Saturday, November 02, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Closed Head---Open Mind

 A Reception of an Idea of Yoshizawa's

Origami can be done as a doodle—you pick up a scrap of paper, say the receipt from your recent shopping expedition, and play with it absent-mindedly at the outdoor cafe, bending it this way and that till it starts looking like an animal, all while waiting for the espresso to arrive.

But you can also design origami deliberately, so that it will seem like a doodle. Here is a an extremely simple set-up that you can actually do with a grocery receipt:

I venture to say that you can make—maybe not ALL the heads of all animals from this start (with mild variations), but certainly a good many of them. A head that’s mounted on a long neck or a pole. With a bit of finessing you can squeeze out a good lower-jaw too.

Since the set-up is so simple and the number of folds is small, you can do this with thick “artistic” paper too, like Canson Mi-Teintes, and preserve the unblemished, unbroken expanse of the sheet, with all its glorious texture—letting the paperiness of the model shine. As I always like to do.

And then it will still be origami. But no longer just a doodle.

                                          *   *   *

Now, this is a simple idea. But it didn’t form itself simply, waiting for the coffee to arrive. There’s actually a long back-story to it, really, a whole origami biography. Which I’ll try to sketch out, for those who might like some chattiness along with their pictures and espresso.

I got my start in folding as a boy in 1972: from Harbin’s “Secrets of Origami” and Randlett’s “Best of Origami”—books brought to me while convalescing in a hospital in Jerusalem for a serious illness. Those were pages filled with magic, from many authors, but the hovering spirit throughout seemed to
me to be that of the mysterious Japanese giant Akira Yoshizawa; and when I started designing for myself 15 years later in Chicago (with CHAOS—the CHicago Area Origami Society in its first days) it was very much with him in mind as role-model. There was no question that in his hands origami could be a fine art, endlessly suggestive, expressive, technically masterful but never letting itself get swallowed by technique. For all that, Yoshizawa’s prickly prima-donna Japanese-master persona irritated me, and when he came near—as near as Detroit—I didn’t betake myself to meet him. That was youthful arrogance: it has its place, even if I kick myself for it now.

Life gallops on. I was studying aesthetics in grad school at the University of Chicago , then fled with my PhD to Israel. Things—eventually—advanced, both professionally/curatorially and origamiwise/artistically; in 2007 these combined and I was asked to put together Israel's first large-scale international exhibition of origami art. This was at a prestigious venue—the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, in Haifa, which houses the largest collection of Japanese art in the Middle East.

It was obvious that I needed to have Yoshizawa works for this show, to give it gravitas and to anchor origami firmly in the public mind as an emerging Japanese art, even as it is also an international one. But it became even more obvious because of a rather fantastical coincidence. Felix Tikotin from Holland, the late founder of this museum, and perhaps the greatest dealer in classical Japanese art in the 20th century—prints, enamel vases, swords, netsuke, and the like—also turned out to be (from a little research on my part, chasing a tip by Dave Brill)  the key 'mystery man' who in 1955, had arranged Akira Yoshizawa’s first-ever museum exhibition: at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. This was also the first museum exhibition for origami as a fine art, anywhere. (Much new and exciting information on this episode, which centers on the figure of Gershon Legman, has been discovered recently by Laura Rozenberg.)

Soon I was holding actual Yoshizawa works in my hands. At first works from a “clandestine” collection that exists in Haifa; later “official” works lent to me from Japan for the exhibit through the kind graces of his widow, Mrs. Kiyo Yoshizawa in Tokyo, based on the lifelong gratitude which the Yoshizawas felt toward Felix Tikotin for the help in 1955.

This was tremendously moving for me. Some of those models were the very ones I’d caught glimpses of in the books by Harbin and Randlett as a boy. Now I could feel their weight and texture, study the dimpling touches. (And without the ‘white gloves’!) I have to say, primitive or not, these works were haunting to hold. The toughness of the paper I was not used to; one could not help but think of the resilience of the man who made them, and the toughness of the time: 1950s Japan, pulling itself out of the war years; and this man going door to door selling fish treats, while pioneering his craft and our field.

