Wednesday, September 29, 2010

an introduction with no conclusion

Before and After.

Can you guess which origami object the following fold pattern is for?

A.) B.)C.)
Answer (below):


One more.

A.) B.)C.)


* * *

Whenever I heard the word origami I used to picture the kinds of patterns and designs shown above. Trinkets, cute little objects... A relaxing hobby. Yes, pieces could be intricate and technically impressive, but overall I'd never seen anything that made me give much thought to paper folding as an art. However, my view on this was recently altered by a couple of the people featured in the documentary Between the Folds. And while I still know next to nothing about origami, I figured I'd share /sort through some of my thoughts and discoveries...

The first part of Between the Folds reinforced my impression of origami as (basically) an expression of math -- more science than art. Many of its practitioners are focused on creating and designing objects with the highest number of folds (the average fold count is constantly increasing). This obsession with difficulty level keeps the focus on technical aspects of creation which ultimately leads to the design -- not the finished piece -- being the star. The creation is merely an assembled puzzle, and many designers take pride in creating things that can only be folded by people with incredible dexterity (and many folders take pride in the dexterity that's required). Thus, the design (or blueprint) is the creation, and the creation itself is merely a kind of paint-by-numbers. What usually ends up happening under this model is that the majority of finished products lack depth and resonance (though fellow practitioners who also worship at the Alter of Difficulty must surely stand before the best of them in awe).

For me, the best of these type of objects are the kind of thing I see and think: neat!

Anyone can appreciate the design and time that when in to creating the finished product, especially when one considers the fact that it was made from a single piece of paper (with no cutting or gluing). But if the finished objects are art, they're the art of the puzzle designer. The art of the problem solver. The art of the technician. The art of the engineer. The art of the computer.

Blade Runner (1982)

I found a little more to like in some of Eric Joisel's paper sculptures. He improvises as he goes (no two finished pieces of his are the same), and this comes across in his work. On the whole, there's something warm, organic and uncalculated about his pieces when compared to ones that are more focused on a mathematical approach. (Joisel is not a purist. Sometimes he uses more than one sheet of paper, for example.)

Snail (single sheet)

Along with a focus on technical details, much of the origami community (at least as it's presented in the film) is obsessed with realism. This is not surprising. People geared towards math are adept at numbers, patterns, puzzles, etc., and, using these strengths, they can figure out how to replicate something that already exists, treating it like a problem to be solved. Thus, they're likely to value realism highly because it's something they can excel at and because they know how to measure (and judge) the result. What they're less good at (of course I'm generalizing) is non-technical, less-practical, and what might even be called irrational forms of creativity. (I don't want to say that mathematics doesn't require creativity; surely it does. But it's creativity of a very different sort.) Left brained thinkers, on the whole, are more literal and less imaginative(?), and their take on origami seems to reflect this. Again, the result (at its worst) is work that's cold, mechanical, and literal minded (however technically impressive). When I see this kind of origami I see hours and hours of folding and (usually) little else.

This approach to paper folding has already begun its next logical step: people are using origami to express certain mathematical theories. The result is a more abstract origami, an origami that appears to be the opposite of one in which objects are measured by how closely they resemble, say, a specific animal. But such abstractions also fit within this logic-based way of seeing and interpreting because the results can still be easily judged. If not in terms of realism then in terms of their practical or theoretical application or expression.

I'm speaking very generally, of course. No approach is automatically better or worse than any other approach. "Computational origami" can be beautiful too.

(above) "MIT Professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Dr. Erik Demaine, creates computational origami with attempt to reveal the mechanism of how pleated paper self folds into specific circular surfaces. His math sculptures are built on explorations started at the Bauhaus in the 1920's in the classroom of Josef Albers (below)."

On the whole I think the abstract pieces are more successful as art than their more realistic counterparts because the content better serves the form (and vice versa).

The first person the documentary shows breaking away from the pack and pushing aside the rigid rules of tradition is Paul Jackson. (Erik Demaine (above) breaks off in his own way as well, but he's featured last in the film). Jackson articulates -- especially through the examples of his paper sculptures -- everything I had always disliked about origami, and I started to see that there were various groups, theories, and philosophies behind paper folding. What I used to think of as "origami" was just a small part of it.

Paul Jackson: "In the mid 1980's, dissatisfied with the origami world's twin obsessions of complexity and literal representation, I began to experiment widely with technical and philosophical alternatives to folding paper as a model making activity. I wanted to make people ask 'why?' rather than 'how?', and to make objects that were aesthetically pleasing, not just clever."

Eventually the question of what can be made with a single crease started to interest him. It was a question originally meant as a casual joke, but after thinking about it he decided to take it as a challenge. One crease? Who could make anything with one crease? He started to experiment.

