Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Animal Symmetry and Representation

One of the reasons origami lends itself so well to the representation of animals is that animals are basically symmetric, and shapes made from a folded square—aligning edges, corners, flaps or other reference points—themselves tend to be naturally symmetrical.

In animals, the main symmetry is of course bilateral (reflective), but there are other symmetries as well. Hind legs and forelegs are ‘symmetrical’ in the sense of being similar to each other, so you have translational symmetry (copy and move) along with a sort of ‘allometric’ symmetry (plot features on a grid, stretch the grid). Digits, that is fingers and toes, are further branchings of limbs, and like branches elsewhere are a form of symmetry: ‘repeat the same thing, at another extremity, at a smaller scale’. In origami the similarity of the small-scale activity to the large-scale one is even more apparent.

Actually, symmetries in an animal can be even more subtle, and extend to body parts which look quite different from each other. One of the amazing discoveries from a quarter-century ago is the complex of “HOX” genes, a stretch of very similar genes which trigger cascades of embryonic growth, in animals as diverse as insects and mammals. The sequence of genes is lined up on the chromosome like beads on the string; each successive gene must have evolved initially as an additional copy of the one before it, which copy then underwent modification, causing its function to vary slightly (or greatly). Thus, antenna on an insect turn out to be modifications of feet: damage the gene and what grows on the head will in fact be feet. But an insect’s body parts, from labia to abdomen, and not just its appendages, also are controlled by repeats-with-variations of identical genes of the Hox complex, and that (on top of the basic segmentation) accounts for some of their self-similarity or symmetry. Amazingly, too, the effects on the body appear in the same spatial sequence as the genes in the chromosome—each next gene controlling the next segment of the body. Here for instance is how it looks in Fruit Flies:

Now, origami is often spoken of as being ‘biological’ in some way. Sometimes it is even referred to as yielding a ‘parallel embryology’. This analogy is actually quite deep, but it pulls in various directions, and it seems to me that at least part of it can be explored by thought about Hox genes and the repeating patterns of origami. Other aspects of the analogy, such as the crucial use in nature of ‘folding skins’ to create animal form, as in gastrulation; or some of the ways proteins like to fold themselves up, we will perhaps touch on in future posts (time, finances, war conditions, etc. all permitting, of course).

Getting back to symmetry: Generally speaking, a symmetrical origami design shows the animal in its most recognizable form. Clearly though, many animals assume postures—and some of them, even physiques—which are NOT symmetrical, a good deal of the time; and if one wants to represent these out of a folded square that can take special tricks and techniques . Robert Lang has a handsome Fiddler Crab with one arm much larger than the other, as it should be; and I seem to recall a Seated Lion someplace (by Giang Dinh?) with its body flung to one side, again a very typical posture for a lion. In these cases there is one characteristic asymmetry within an overall symmetrical plan, but the animal remains quite recognizable despite that.

Trouble starts, however, with those animals that lead most of their lives trying to avoid presenting a clear or symmetric outline. And here, Bernie Peyton’s expertise, both in his scientific career and as an origamian, becomes quite useful. Bernie is a wildlife biologist—in older parlance, a ‘naturalist'—who has spent 22 years studying Spectacled Bears in their native habitat in the Andes. Now, I don’t know about spectacled bears, but brown and black bears, along with quite a number of other furry animals, go out of their way to avoid showing an easy-to-read profile---most of the time. Most of the time, the head is lowered, the colors of the face and body parts blend in to the rest, so what you see is this lumbering mass that is not easy to judge the scale of from a distance or the emotions of even from closer in. Almost the only time the features become pronounced—with head raised, ears clear against the sky, arms outflung, the body too perhaps raised up on two feet—is when the bear needs to threaten somebody. It then becomes distinct, its size and intentions clear, and turns into just the sort of symmetrical, stick-figure shape that origami is so good at representing.

But that is not its typical posture; so if one wants to represent the animal as one is likely to encounter it in the wild—in a warm and not a confrontational context—that takes special efforts of design, observation and sensibility. In "Lying Bear", Bernie Peyton lets the animal be visually distinct by raising the ears just slightly over the line of the body, but the body itself is still massy and indistinct, limbs thrown akimbo in a casual asymmetric sprawl. So it is both amorphous and distinct, in precise balance.

One wonders: since this sort of representation is naturalistic for the animals but not entirely natural for origami, why choose the medium of origami to make it with? Why stretch paperfolding almost to its limits when, say, a wood-carving could have done the job more easily? Bernie’s answer no doubt will be that some of the special aesthetic qualities of origami animals --I mean their fragility, freshness, liveliness and transience--are important for him to convey, given the habitat destruction he has seen at first hand with such devastating effects on his animals. That is a noble reply but artistically, it's not entirely satisfactory. More work needs to be done, it seems to me, to make the sort of highly naturalistic, animated shapes Bernie hopes to capture, come to appear more natural to origami. —But he is already pretty far down this path.

Meanwhile, here is a different take on a Bear, in its less typical if more symmetrical form. On the warpath, in other words. Less naturalistic, if you like, but more natural for origami. The design is by Nicolas Terry; the fold is by Herman Mariano (who decided to make it a Brown Bear rather than a Black one). I had the privilege of showing both of these bears in the exhibit last year at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art.

A quick plug: Most readers know this already, but just in case you don't: both of these top-rank animal designers, Nicolas Terry and Bernie Peyton, along with the uniquely inventive and ebullient Vincent Floderer, will be present at the “Ultimate Origami Convention” in Lyon, France, between the 8th to the 11th of this November (2008). Get there if you can—you are in for a real treat.