Monday, October 09, 2006

"Expression" and "Idea" in Origami

Just a few years ago I read some words—either by John Smith or David Lister: one of the ones who can write—to the effect that it’s unlikely origami will ever be used as a means of ‘expressing artistic ideas’. Just what the author thought was impossible or unlikely may not have been precisely spelled out, but it's always been clear that origami imposes severe constraints on creation so that it’s not the first medium you think of if what you are after is self-expression.

Even so, it’s always dangerous to prognosticate, and the boundaries of ‘expression’ and ‘idea’ are being pushed back these days too as part of origami’s general advance-on-all-fronts.

It seems to me that there are several different concepts embraced by these terms, and that it may be worth unpacking them a little.

I. There was and still is an old-fashioned sense of expressiveness in animal origami which was for a long time associated with the name of Yoshizawa, though he’s acquired quite a few heirs and rivals by now. I think everyone knows what this quality is or reacts immediately and strongly when faced with it; but it is still very hard to pin down in words. Is ‘expression’ the capturing of a particular species in its essential details? Maybe; though sometimes the representation is very abstract or minimal, and that is thought sufficient or even preferable. Is it the capturing of an emotion expressed by an animal? One of its typical gestures? Or perhaps it is eliciting a particular kind of emotion or expression on the part of the viewer?

In the end one resorts to some words that sound about right. These great designers and folders were somehow able to capture the soul of the animal or the thing, and to breath life into a sheet of paper. Just what this animation or ensoulment is, in a day and age when we’re not supposed to believe in souls, has never been properly articulated. Maybe it can’t be. Still, ‘soul’ seems about the right word here: the object before us is haunting and absorbs all attention; in a few crisp folds it concisely yields the animal’s essence; and it has a light, delightful, ephemeral presence—all things a soul is supposed to be or to do. --Readers of this Blog will be aware, too, of my prejudice that origami has special abilities in the ensoulment department, gifts not readily accessible to the other arts.

If origami animals can express souls—what about origami humans: can’t they have souls? Strangely, this has proven far more difficult. Some not insubstantial progress for expressiveness has been made of late for human faces, but figures, or heads attached to their bodies, have proven much more recalcitrant to paperfolding—and not, it seems, for technical reasons. Technically, it is no harder to make a stick-figure human being, using the logic on which Lang’s Treemaker software is based, than it is for any other animal. Likewise, box-pleating methods have long been available and indeed have been used for humans too. But artistically—with apologies to the many laborers in this field—very few of the (unclothed) humans made via these methods have come anywhere near to being satisfying.

Consider, for instance, Stefan Weber’s glorious Bulls, the centerpiece of the Red-Bull-sponsored Masters of Origami exhibit last year in Salzburg. One can now go home and sleep comfortably knowing that the Soul of the Bull has been done justice to. It no longer hangs in Origami Purgatory. Can the same be said for any human figure you can think of—even by any of the greats, by those same ‘Origami Masters’?

I have, needless to say, strong suspicions about why this is—about which of the directions people are moving in today are dead-ends, and which lines of attack show real promise. But maybe I ought to keep a few secrets for myself.

2. So this is one category of ‘expressiveness’. Another involves ‘expressing artistic ideas’. This is a little like what Conceptual Art does. Here the aim is less to surround a lone sculpture with a halo of attention or emotion or expressiveness—investing it with objecthood—but instead to convey an idea or a mini-story, usually by relating one part of the image or object to another, perhaps as contrast or irony. A terrific example in paper is the work of Peter Callesen, which has been making the rounds of the Internet lately. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth quickly running through this show to see some of the possibilities and logic of the ‘conceptual’ approach.

This is of course not origami—it is all about cutting paper, so is a kind of opposite to paperfolding. But it is allied to origami in the strictness of its rules, in the economy of the material, and, of course, in its use of paper-folding. The main rules seem to be that what gets to there must come from here, honestly, visibly and meaningfully; and that the cut out part must still be connected to where it came from, usually physically but sometimes just conceptually. (These rules are 'discoverable' rather than spelled out in advance as in origami, but they are always there, and the sense of limits or fate and morbidity is among the themes Callesen plays off so marvelously.)

Much more can be said about this line of art but all I want from it at the moment, is to suggest that to get to a ‘concept’ (especially if irony is involved), maybe you need the object to have several distinct parts which relate — or pose a question of the relation — between them. To get to a ‘story’ you need the parts or the whole to suggest an order in time, something that has happened or is about to happen. In Callesen’s work there are always three parts (counting the background material); there is also always an implied history of how the thing came to be the way it is. These together give a halo of idea and story almost automatically (though before Callesen introduced and relentlessly explored this possibility in paper-cuts, it seems not to have been quite so obvious).

Now origami, which by its nature puts more stress on contiguity and wholeness, tends not to investigate this kind of 'expression' and lingers more on the model-making side of things, the this-is-a-THAT. And in model-making, the artistic possibilities seem to consist of accuracy of representation, or conversely abstraction and minimalism, and sometimes ‘emotion’ or ‘expressiveness’. Yet it does not follow that either the 'story' or the 'concept' side of art-making is ruled out of origami altogether. In my next post I want to discuss two designers who do, in fact, explore this ‘conceptual’ potential in paperfolds.