"This was my first series of explorations -- an attempt to examine what would
happen if only one crease was made on a sheet of paper. This may appear to be a ludicrous notion, but I found that it revealed unexpected riches. Eventually, it became not just a novel technique, but a complex philosophy of folding in contradiction to most of the tenets of model making origami.

The photos below show work folded from single uncut sheets. The red pieces are wet folded from 50cms squares of watercolour paper, brushed with raw watercolour pigment. The cream pieces are folded from 20cm squares of photocopier paper."

Below: a paper sculpture by Giang Dinh.

Jackson then moved on to what he calls "Organic Abstracts."

"This series was begun in the early 1990's and continues to the present day, with over 250 different pieces having been made. It arose from a combination of circumstances -- a technical discovery of how to make apparently curved ribs and a desire to make work which could be exhibited. I later realised I was not the first to use the 'rib' technique (a few origami creators had used it as a small detail in a complex model), though I have explored it with much greater rigour and it is now indelibly associated with my name.

The pieces are technically similar, though differ substantially in the detail. This creative focus on 'variation' rather than on a long series of unique models is intended to shift my attention somewhat away from the left-brain 'how?' of folding, towards a more right-brain focus on colour, shape and meaning. In this way, the pieces have a different creative emphasis to almost all other paper folded (origami) work, being less technical in concept. In my pieces, the technique is the servant, not the king.

Inspiration for the pieces comes from organic forms such as bacteria, seed heads and shells. Controversially for many origami purists, the paper is coloured with charcoal or dry pastel and sealed to create a surface with a matt lustre. I do this because the simple truth is that for me, untreated paper doesn't have the 'presence' of paper customised with pastel. This customisation of the surface somehow changes a model or a craft object into an art object.

The photographs below show work folded from single uncut sheets."

Here are three paper sculptures formed by pleat tessellations. They were created by math and computer science professor Goran Konjevod, who cited Paul Jackson's work as his inspiration.

Below: a mask by Joel Cooper.

Jackson then went on the explore "crumpling."

"After the minimalism of One Crease I explored the opposite -- a sheet of
paper full to bursting with as many creases as it could hold. Actually, the sheet must be crumpled in a precise and controlled way, but when done well has extraordinary elastic properties.

I confess that I've not fully explored the limits of this technique, but I regularly
teach it to Fashion/Textile students who have used it to create some excellent work in the manner of the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, but with a much greater vocabulary of form.

The undisputed master of this crumpling technique is the French paper folder Vincent Floderer. I taught him the rudiments of the technique in Paris in 1996, since when he has produced a series of folded pieces of increasing sophistication and beauty. I thank him for acknowledging me as the originator of the technique, but I salute his remarkable artistry and creative vision."

Vincent Floderer is part of a group who call themselves "Le Crimp." They're dubbed "The Anarchists" in Between the Folds because their philosophy (which breaks with tradition and, on the surface, looks to be chaotic) is vastly different from the majority of paper folders. One of the things I liked most about viewing the documentary was seeing how various people were able to figure out how to bring their own personality and point of view to something as simple as sheet of paper, even going as far as creating new techniques in order to better express themselves.

Some samples of Vincent Floderer's work.

The technique can also be used for realism.

Being slightly less ignorant about origami after watching Between the Folds, I've come to realize that a lot of the art of origami is indeed contained in the process. Some works can be bland and uninteresting as finished pieces but amazing and fascinating while they're being made. One of my favorite folders profiled in the film was Chris K. Palmer. He focuses on tessellations -- something that falls into the "puzzle" or "math" category of origami -- and seeing his finished products by themselves would have only reinforced my impression of origami as cute objects, sterile puzzles, etc. But watching him create his pieces was great. He folds and re-folds them in various ways, opening and closing them, repositioning them, forming various layered objects... Impossible to explain. I found it fascinating to watch him fold, and none of that exists or comes across in his finished products (which I don't really like). Palmer says that people looking at a finished piece of origami are only seeing 50% of it because the other half is about the process, and with his work this is particularly true.


Hectocotylus said...

re: Chris Palmer. "...seeing his finished products by themselves would have only reinforced my impression of origami as cute objects, sterile puzzles, etc."

This isn't exactly true. There was a piece of his in particular that was pretty amazing -- an "ever-unfolding" sculpture of sorts (which he opened and closed). Still, pictures do nothing for it. Palmer's finished work is as much about movement as it is about process.

HarryTuttle said...

Filmmakers@Google: Between The Folds

Hectocotylus said...

Finally got around to watching this... Thanks for the link! (And thanks also for your great blog; I enjoy reading it.)

Tyler said...

Beautiful "ghost art." Simon Schubert's Paper Art: Remarkable paper-folding artist cites Samuel Beckett as an influence