The Lister List

Symbolism in Origami

I should like to revive a recent discussion in Origami-L which I think is much too important to be allowed to go away un-noticed.

On 16th August, Pam Graben and Namir Gharaibeh asked if anyone had ever folded an anatomically correct dragonfly. Marc Kirschenbaum said he thought that Robert Lang had proved that it was possible to handle any extreme leg to body ratio in Origami, but pointed our that it is not generally appreciated just how long a dragonfly's legs were.

On 19th August, Robert Lang himself joined in and said that what was possible in theory was not always possible in practice, because the physical thickness of the paper imposed its own limits on the length and thinness of legs which could be folded in the real world. Robert went on to point out that a creative paperfolder did not attempt to reproduce the acutual dimensions of an animal or insect and wrote: "We're trying to fool the eye of the observer into thinking that we are trying to hew to the specific dimensions of the subject". Bob concluded by saying that he had just designed what he considered to be his most effective butterfly and it had no legs at all! And I, myself, would ask: Is anyone ever conscious of the legs of a butterfly when it flits among the flowers?

So far the discussion had centered upon the physical possibilities of folding an anatomically correct butterfly, on the fact that this was impossible in practical terms and on the fact that it was not, in fact, necessary, because the human eye could be fooled into accepting something less than the anatomically correct.

Then John Smith entered the discussion and pointed out the great importance of what Robert Lang had written. He drew attention to the physical constraints of all artistic media, even painting, but empasised that the constraints of Origami imposed particularly severe limitations on the artist's abitility to model any particular life form.

John went on to refer to the paper presented by Yoshihide Momotani at the Utsu Conference in 1994, (a paper which I missed, because at that stage the meeting divided into two and I wanted to hear what Mr. Yoshizawa and other creative folders had to say.I eagerly await the publication of the Utsu Proceedings.) Momotani pointed out that the eye and brain had to construct clear symbols, which would enable a creature to identify danger, or otherwise to take those courses, like eating and sex which were necessary to the survival of its species. The creation of symbols necessarily required the filtering and simplification of the overwelmingly complex detail of reality.

John Smith then poined out in a different way how vast was the amount of information which flows into our minds visually through our eyes and how there must be a highly developed system of pattern forming in our minds if we are to cope with the world and its dangers and opportunities. This was reflected in Origami, which has developed a visual symbolism which enables a model to arouse in us the same emotions as seeing the real thing. Yoshizawa, in particular, has tried to put out this message, and John's own encouragement of the study and persuit minimal folding has similarly helped us to see and understand this visual symbolism.

There are one or two points I should like to add. First I must point out that the subject of symbolism is a very extensive one. The word symbolism has many different meanings which all run into each other and which operate in many different levels and aspects of our life and consciousness.

Secondly, I should like to underline what John says about the vast amount of information reaching the human mind at every moment throught the eyes. And not only through the eyes, but, to a lesser extent, through all the other senses (which are a lot more complicated than the traditional division into five.) On a previous occasion, John himself has drawn attention to the fantastically complex interface that the eyes provide between the external world and the brain. A huge visual field is taken in instantly every split second. Depending on its importance, it is memorised and can often be recalled many years later,if the memory is nudged, even if it has not been previously recalled. Unlike a television camera or a computer scanner,the eye does not have to scan the scene line by line. No computer yet designed can achieve this method of instant record. Or take our ability to recognise faces. Out of the billions of people alive on earth, we can, at a glance, instantly recognise someone we know. How do we do it? Somehow we take in the visual appearance of the stranger and compare it with the millions of visual impressions stored in our memories and decide if anything matches.That really is an extraordinary ability.

Our ability to recognise things can function with astonishingly minimal information. Matchstick men drawn by children make sense to us with no problem at all. We can recognise as letters and words script which is made up from the shadows left by non-existent letters. So I could go on. These instances only serve to underline what Robert Lang, John Smith and Yoshihide Momotani have already said.