Akira Yoshizawa, "Dogs".  Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, 2007

These were the first of several opportunities I’ve been given to study Yoshizawa’s works at close hand. Origami may well have advanced but I find there is still much to learn from him. For instance, notice the attention he gives to the heads in his animals. They are often wide—flat on top—3D like the rest of the body—and get slightly more detail (usually eyes, ears, mouth, nose, horns etc) than the rest of the animal does, almost as if the head were a model to itself. In the best works the head is smooth on top; in the less than best, where the paper joins there is a seam line that seems to be trying to stay hidden. This is the “head” equivalent of the now-known origami ideal of the “closed back” (of which, more below).

The curatorial side of things—my discovery of the historical “Tikotin connection” —kept on having ramifications in the present as well. Tikotin’s grandson who resides in Amsterdam was informed of this chapter in his grandfather’s career, and used his contacts in Holland to arrange a new exhibition there: Yoshizawa’s first one-man show in Europe since that 1955 one. It was held in May, 2011 at Leiden’s SieboldHuis JapanMuseum. Some images of this rare and magnificent exhibition of Yoshizawa animals can be glimpsed on Paula Versnick’s Flickr site.

Akira Yoshizawa, "Camels".  SieboldHuis JapanMuseum, 2011

This show was curated and set up by Mrs. Yoshizawa herself, who came specially. The museum’s director was Kris Schiermeier, another high-powered individual (her previous job was Curator of Exhibitions at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.) I was brought in to lend a hand with various aspects, including the wetfolding workshops. For these, I somewhat impetuously decided on teaching Yoshizawa’s signature Swan.

Trouble was—I couldn’t figure out how to make it! The version from a square, diagrammed in one of his books, did not give similar results. Eventually I learned that the “main” version of this model starts not from a square but from an equilateral triangle. But by then I had “reverse engineered” a Swan that starts from a square and ends up much like his triangular version, and it is that which I taught the poor unsuspecting students at the museum’s wet-folding workshop. (The first session was full of real folding pros—from them I heard no complaints.)

Saadya Sternberg, wetfolding workshop.  SieboldHuis JapanMuseum 2011

Before and especially after the workshops I studied this Swan, and continued to think about it.

It is one of three iconic models Yoshizawa had, and which he did not refuse to teach in public; the other two being his Butterfly and his Gorilla. The Butterfly is a masterpiece of transformative economy—a few baby-steps and you are there. Michael LaFosse has designed exquisite lepidoptera that are unquestionable improvements on his master’s, and are now his own signature models; but just as unquestionably—he will be the first to admit—they are not improvements in economy, in the ratio of ends to means. Indeed one would be hard-pressed to find anything that is, that gets so quickly from square to living thing with all parts in the right place. Yoshizawa’s Gorilla is a consummate hybrid: a body that is very simple to make—a 6-year-old can do it—but then a head, which allows infinite weathering, experience, subtlety, a touch that only a master can give. A true sculptor, a Giang Dinh, can go to town with it, but no one else can. (Of course a true sculptor does not bother tweaking the head on top of a Yoshizawa Gorilla, but makes his own.)

The Swan continues with this thought of “simple models that allow infinite artistry”, but it is more complete. The origami aspects are meant to begin to disappear into a full sculpture. Yoshizawa kept finessing this model his whole life, striving for some sort of perfection in curvaceousness and grace.

Akira Yoshizawa with Swan.  SieboldHuis JapanMuseum, 2011

This is the model that the Master taught Felipe Moreno in Zaragoza, Spain, for whom it has become a favorite.

Formally, it is still very much origami—quite a simple model actually. But at the same time Yoshizawa seems to be seeking an opposite to origami: a kind of maximum distance from it in a few short moves. Curves of surface and line, for instance, rather than all-flat planes and angularity. Likewise, the cut-edge of the paper is nowhere allowed to be prominent; where it does appear (at the bottom of the wings) it faces down to the table, away from the viewer: that's a way of concealing the model's origins in a delimited paper sheet. The back of the neck is smooth and the front curls inward in multiple layers--no cut edge seen, again--and in any case the forward bend of the head above largely obscures the view of the join; so another, "ugly" artifact of origami animal models, the seam, is kept out of sight. Most notable is the back, which is done without any sharp folds. The wings start out from the sides—sufficiently far apart to give the model a noticeably wide, smooth back. The reverse-folds making the tail and neck are kept soft. It is clear Yoshizawa was already thinking fully about the concept of the closed back; even if many of his other models don't show this trait; and as usual thinking about it several decades before it reached wider consciousness among origami designers.

