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.


Mike Assis said...

Thank you very much for an insightful post, once again. I look forward to the next one, when you unveil the two artists you're thinking of. Here are some of my thoughts.

I think it's a lot easier to capture the soul of a bull than to capture the soul of humanity. To put into one single piece of art all the human experience, I think, is beyond any artists. The most one can hope for is to capture a small part of that.

As far as expressing ideas or stories, I think the artist whose works always seem to tell me a story is Eric Joisel. He's of course known for his masks, , and while I consider them extremely expressive, his series of instrumentalists, , is able to tell novels. I can stare at a particular instrumentalist for hours, just thinking about the "person" in front of me and their unique character traits. And, when you put them all together, the richness of the resulting story is very powerful to me. Maybe I've spoiled some of the surprise in your next post. If not, I think his work should be considered.

And once again, thank you for your wonderful blog.

Román said...

First, please tell Herman Mariano he already had all my respect as a fabulous folder and it has now increased several points.

You have very clearly, as usual, stated points 1 and 2 which I completely share. As usual reading your blog is a bit like reading a piece of my own thoughts.
Let me point out however, elements that I always try my models to convey.
You are completely neglecting the fact that a story can be told with one subject only, adding in this way to the soul of, for example, an animal (I’m not sure if the Vatican has made its mind about the soul content of the animal world, but folders certainly have).
Strangely (and knowing you, probably purposely) you have set a perfect example in the photo and the accompanying text that opens your entry.
“….the feeling of Mangy Old Goat” is a lot of story to tell from just a piece of folded paper, no matter how nicely blotched it may be. And ”Old” talks about an order in time, implying more time behind than ahead, and also puts forward the question of how it came to be the way it is now. A whole story by itself.
The usual way to “tell stories” is to make elements interact, two subjects in the same piece is the classic set up, and “something about to happen” is the usual story, and a very effective artistic resource too. See an obvious example in Elias masterpiece “Moment of the truth”.
There are several different story telling interaction you can fold within a single animal subject that can be cleverly used to pump up its soul as well.
Animals can interact with the surrounding media, with themselves and with the folder/observer.
A short list of cases would include (call it silly but it is not at all) that the animal can stand by itself and even better if it can adopt more than one position as the best example of possible interaction with the surroundings. The time line goes that the animal had or will have a different position than the one it has now.
Direction of limbs and body parts in general as interactions with itself.
And lastly, the interactions with the folder are the most impressive. I have still to know a folder that can resist a smile when a bird he just folded, poses nicely on his finger, and in this case each one makes up his own story, I’m sure.

Thanks for pouring your thoughts into the public light, they are most enjoyable.

saadya said...


I appreciate the comment.

The explanation that the ‘soul of humanity’ is far harder to capture in origami than the ‘soul of the bull’ -- because humans have much richer souls, is not satisfactory to me.

As it happens, both bulls and humans have been represented quite well in stone and earthenware sculpture for a very long time now. Humans since the beginning of art, about 30,000 years ago; bulls sometime after the domestication of cattle, 8 to 10,000 years ago.

The first letter of the alphabets we still use is Aleph: it still looks like its original Bull's head as you’ll see if you elongate the cross-mark on the letter “A” and turn it upside-down. In languages like Hebrew that are close to that of the people who invented this script about 4,000 years ago the word ‘Aleph’ still means to domesticate (originally: domesticated cattle). –It really is astounding that ANY invention can last in all its gross features and many of its details for quite so long. We’ll have to wait and see if the Randlett-Rohm-Yoshizawa system of origami symbols fares as well…

But all this is by way of saying, that adequate representations of BOTH humans and bulls have existed for ages in other media—especially stone. (Adequate enough even to induce people to worship them.) Why should there be such a gap for origami?

When you think of it, stone OUGHT to be a better material for representing a bull: the bull's slow, dense thought and latent, arousable force are well expressed through an inert massy substance like stone. If an origami Bull is able to do about as well (which I think it is), that's because something of the added value that paper or paper-folding brings to animals can make up for this loss. Where does this added-value go when representing humans?

Now, the answer might be technical and provisional: we haven’t found the right tricks yet, but soon will and then the problem will disappear. Alternatively, the answer might have to do with the way origami invests its animals with a soul; if so, the gap with humans won’t disappear but understanding it would shed light on what that mysterious ‘ensoulment’ is (supposing we take this quaint notion seriously). Either way the problem needs to be investigated--IN PAPER.

As to Joisel: Anyone who studies the human form in paperfolds--no matter how original--is bound to find that Eric Joisel has in many respects been there before him. Even the cul-de-sacs people find themselves in today with human representations have their precursors in Joisel. But this topic is too large for me to broach just yet. Fortunately you can find a fine recent profile of Eric Joisel on Filipe Moreno’s blog.


origami madness said...

When talking about human form, you said:

"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."

I wonder-- do you think Joel Cooper's figure comes closer than we've gotten before?

And in response-- it seems to me that this is a two-pronged problem. With this subject matter, either we can sue smooth, subtle forms, which are not possible in origami given the complex curvatures demanded by the human form, face and figure (forming these would spoil the subtlety of the shading); or we can obscure the figure significantly, either by hiding it underneath cloth, or as in the case of Joel's work, rendering it in a fragmented medium.

Just my thoughts on this, I've been enjoying re-reading your blog posts on expression and idea; I get more out of them every time.

saadya said...


I haven’t hidden my opinion of Joel Cooper from this Blog, even if his name doesn’t appear in every entry.

This particular work (the female figure) I find slightly less compelling than some of his faces: the tessellations are not being used to create detailed features on the body, for the simple reason that there are fewer such there than on a face (barring the odd nipple or bellybutton). And the gross features—limbs, hips, breasts, all are formable with very few lines. So the logic of using tessellations here is weaker.

The interesting things about this piece are (1) the exploration of the theme of emergence, and (2) the granting of a non-natural ‘vagueness’, really a paper translation of chiaroscuro, to the body through the use of tessellations. Joel is sculpting here the way he would draw in charcoal! This last is an exciting concept, and as usual entirely original and unique to Mr. Cooper. If its realization in this work is imperfect, I am sure future works will bring it out more sharply.

In the context of the topic of this Blog article, it gives an entirely different sense in which folded forms can be ‘expressive’—through altering the surface property—than the various ones pioneered by Yoshizawa, Giang Dinh, Joisel and the other leading workers in this field.