Monday, August 28, 2006

Curves vs. Flats

Origami, like anything with a long history, also has a destiny; by which I mean for instance that folds that were thought to be extremely difficult 100 years ago are child’s play today, and forms that 60 or 70 years ago were thought to be impossible without making cuts—so that a cut here & there was overlooked—are known as perfectly possible today with a little extra effort. Cuts accordingly are more strictly shunned even by non-puritans. The preference for the square has grown firmer, though it’s by no means absolute; and the field has grown enough to allow modulars, multi-part assemblages, though this is frowned upon in animal design (unless the units are sufficiently small to make it an extension of modular origami.) In short, the field has naturally pushed toward a set of ideals or strictures, which on approach have sometimes further split into other ideals and strictures each of which defines a new sub-field. Moreover, one can claim that this ‘destiny’ was present if dimly felt by some practitioners in earlier stages of development, and the very refinement and purification of such standards is part of what drove those pioneers forward.

Curved folding, a subspecies of origami, has not been systematically explored by anything like as many people. (I’d say less than twenty people in the world; maybe less than ten, compared to several hundred systematic explorers with origami.) But I insist that curved folding too has a destiny---and I’ll tell you what it is. If in origami you rule out (or minimize) cutting, painting and gluing, in curvigami you also rule out folding itself. That is: hard folds and straight lines are viewed as necessary evils, acceptable in extremis, in just the way cuts were regarded in the origami of two or three generations ago.

What about the square—another purist ideal that’s been refined (I mean increasingly insisted upon) over the generations? Here there is a more profound difference from straight-line and flat folding. Curvigami deals with surfaces and starts from the interior of the sheet, asking how you can manipulate that interior and what to do with the consequences of this manipulation for the rest of the sheet. This is unlike origami, which deals with edges, or the turning of surface regions into things that have edges, i.e., flaps. With curved folding you are dropped straight into the sea, where what you make are these ripples or waves; there is no shoreline you can depend on, and no “landmarks” either (I can go on some ways with this metaphor). So that the square with its edges and its whole language of 22.5 degree or 30 degree angles really becomes irrelevant. If you’re manipulating the edges and the corners of a square you are still more in origami mode than in curvigami mode.(Though this can be done masterfully too: witness Roman Diaz’ superb Tiger’s Head). I feel regrets about the loss of the square, truly I do, but it must go.

That being said, I can’t quite account for the residual attachment to the rectangle in my own curved folding, and to the right angle at its four corners. –Maybe it’s that one wants to keep it clear that a sheet, and a paper sheet, is the material of origin here, and sheets are rectangular by manufacturing tradition. Or maybe it’s that representation-surfaces in general—for instance paintings, and then movie and TV screens and now computer and cellphone screens—have historically allowed only very occasional lapses into other shapes: ovals, triangles, pentagons etc. It is the rectangle that silently screams today ‘surface’—or ‘surface without shape’, or ‘never mind about the edges or proportions, which within limits we can vary, it’s the interior content that counts’. That ‘surface condition’ exists also for surfaces to be made into curved-folds. A square, or any other regular polygon, draws far too much attention to its own outline and geometry.

Since curved folding is about surfaces, layers, too—the staple and mainstay of origami—also are downgraded. Layers are not mined as in origami for the creation of different entities (usually flaps); instead, multiple layers (which are avoided or minimized to begin with) are often treated as thicker versions of a single layer, and are folded all together.

