Arts and Entertainment

The history and growth of origami as an art form goes on display in 'Folding Paper'

Two versions of Robert J. Lang
Two versions of Robert J. Lang's 'Emperor Scorpion, opus 593': its finished form, at left, and a diagram of the folds required to make it.
— image credit: Robert J. Lang, courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum

The latest exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum will invite its viewers to think about how they can contribute to the culture of origami.

“Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami,” which opened May 16, presents both a historical perspective and contemporary review of the art form.

Though origami is strongly associated with Japan, folded paper art enjoyed parallel, but separate, evolutions in the West. Spaniards were fond of using the art of papiroflexia to make pajaritas, folded birds more humble in appearance than their Japanese crane cousins. Germans were more fond of constructing cute-but-complex papierfaltien stars and other rigidly geometric patterns. German educator Friedrich Friable incorporated papierfalten into the curriculum of the kindergarten system he pioneered in 1837, believing his hobby would help children develop their fine motor skills.

“What I find fascinating about paper folding is that it is both an art and craft on one side, with science and math on the other,” said Stefano Catalani, the museum’s director of art, craft and design. “... You’re exercising the haptic skills of the hand and the mathematical mind. You’re solving a puzzle.”

Fröbel’s kindergarten model made its way over to Japan in the late 19th century, after internal political upheaval opened the country’s borders to the outside world. There, German designs were “cross-pollinated,” Catalani said, with traditional Shinto forms to create what we commonly know as origami today.

Regardless, paper folding was still considered kid’s stuff. It would be in the 20th century, under the influence of Akira Yoshizawa, that the practice would accumulate respect as an art form. Yoshizawa pioneered “wet folding,” published 18 books on origami art and founded the International Origami Center in Tokyo — efforts that earned him the Order of the Rising Sun from Emperor Hirohito in 1983. He invented an estimated 50,000 designs, perhaps one of the most impressive of which is on display in the first chamber of the BAM exhibit: a fly no larger than a pencil’s eraser. The diminutive piece is a jarring example of the work that can go into origami.

“It leads you to understand the amount of folds that go into even the smallest works,” Catalani said. “You only see the few outermost folds, but there are many more you don’t see.”

The touring exhibit, most recently arrived from the Peoria Riverfront Museum in Illinois, is broken down into three sections: animal forms, geometrics and modern applications of folding in the real world.

Robert J. Lang, co-curator of the exhibit, provides a direct demonstration of the hidden side of origami in his contributions to the animal forms section of “Folding Paper.” Lang’s three pieces — “Emperor Scorpion, opus 593” “Soaring Red-Tailed Hawk, opus 601” and “Bull Moose, opus 413” — come accompanied by crease pattern diagrams showing exactly how they were created. Their intricacy is such that they work as pieces of art themselves, Catalani said.

The diagrams also demonstrate the culture of sharing among origami artists, he said. Because origamists practice across many nations, cultures and languages, the diagramming method developed by Yoshizawa acts as its own common language.

And that language is changing, as evidenced by the installations included in the exhibit. Though purists will insist that true origami consists of only one unsullied and uncut sheet of paper, many of the installations are beautifully rendered with multiple sheets of paper and incisions galore.

“Origami is a language and, like a language, it changes with use,” Catalani said.

Catalani said he was particularly excited to include South African artist Sipho Mabona’s “The Plague,” in which sheets of dollar bills appear to transform into a swarm of locusts. The display involves dozens of individual locusts in particular placements, requiring Madonna to be flown out from Switzerland to oversee the installation. For this reason, not every host of the tour can include “The Plague.”


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