Monday, November 07, 2016

Egypt in Origami

I went to see the fantastic "Pharaoh in Canaan" exhibit now up at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which is both a historical-archeological show and a display of fine art, zeroing in on the period when ancient Egypt was the administrative power in the land where I'm living now. That was 3600 to 3200 years ago: a period that overlaps the Biblical account of the Exodus, with the two stories not always jiving happily.

What a wealth of forms and images are in this show! with “Canaanites” and “Egyptians” stereotypically depicted in the papyrus art, and the ceramic, stone and metal products of each culture and their cross-influences here. Also on display is the steele with the oldest Egyptian inscription where the name of “Israel” has been found, so far (circa 1209 BCE). It boasts, in reference to one of

several minor states and peoples recently vanquished in Canaan:

“Israel is wasted, its seed utterly destroyed."

But it seems they did not catch quite all of us.

Yet it's really the art there that impressed me--and its potential relevance today, to origami specifically.

The Egyptian art of this and near periods was all about emergence from flatness, and you can see the different kinds of low relief and high relief climbing out of the stone, but also a retained interest in the smooth flat slab that was the origin of the carving—an interest which later cultures moved away from. (An interest in the stone origin not as surface but as raw massiness is explored most famously by Michelangelo in his supposedly unfinished works). But we now have a new way to think of and do what the Egyptians did--emerge--because a fold in paper isn't the same as a carved bend in stone even if the superficial result in 3D space can be the same. That paper which was surface is still surface, molecule for molecule. Where in stone there's a bend, in paper that same bend is also a hinge, and the mind plays with the possibility of its swinging--so there's a flex in mental space (possibility-space, form-making space) that doesn't exist equivalently in the older media.  In the types of origami design that attend closely to geometry, the location of the fold is simultaneously a decision of the designer/folder and an implicit potential of the paper there ("this line, formed by dividing that angle in half," etc.), a consideration that does not exist in the "extraction" or "construction" modes of sculpture. In short the “dialog with original flatness” is different, I would say livelier in the case of origami than it was in Egyptian art. But there's also continuity and it's exciting that many of these same old issues can be reopened now with a new eye.

Of course the exhibit is of Egyptian (and Canaanite) art: so you have heavily stylistic representations competing and merging with realistic ones; cross-breeds of animals with heads and bodies swapped; and cross-gendered gods and kings. To some extent this exploratory freedom is paralleled in origami today as it starts to burst onto the scene of the genuine fine-art world. That fact is even more on mind having come just  a few weeks ago from the “Paper Creatures” show curated by Ilan Garibi at the Jaffa Museum (about which I am committed to saying something soon) which has its own “mixed creatures” and explorations of the fantastical in paper.

Apart from all this---look how wonderfully pure that sculpture of the king/god Amun is. Look also how feminine! I would not have guessed a male king till reading the caption.  The gender-bending seems to have been a preference in reality, an attribute of royalty, and not just some stylistic Egptian imagining.

It seems to me that origami contains the potential, and has the internal drive, for sculpture as pure, as clean as this.

It is within reach. I don't pretend to be there yet. But it should be possible,  Yes — with origami too.