strangely haunting faces, but faces that look specifically un-bird-like. In fact—their faces are strangely mammalian. Go ahead, take a minute to confirm this assertion (or challenge it if you dare) by Google-imaging pictures of owls.

hm hum hoom hm hmm hm hmm

--Good, you’re back.

My favorite example of a mammal-like owl is also the most extreme case that I’ve seen. It’s the owl that’s in my zoo here in Beersheva: a Bubo bubo.

What’s extreme about this particular owl is that it isn’t just going after a mammalian look in general; you actually can name the genus it is trying to mimic: it is---the CATS.

Actually there are plenty of owls that are called ‘cat-owls’ because of their appearance —the mottled ‘fur’, the flattened oval-triangular face, the tufts at the top of the head that are mimicking ears (the owl's actual ears are lower, on the rim of the oval), the yellow eyes, the small hooked nose.

But this owl in my zoo, though in English it is called an ‘Eagle Owl’, goes a step further in the direction specifically of cat-hood: it sometimes sits on the ground rather than in a tree, and when it does, it slouches its body to one side casually in the way that’s absolutely typical of a cat but quite unusual for a bird. You don’t quite know what you’re looking at until you're looking VERY closely.

[A picture here would help, but needless to say--the owls kept to the trees and wouldn’t slouch on the ground for me when I returned to the zoo for a snapshot. And on the Web too it’s hard to find the effect I wanted… But here at least are a few pictures where you can see how these owls are turning into cats.]

[The last of these gives the standard, and perfectly blind, Textbook Explanation of the pseudo-ears.]

Now, there are LOTS of reasons why an animal would want look like another more dangerous animal or one that’s higher on the food chain. Most of these have to do with safety from predation, and sometimes with gaining an edge in the sexual or social arenas by appearing fierce in certain specific ways. Always in cases of such so-called mimicry, the question asked about what’s guiding the evolution of the mimicry is: Who is being fooled--and how does that help the deceiver?

I have an idea of this, for Bubo bubo and the other cat-seeming owls. (It goes well beyond convergent evolution, the adaptation of two species to similar conditions in the environment.) The idea is prompted by noticing that cats and owls have exactly one thing in common: they hunt the same prey. --Voles, field mice, small nocturnal animals, other smaller birds… I suggest that what’s driving the development of these haunting features, often ‘mammalian’ and sometimes specifically ‘catlike’—is not mainly the owl’s predators but rather it’s prey.

How might this work? Why should what prey thinks of its predator have any effect on how the latter looks? (Usually its only the consumer, and not the consumed, that has any say in matters of appearance.)

My answer is this: a prey animal on noticing a predator has two basic and very different response options: freeze or flee. It’s a crucial, life-deciding choice, it has to be made instantly, and there is no in-between: if you’re doing one thing you are manifestly not doing the other. Now, the ‘right’ response to the quick first perception depends on what kind of predator it is. Basically if it’s a bird, you’ll want to flee to any near bush cover; if a cat, to freeze (or if there's a tree nearby to run up it). The specific details always depend on the local situation, but crucial information in the decision What To Do is what type of predator it is. Remember that Vervet monkeys have even developed different calls to warn troupe-mates when it is a flying vs. a stalking predator that’s been sighted! So, sitting in the bole of a tree in the dark, an owl that can confuse the issue even slightly gains an edge at the crucial moment. And an owl that can confuse the issue a lot gains a significant edge: the perfect graded path for evolution to move on.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. And perhaps it’s even a testable one. (You real Natural Historians out there, with tenure, time, and access to research grants, could you go out and check this one for me?)

For some reason I seem to have developed a yen tonight to go fold some owls.