To me, the great still-unanswered question is what the area of contact is between flat folding and curved folding. You might think, that since curved folding deals with surfaces, you can use curves for placing a surface ornamentation on an elaborate form, in, say, the way Robert Lang does famously with his Koi. But if the curves are put in first they prevent most subsequent manipulation of the familiar kind, so such an elaborate form is ruled out. Nor is it usually easy to put curves in after the fact, unless there is free material that reaches all the way to the cut edge. Roman Diaz’ Tiger’s Head (looks like I’ll have to write a separate essay on this model alone) introduces a few ornamental curves on the ‘leftover’ flat regions as a final step. This is not QUITE an afterthought, what it feels like instead is pedagogy: we’re being taught something about sculptural folding, in the rest of the piece, and here is an important aspect of sculpting that we don’t want to omit or the lesson won’t be complete. Nevertheless, the curves were not strictly necessary, some straight open crimps could almost have served. And the curves would not really have been possible, if the cut edge had not been free. --In some of my own things (e.g. Ernestine [yes, it's time for some new examples]), the ‘combination’ of curving/sculpted regions with flat/origami ones is given as a sort of ‘tease’, with the single-layer-curved head blending into the face (which has a few origami manipulations, I mean layers and flaps) and that in turn blending into the neck and chest, which is even more oriented to the language of straight-line origami. The suggestion--meant as usual to irritate certain people--is that the curves and the sculpting are the main thing, with the flat and straight origami being subservient to it, the raw material that it grows out of, in the way a polished marble sculpture can emerge from unthinking chiseled stone. Something similar about the relationship was suggested more humorously in ‘The Origami Eater’. But I haven’t given up the idea of curves as ornaments either; that’s part of what I was looking at in those ‘jars’, where a curve-pattern is carried around an edge; the n-sided jar-shape being the origami superstructure which supports the curving bas-relief ornament. Here the curved/sculpted regions and the geometric/origami regions are felt to be on more of an equal footing.

Why this fight over primacy, subservience etc? Must the elements of one language always be reduced to those of another? Can’t we all get along?

But looks like I’ve run out of space, or is it time. Let's leave this question open--for the time being.

[Added later: A slightly more formal discussion of curve-folding issues appears in the next article, "Lessons from Masters".]

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Aren't We Squares

Paperfolding types being generally nice, as a group we tend to be inclusive and tolerant about what gets counted as origami so long as scissors are not much in evidence. Nevertheless the question of the limits of origami keeps coming up and even nice people can have strong opinions about this. (So it’s good there are no scissors around.) I don’t want to jump straight into this maelstrom but do want to describe a case that I think points to where the edge, or one edge, of this field is.

Suppose you wanted to make an origami human hand, from say a square or a rectangle. There are already a few simple and nice solutions to this, so there’s little point to actually inventing a new one. But one conceivable way to do it would be to take an indefinitely long strip of paper, roll it out to the first fingertip, fold, roll it back to the palm, fold, out to the next fingertip, fold, back to the palm, and so on. What you get is effectively the same as what you’d get if you drew a hand with a pen on paper, without lifting the pen; only instead of ink you’ve now used a paper strip. The strip can be thick or thin, the principle is the same. This would not be happily called origami, exactly because it is like continuous-pen drawing; it has only the elements of continuity and change-of-direction in common with origami, but does not use the pre-existing two-dimensionality of the paper in any way except as filler.

What this shows, I think, is that there’s a potential problem with paper strips of indefinite length--a medium by the way that I’ve been making a lot of use of lately. You can slip into this easily enough by saying What’s wrong after all with a rectangle; or by thinking, an indefinite strip is just a series of squares joined end to end, and if I treat each unit in the usual origami manner why should anyone complain. But you might be relying on one-dimensionality for the underlying architecture without noticing it, and the more you do this the farther you’re getting from what makes origami distinctive. It’s two-dimensionality in the end that has to be respected, made something of.

Indefinite strips are a gray area.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Well. Events will turn your head right around, like the Devil-child in that movie. And when you finally think you are looking at things straight on you will in fact be seeing them exactly backward.

In a life it may happen that you find yourself in free-fall, with nothing to hope for except the crash you know is coming sooner or later. And then, out from nowhere, from a white mist, comes this hand that locks on to yours in a fore-arm grip, and hoists you back to the flying trapeze. The things you’ve said or done in an earlier existence, in some long-forgotten past, serve you in good stead. Even having done some origami once upon a time, turns out possibly to count.

