The Lister List

Paperfolding versus Art

Paperfolding versus Art - A critic's view

On 12th August, Colin Rowe posted to Origami-L a copy of a review of the British Arts Council exhibition "On Paper", which had appeared in the "Independent", a British national newspaper, on 4th August. I also reviewed the exhibition in this List on 6th August and the matter is very relevant to the theme of "Taking Origami Seriously", which stimulated much discussion on Origami-L several weeks ago.

The "Independent" reviewer had written: "One exhibitor, Paul Jackson, an origami fan, admits writing in the exhibition catalogue: 'The creative possibilities of the traditional bases from which many models have been created have been almost exhausted.' "

Referring to the review, Kalei Lundberg, on 12th August commented: "Yet another critic that doesn't know what to look for to appreciate origami...or it seems, paper as an artistic medium in general".

"I am hoping that the Paul Jackson quote was taken out of context".

I felt particularly angry when I read the review from the "Independent". It was clear that the critic had come out with all guns blazing deliberately intending to attack and belittle origami. The exhibition in no way called for such an approach. It was not, in the main an exhibition of origami and in fact, mainstream origami was only a small part of the exhibition, hidden away in one corner. There was very little mainstream origami other than the work by Yoshizawa and not many of his pieces either. (I admit to having been disappointed by this.) The exhibition covered many more aspects of paper crafts (some, indeed, themselves using techniques of folding), most of them very different from what we understand to be origami. Why therefore should the critic focus so vehemently against origami, in particular, if it was not to vent his own myopic prejudices? I doubt very much if he recognised that the work of such artists as Jean-Paul Correia and Vincent Flodererwas related to origam and probably merely saw them as among the "other paper crafts".

Wht makes it worse is that I perceive that the reviewer was not unacquainted with origami. How else would he focus on Paul Jackson's reference to the traditional bases? I suspect that he had tried origami at an elementary level and found it not to his taste. His reasoning was that if it didn't please him, then it was unworthy of consideration as art. It is a fact that many people are not attracted to paperfolding because the origami person has a special kind of mind. But this is not an excuse for throwing overboard one's critical faculties.

What Paul Jackson actually wrote was the following. It appears in the catalogue of the exhibition in his article "About Paper", which is an interesting and balanced review of paper as an art form, though with particular emphasis on origami. Paul wrote:

"With the growth of interest in creative origami, the possibilities of the traditional 'bases' from which many models are created have been almost exhausted. In recent years, little work made from these bases has offered anything new. Because of this, the creative emphasis has shifted to those creators who use more idiosyncratic techniques. For example, the last decade or so, a number of so-called 'origami artists' have emerged whose work is not only technically sophisticated but also visually beautiful. They are inspired more by the occurrence of 'the fold' in the natural world than by the traditional challenge of making an illustrative likeness of an animal, object or mathematical form.....A number of creators whose work is extraordinarily complicated and detailed are developing their designs by computer programmes that plot the distribution of free points, for example, the distribution of points for a set of reindeer antlers...."

Paul Jackson is not alone in thinking that less emphasis should be placed on the traditional bases but he does not say that use of the traditional bases is invalid. Following Yoshizawa's discovery of new ways of manipulating the bird base when modern creative origami developed in the 1950s many of the new folders of the time could perceive no other way of folding. Yet the development of blintzed bases to overcome the limitation of the traditional bases was already taking place in the 1950s. As long ago as the 1960s, Eric Kenneway was urging folders to get away from the standard bases and, in fact he rarely used them in his own creative work. Neal Elias started with models folded from the bird base, but rapidly transferred his interest to other techniques, such a pleating. Fred Rohm learnt to fold in isolation and actually in ignorance of the traditional bases; his own remarkable folding shows very little reliance on them. Similarly the three pioneering British folders of the 1970s, Dave Brill, Martin Wall and Max Hulme discovered other techniques with which to construct their models.

In the 1970s, the traditional bases spawned a whole tribe of derivative bases. Blintzed bases had shown the way. Dokuohtei Nakano created many different composite bases and Jun Maekawa, John Montroll and Robert Lang developed what were called complex bases, still in the traditional mould. These ultimately led to computer-designed bases. I think it should be emphasised that the choice of the base is only the start of creation. Origami as art is much more than a decision to use one base or another or to ignore bases altogether.

The traditional bases rely on a 90 degree, 45 degree and 22.5 degree geometry. There have been urgings to escape from the dictatorship if this particular geometry. David Brill, in particular has urged folders to explore the possibilities of a 60 degree-30 degree geometry. There have also been tentative attempts to exploit paper shapes other than the square. Silver rectangles, in particular, have been suggested. Paul Jackson often ignores geometry altogether in his curve-induced forms and in his cross-pleating techniques. So far nobody has attempted to exploit any truly geometrical folding of the circle, a process that is likely to take us into unknown territory.

Outside of mainstream origami, many paper crafts do use folding techniques, as the "On Paper" exhibition has shown. I have never limited my studies of paperfolding to "pure" origami, but have always sought to find a relationship between paperfolding and other paper crafts and my library reflects the great diversity of the possibilities of manipulating paper. I constantly recommend John Smith's paper on "Origami Profiles" as the best way of achieving an understanding of the relationship of the various paper arts.

While I do not dispute that a stringent set of rules, like a restricted palate in painting, can enhance, not limit creativity, art will not be tied down and an artist must be given his head and allowed to experiment. This is partly what is implied when Paul Jackson says that a number of creators are inspired more by the occurrence of "the Fold" in the natural world than by the traditional challenge of making an illustrative likeness of an animal, object or mathematical form.

But all this does not mean that the traditional bases are ruled out for any further artistic creation. Even the simplest possibilities can remain hidden and undiscovered. Yet I am inclined to agree that the traditional bases have had their unfair share of attention and are now less likely to yield results than other techniques of paperfolding.

Paul Jackson's comment about the traditional bases does not, however, entitle a jaundiced critic to denigrate and repudiate a unique art form merely because he is either not prepared to understand it or is incapable of understanding it.

But origami is not the only aspect of paper art at the "On Paper" exhibition that is berated by the critic's sarcastic and vitriolic pen. One wonders why he went to the exhibition in the first place or why the "Independent" invite him to review it. .

David Lister Grimsby, England.

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