September 27, 2015

For the last few years, since I have been working with origami artists, I have given a lot of thought to folding. In traditional origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, a sheet of paper (usually a square) is folded into forms including animals, birds and countless inanimate objects. Although much of my recent curatorial work has had the goal of demonstrating how global the art of paper folding is, I have been increasingly convinced that there is something deeply Japanese about folding.

Although the Chinese invented paper, it was the Japanese who evolved the practice of folding paper into an art form over the centuries so that today the Japanese name is used almost universally. But it’s not just in origami where the Japanese have been masters of folding. Of course, the Japanese are well known for their exquisite gift-wrapping and packaging, which typically involves folding paper, silk and other cloths. But folding is an important aspect of much of Japanese art. The folding screen, a multi-paneled piece of decorative furniture, was invented in China, but it is an artistic format that has truly flourished in Japan, with panels either beautifully lacquered or decorated in gold leaf and exquisite painting. Also, while the Chinese invented the round flat paper fan, the Japanese chose to fold paper and mount it on a wood or bamboo frame to create the ogi, or Japanese folding fan.

Today we held demonstrations of the tea ceremony in the teahouse of the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden in Pasadena. When I went there this afternoon to help, I took along two storybooks about origami to donate to the garden for future children’s programs there. I left them in the house so that the owner Connie could add them to their library. Then I strolled down to the teahouse to watch the tea master, Mikko-san, and her assistants prepare for the afternoon ceremonies. As I watched the kimono-clad ladies get ready inside the tearoom, I couldn’t help seeing connections between Japanese culture and folding. The straight form of the kimono that these women were wearing was carefully wrapped and folded around each woman’s body. To sit on the tatami mats in seiza, the women had to fold their legs under themselves, in part because of the tightness of the kimono they were wrapped in, but because this style of sitting is considered most polite and refined. And, of course, when they bowed to each other, their bodies folded forward extremely neatly. Folding has been a practical response to space management in a small island country where living space is limited – if decorative screens are folded up they are easier to store. However, there is clearly much that is purely aesthetic and maybe even spiritual in the Japanese love of folding – an admiration of the neatness of a precisely folded fan, screen or paper animal perhaps? Or perhaps it’s the element of surprise and joy elicited in the unfolding of a perfectly beautiful fan or the unwrapping of a gift…

20150927_125325_resized (apologies for the blurriness of the image)

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