In the mail the other day there arrived a packet—sent, the handwritten address shows, from a possibly mythical land called “Grenoble”. The sender is decidedly a mythic creature: it is Nicolas Terry, who one recognizes (even without checking behind for the shape of his ears) to be an Elf, with unaccountable powers for work and for granting others their wishes or dreams. And the book—one trembles with excitement while peeling away the cardboard—is that long-awaited text by Roman Diaz, Origami for Interpreters. Ah….

I am not about to write a review of this book. Others will do that, soon enough. In any event I plan to savor this delicacy for as long as possible, weeks or months probably, letting the folds it describes trickle into the folds of my brain. This is not usual with me; I usually try to resist the influence of trends in the world or even of individual figures--retreating into my cocoon if that's what it takes. But in this case--- "resistance is futile."

No doubt, too, some ideas the book stimulates will force their way into the writing of this Blog, disrupting my carefully-laid plans. Oh well, that can't be helped. Here, though, is something I've been wondering about for a long time: it's a thought that an image from Roman's book merely prompts.

The first, then, in a scattered series of reflections on "Origami and 'Expressiveness' ".

* * *

The thing with Diaz’ animals— which is true, just as true of all good animal origami—is that there is no irony in it, just a love of animals (I mean along with the intellect, humor, breeding and the rest that go into these particular designs): and the origami gets better the more real feeling there is for those beasties. Maybe I need to point out how astounding this is, for we in origami are inclined to overlook it. There is no serious art-form among the plastic arts today which allows one to express one’s affection directly for an person, thing or place, let alone for an individual animal or its typical species-form. One’s representing always has to be done with some sort of knowing smirk, with a statement suggesting some cleverness on the part of the artist or stupidity on the part of the audience. This is called “Contempt-orary Art”, and it is basically the only kind of art being shown in galleries and museums today. If it does not have this cleverness or trendiness or irony or hipness or making-of-statements the object automatically gets relegated to the status of kitsch. Or anyway the museum doors will be shut to it, for whatever the reason.

To illustrate the specialness of paper-folding in this regard, take the picture that graces the cover of Roman’s book, of a Crane (or perhaps it is a ‘heron’). Try and imagine a sculpture of a such a bird in any other medium. What it would look like? Where you would come across it? You can imagine it as a lawn ornament, and then it would be the purest kitsch. Or maybe it would have striking colors and something humorous to recommend it, to stop the neighbors dead in their tracks. (Cleverness again. Nothing wrong with that, by the way.) Indoors, you might find a heron or crane carved from wood; and I don’t say it couldn’t be done artistically. But chances are that even then, the artistry would involve a great proportion of stylization, as compared to feeling for the represented animal. It might be for instance an art-deco crane, where the artistic weight would be on the art-deco side and how this merges with the nature of wood: not on the 'Soul of the Crane', the affection for it, the intimacy of one’s knowledge of it--these would be blurred, beaten back. For feeling is not really allowed nowadays. Even in drawing and painting this is largely the case. If you come across a picture of an individual crane done 'with expression' it is likely to be a Japanese brushstroke painting made a century or more ago.

What I'm trying in my stuttering way to say, is that there seems to be something unique about the status that our young-old art now finds itself in. Origami may be in a tough place in terms of its public acceptance as a full form of art, (more on that another time) , but the truth of the matter is that Art in general is in a very awkward place these days. And an emotional honesty and directness is being allowed to us, that is currently denied to most of the world of expression.

I can’t really account for why we are being granted this privilege.

Zoo Life

This Blog and my schemes for it have carried me more than once now back to the zoo. I spend so much time with my paper animals, fussing endlessly for instance over a detail of this or that bird, that it’s a shock—pleasant on the whole, if humbling—to see the real beasties. Talk all you like about ‘having the touch’ or ‘breathing life into a sheet of paper’: Life still trumps anything you can make with your own two hands.

What a joy animals are. And what a relief, sometimes, from people.