Visual symbolism is, however, only a part of the human being's need to create symbols.We only live in the world by bringing the world into our minds. For us, the only reality is in our minds; a shadow of the greater actuality outside and which is transmitted to us through our senses. The creation of symbols enables us to make sense of that information that comes into our minds through our senses. We devise words which stand for everyday tangible things like table or house or elephant. In that way we can transmit the idea of them by speech or by written word. What are many of our abstract words like hope, indecision, ambition or love, but symbols for concepts we know to exist, but find it almost impossible to conceptualise except by words? A word is just one kind of symbol. A symbol is a handle to pick up a concept whether tangible or abstract within our minds.

>From time to time the subject of visual symbols crops up in Origami-L. It usually concerns Eastern symbolism, but not wholly so. In the West, we have our own symbols such hearts or eagles or dollar signs or teddy bears, (Notice how our conventional playing-card heart bears no resemblance to a real heart: and that a living heart itself has no connection with the emotions for which the symbol of a heart conventionally stands.) However, despite the proliferation of our western symbols, it is probably true that the East accepts and recognises symbols more readily than we do in the West. I need only to point to the symbolism of the Crane to illustrate this point. We fold a flying crane. It does not look much like a real crane except that it has wings and a long neck and tail but we have no difficulty in recognising it as shorthand for a living crane. In fact it actually becomes for us a crane.

Instantly it arouses in us complex emotions: a feeling of well-being; a feeling of hope for the future; a hope that good fortune will favour us; or that our days will be blessed with peace. We may see again in our mind's eye the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, the helpless victims and one little girl who contracted leulaemia. We may see the Peace Park with its gaunt skeleton of a dome, its memorials, including one to the little girl and the chains of paper cranes sent from all over the world. Some people may see the victims of AIDS or of some other threat against which the crane symbolises hope. The crane is a particularly complex symbol. Yet it is only one of the countless symbols which are part of the fabric of the civilizations of the East.

I have mainly discussed the acquisition of our concepts of the outer world through sight and through visual symbolism, and insofar as words are spoken as well as written, through sound. But yet another of our senses, that of touch, also has its symbolism in the way we conceptualise roughness or smoothness or stiffness or softness. Why do we call one sort of paper "elephant" paper? The blind paperfolder Kase gains almost all his information about the models he is creating and about the animals and objects they represent through touch. The touch of an object becomes for him the symbol of it.

Our sense of touch is linked to another sense which is not one of the basic five and which most people are not aware of. It is our sense of distance and position. Again, I am indebted to John Smith for pointing out the importance or touching things, of stretching out the hand to sense the distance of an object. It is a process that enables a child to build up a sense of space, distance and postion in space. In a sighted child, this sense works in harness with his sense of sight to build up his concept of the world as a three-dimensional place with space,distance and volume. Without touch and reaching out for objects in space, our sense of sight cannot so readily develop Other ways have to be found and other senses brought into use to a much greater extent.

Origami can be a very useful tool in this fundamental learning process, as the hand and eye work are compelled to work together. It was an idea which Friedrich Froebel sought to promote as one aspect of his system of kindergarten education. All the time the child is building up his own symbolism of the world he lives in, a symbolism in which sight and sound and touch and all the other senses intermingle. Origami, with its geometrical discipline, its requirement of placing in position, and the opportunities it offers for creativity is unique as a vehicle for developing in a child the co-ordination of hand, eye and brain.

We are lovers of Origami and we each love it for very diverse reasons. In many ways , paperfolding is a pursuit that is linked to an understanding of the purposes, functions and meaning of symbolism. In origami we hold a key to a greater understanding of the way we as members of the species Homo sapiens function and relate to the world in which we live.The concepts that I have tried to explain are not simple. I am not a psychologist and can only write about thes very complex matters in tortuous language. But I hope that others will be able to perceive how much greater paperfolding is than the mere folding of anatonmically correct dragonflies, fascinating and rewarding thoughthat may be in the attempt. I hope that others will contribute their own thoughts on this profound aspect of our humble pastime.

David Lister

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