A star-tessellated dress folded from a single sheet of paper. Eighteen golden cranes connected in a sphere — also folded from a single sheet of paper. A bull moose. A koi carp.
If you think of origami as simply a fun hobby or a classroom activity for kids, you may be surprised by what you discover at Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami, a traveling exhibition that recently opened at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS).
“This exhibition has assembled some of the most talented origami artists from around the world, and the aesthetic quality and brilliance of their work is astounding,” says Brian Carter, OHS museum director. Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to explore more than 140 works by 45 master folders from 16 countries.
Exhibition Curator Meher McArthur, a freelance Asian art curator, author and educator based in Los Angeles, was inspired to put this project together after a friend recommended the documentary Between the Folds. The program features stories of contemporary paper folders from around the world, including Dr. Robert J. Lang, recognized as one of the leading origami masters.
“I was watching this, going … ‘Oh my gosh, I would love to do an exhibition of this,’” says McArthur.
Captivated by the works of the origami artists in the film, McArthur immediately contacted Lang in April 2010 and told him she wanted to curate the exhibition. Lang wrote back right away and joined her as an exhibition advisor.
“I really wanted to approach the exhibition as an art historian,” she explains. “I wanted to present it in the museum context to basically help validate it as an art form.”
McArthur credits artist Akira Yoshizawa with expanding origami’s popularity and making it more accessible to artists outside of Japan. In the middle of the 20th century, Yoshizawa developed a diagramming system using arrows and dotted lines which enabled people to create specific origami figures without reading Japanese. He also developed a technique called “wet folding,” which involves using water to dampen the paper, enabling him to create animals that look sculptural and realistic. In addition, his works were seen in other countries including Europe and the United States. “This really launched the international movement in a way,” says McArthur. “He inspired a lot of people in the West to do it.” One of Yoshizawa’s works is on display in the exhibit.
In addition to examining the history of origami, Folding Paper also explores origami’s modern application to the area of mathematics, science and the peace movement, as well as showcases different styles of origami in lifelike, geometric and conceptual forms.
“Mathematics has really made it possible for these artists to fold super-complex origami,” says McArthur. “They use mathematics to calculate how and where the folds should be made in order to create a particular form.”
“Origami can be also used to teach mathematical principals,” she continues. “You can teach mathematics using origami at the college level.” In addition, origami techniques have been applied to the field of science to design heart stents, airbags, space telescopes and more.
McArthur also wanted to highlight the fact that origami is used as part of the peace movement. For example, the origami crane has became a symbol of peace and hope through the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who tried to fold 1,000 cranes in the belief that she would recover from leukemia caused by exposure to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. One of Sadako’s cranes is included in the exhibition.
“One of the remarkable elements of origami is that the beauty of the art can seem almost palpable and this provides a very high level of accessibility for the viewer,” observes OHS’ Carter. “A visitor might see a particular piece, note that it is made from a logical series of folds to a single sheet of a paper and wonder, ‘Might I be able to make something like that?’
“But there exists a wonderful dissonance between the visitor’s ability to even pose such a question and the unquestionably high level of artistry, technique and vision needed to conceive and create the art on display,” he continues. “I believe it is the charm of this dissonance that makes Folding Paper such a compelling exhibition for OHS visitors.”