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.


Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Hana Hertsman

This work is in honor of Hana Hertsman, Managing Director of the Municipality of Holon, and Israel's premier builder of museums and cultural institutions in her city:  the envy, and object of emulation, of other towns here and abroad.  

Even with the tectonic shifts taking place in the design world and now in Israel's Design Museum as well, her past achievements and present powers are never out of sight.

Saadya Sternberg

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

I'm just back from the opening of "Paper Creatures" at the Jaffa Museum.  Many magnificent works (about half origami) and much to think about--it will take me several days to ponder it all and write it out.  For the time being here is an unsorted preview of the few things I have decent photos of.

Meanwhile--I have my own pieces in this exhibition too, which if they do not lower the average level, certainly do not lead the works in it. As a place-keeper I'll just post the text that I wrote a few months ago to go with the display.


The Concept
"The city of  Zaragoza, in Spain, is famous as the home of Europe's first museum of origami art. But it is also the birthplace of Francisco Goya: and while visiting there I saw a series of etchings of this artist -- a tour de force called "Los Caprichos", with humans behaving like and turning into donkeys and other animals. In one image, a handsome man falls asleep at his desk and behind him "monsters", bat-like and owl-like, arise ominously and take wing. I borrowed Goya's title and, leaving the social commentary behind (keeping just the fun)  decided to do something comparable using origami.

For most people origami-making is about repeating forms invented by someone else, with freedom of choice as to paper type, size, color, final shaping decisions etc. Original origami design is about thinking up the variations of geometry and sequence needed for new creations ("Reason": though hardly asleep). And in all cases  you start from a flat sheet and by folds alone "evolve" it into something else.

If you combine all three of these ideas, you arrive at the concept of a morph sequence:  one shape or model developing into another. In practice with figurative origami this has almost never been done. I wanted to see if I could pull it off.

"The premise of this exhibition, I did not at first entirely subscribe to. Origami's basic business seems to me to be with the natural, not the fantastical: all those paperfolded animals, humans etc. are meant to be related to as if alive, and identification--whether of detailed parts or essential features or gestures--is key to the fun of the viewer of origami. Also, all too often, gargoyles, mythical or deformed creatures are an excuse for a flexible hence lower standard of representation: what they really reflect are limits of the folder-designer's technical and artistic abilities. So I've kept myself tethered at one end to some sort of realism. As it turned out though, I was glad for this challenge to make a "monster" that does not know it is one! -- and carries on in our world with as much right, and poise, as any of us.

Materials and Methods 
"The paper here is 160 gsm Canson mi-teintes, in assorted colors, rubbed  with diluted ink and folded while damp. The technique of origami wet-folding takes a bit of practice (a lifetime's...) but also often needs repetition with the specific model sequence till the fingers can do it on their own. It's much like piano-playing: you do it twenty, fifty times and then it starts to get smooth. Your touch must be gentle and decisive: it is incredibly easy to ruin things by overwork and the paper must be neither too damp nor too dry. Also the sculpture must be made in one go, al fresco, so your design may not involve many steps. Done right the result is indeed a kind of frozen music, the paper transmitting to the viewer all the touches of emotion that went into it.

These creatures are all "pure origami": each is made from a single uncut paper square. (But...secret... while the faces are all about the same size, the squares are not!)"



The above is what I wrote for the broad public (more or less). For you origami specialists I'll add the perfectly obvious point, that when designing one typically wants to maximize the independence of regions of the paper--the “limbs”--so as to end up with the greatest extension, freedom of movement, potential for expressive play and so forth. A head is a good thing to keep independent and typically it takes up one corner of the square, as it does here too. In this case, since all features of the face except the ears come from that one corner (not so common in origami faces), you have the possibility of keeping the face constant while “growing” the other features simply by taking different-sized squares to start with. I’ve done this whimsically and cheaply with crude ears-that-become-wings, but you could easily imagine much fancier metamorphoses of this type: hairy legs, elaborate feathered. wings starting to grow etc. Or a real evolutionary sequence.

I’m kind of surprised this hasn’t been done. Even the idea of “A turning into B” (for separate pieces, not in a continuous surface like a tessellation), has been done significantly so far as I know only by Giang Dinh---quite a few times but especially in his brilliant “Generations” series that includes the "Mother and Child".

You can consider this a call to action…

I’ll point out too, that though this installation is a “morph” it is not exactly a linear morph with each object midway in features between the two next to it. Rather it is a “population morph” with, if you like, “recessive” features not all of which necessarily show up in the next generation. So, one creature grows into an Old Vamp, still sort of “human”; next to it is a “monster” but now a juvenile one with delicious skin. The red flying piece is becoming owl-like, the grey one bat-like (In the show itself the shelf they gave me did not leave room for the bat.) One piece shows off the most simple, child-like “face-painting” I could come up with from a square--keeping to 'minimal-line/impact' principles--and is made with a smile; it’s neighbor goes in for much more textured detail. Each is straining to become a different individual, I mean species; but they are all  also constrained by the identity of the common pattern for their face. (And the dignified red piece at left, who represents "Reason", is not the progenitor of the sequence despite being on the highest dias---no matter what he thinks). This too I guess is some sort of statement about endless origami-making, about the ranges of variation and exploration one allows but also, crucially, the ranges of continuity and repetition that one holds oneself to.



Aviva Green (till October 15)

If you care about high art--and not just in its origami forms--and you like great splashing colors--and just happen to be in New York City this month----may I suggest you RUN to see Aviva Green's  "Clouds, Canyons and Waterways", a show of paintings at Kenkeleba House.
 (Wilmer Jennings Gallery,  219 East 2nd Street @ Avenue B, East Village, 212 674-3939).

These are impressively powerful paintings but deliberately, I think, hard to put words to. For the aim is to express a definite mood without invoking fully definitive objects and scenes.  That this actually works is quite an achievement.

And the show itself is exquisitely laid out.

The opening reception is on Sunday, September 18,  but you can slip in for a quiet meditative preview now, without the crowds. That's how I like to do it.

If you weren't aware, this is also a plug for my Mom, Aviva Green, who is one of the greatest colorists and mood-painters that I know.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Smiles of a Summer Night

I have Ilan Garibi's "Paper Creatures" exhibit, upcoming September 9 at the Jaffa Museum in Israel (more on that soon), to thank for getting me back into the swing of things.  These pieces are not actually in the exhibit but are some of the later products of the swing, which is ongoing.  Smiles, S