Consider the easiest way to make a swan. There is nothing simpler than to take a fish base, use its flaps as wings, its long points as head and tail. But that would put a severe split down the back, and leave the cut edge of the paper in the flaps face up. These would have been unacceptable for Yoshizawa.

Look for comparison also at how Ligia Montoya designed her Swan: a simple but careful construction which starts from a dart. Flat planes, gracefully spreading in back for the wings and tail. Not quite a closed back, yet not a fully open one. She sets the tone for flat origami, or more accurately, plane-based origami, which can also be 3D.

I used to think of this as a fundamental difference between the origami that was emerging in Spanish-speaking parts of the world and this other origami that Yoshizawa had pioneered. Today, I doubt whether this sort of distinction based on locality ever had much validity, and clearly with the global mixing effected by the Internet it is even harder to argue for. But even if this style of flatness’  did indeed influence the Spanish-speaking side of origami more than the rest of the world (along with maybe a certain increased “sociality”, that is, relatively clean folds and communicable steps), it doesn’t form a clean contrast with Yoshizawa’s heritage in any large geographic sense.

That is because the class of followers of his teachings seems to have shrunk. Who after all has absorbed them now? Joisel was certainly a great admirer of Yoshizawa's, but one can’t point to any direct teaching from him—unless it was some idea of the whimsical, which Joisel went after in completely his own way. There is certainly Giang Dinh, who notably picks up the wet-fold (I would say more masterfully than his master) while doing away with the preliminary ‘base-forming’ steps which connect origami with its historical and its child-minded beginnings. There is Michael LaFosse and there is Dave Brill, each of whom clearly inherited some of Yoshizawa’s ethos. (Hard to define exactly how: a relative simplicity, or at least an admiration for it as ideal; and an appreciation of, a willingness to work sometimes with thicker, wet-foldable paper. Of course the fine-art leanings too.) And there is Stefan Weber, in some of his brashness and deftness, in the ad-hoc, discovered solutions which then get reworked through endless repetition into an instinct: a masterful flourish. —Are there others I am forgetting?

[Added:  My mind indeed slipped.  Dave Brill mentions (see his comment below) Alfredo Giunta and Max Hulmne; for gesture and economy of line I could add Lionel Albertino, and for curvaceousness and 'simplicity' perhaps Jozsef Zsebe. No doubt there are others too, it depends how widely one defines "influence".]

The above are, so to speak, “organic” receivers of Yoshizawa’s teachings. But it is also possible to coldly isolate elements of his logic and apply them. Last year I did an experimental series of “Bird Volumetric Studies”, where I tried to make bird shapes using all and only volume-creating folds (mainly angled crimps that end in the interior of the sheet); these also serve as ‘ornamental’ folds, and leave no superfluous lines, while enclosing the shape in least-wastage volumes. The aims and approach are very different from Yoshizawa’s (there are no simple set-up moves, it is 3D work from the git-go), but the breadth of the smooth back is clearly important for the resulting models, and that in its way reflects a concept of AYs.  Perhaps the one he promoted with his Swan.

"White Pigeon", by Saadya Sternberg.  From an uncut square.

But now there are these heads, where I’m trying to borrow a bit more. The simple set-up; the thick, wet-foldable paper with very little layering; the scope that the design leaves to incorporate ad-hoc solutions; and especially--the broad smooth curving surface of the sheet, the "head" equivalent of the “closed back”.

More important still are the questions. How do you get origami to come alive? If there is, besides what is called "touch", some technical trick to this--like leaving a surface smooth, without sharp folds--what parts of the body is it really essential to do that with? The smoothness of the paper is a kind of visual invitation to stroking, suggests softness (even if the paper is up to 300 grams thick and fairly resilient). Is that a way to engage the viewer? To add to a model's "delicacy"? Or to its "simplicity"?  Or to its ‘depth’ as art?

The continuation from Yoshizawa is a continuation of his questions, not necessarily the answers he found, although these very often point the way.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013