Origami, the traditional Japanese art of folding paper, might seem like little more than a childhood pastime. But artists Miri Golan and Paul Jackson have spent years using it to bring together Israeli and Palestinian kids.
The married couple’s work, which is far more complex than paper cranes or jumping frogs, will be featured in “Above the Fold: New Expressions in Origami,” opening May 29 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Golan and Jackson operate the nonprofit Folding Together from their home in Herzliya, Israel. Golan, a Jerusalem native, first saw someone making an origami sculpture on TV when she was 6 years old, and she’s been hooked ever since. She moved to Japan to study origami and founded the Israeli Origami Center in 1993. She teaches the art form to Palestinian youth in Ramallah, to the children of Jewish settlers — basically to anyone who asks.
“Origami is a Japanese art, and the art has no borders,” she said.
In her classes, Israeli and Palestinian kids begin working separately and gradually come together. The only flag hung in class is the Japanese flag. By the end, some students have formed close friendships, to the surprise of the parents as well as the students.
“The most common thing they’d say is, ‘They’re exactly like us.’ And I thought, ‘Why did they think they were different?’ ” Golan said. “They don’t meet each other [in their daily lives], even though they are very close. They just hear about each other on the news. And they’re scared of each other. When they start to know each other, they like each other.”
Currently, Golan trains Israeli math teachers in her own brand of instruction dubbed “Origametria,” which teaches geometry by allowing students to experiment with folding paper. There’s a website and an app in development.
“Above the Fold,” which has been traveling around the country for the past year, brings together about two dozen pieces made by nine artists from six countries. They range from large-scale sculptures to smaller conceptual pieces. They are displayed on pedestals, hung on the walls and suspended from the ceiling.
“It’s going to come at you from many different directions,” Meher McArthur, the exhibition’s curator, said with a laugh.
McArthur, an Asian art historian, was inspired after seeing a documentary on paper art called “Between the Folds.” She reached out to one of the designers featured in the movie, Robert J. Lang, a physicist who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That led to the 2012 exhibition “Folding Paper,” which was displayed in L.A. and traveled across the country; it showed how origami “transformed from being a craft into this really sophisticated global art form,” she said.
“Above the Fold” is that show’s sequel of sorts, featuring mostly new work from several of the same artists, among them Jackson and Golan. Some of the pieces may not fit the strict definition of origami. For example, the French artist Vincent Floderer crumples paper into shapes resembling sea creatures and other natural forms.
“The origami purists will say something is not origami if it’s not made with a single square piece of paper. Just folded, no cuts, no glue,” McArthur said. But the “true artists,” she said, are trying to push the envelope and “do something new with the medium.”
Golan’s pieces in the show focus on the two books at the heart of Judaism and Islam, the Torah and the Quran, and how those books have been interpreted and have come to symbolize the religious differences between the communities. There’s a Torah scroll made of the same animal skin used in real Torahs, with the parchment between the two rollers twisted to symbolize how the message of the Torah can be manipulated for political means. There’s also an open Quran, with the paper rolling and twisting out of the book. A third piece features both holy books, with one piece of paper connecting the two to connote their shared heritage.
“She’s folding paper into something very conceptual and very political,” McArthur said. “There aren’t many artists who are doing such political work with folded paper, so she’s really exceptional for that reason.”
Jackson’s work tends to be more philosophical, exploring what happens to paper as it’s being folded. In this show, his piece includes four large-scale pixelated photographs of the front and back of his own hands. The pictures are made up of strips of folded paper, resembling a mosaic. The blurred images play with the idea of digital, both in the technological sense and in his own fingers.
Jackson, who was born in Leeds, England, moved to Israel in 2001 soon after meeting Golan. He teaches paper art techniques to fashion and textile students at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, and said students find inspiration in the act of folding paper.
“It’s sort of magic, but it’s not magic like it’s a trick,” Jackson said. “You turn an ordinary square or whatever you’ve got into something really cool and clever. It’s a type of alchemy, in which you make gold out of garbage.”
The art of origami became an international phenomenon after Japanese artist Akira Yoshizawa began sharing diagrams of his work back in the 1950s, inventing a notation system for origami folds that allowed those who don’t speak Japanese to replicate those pieces. In the last couple of decades, artists began sharing YouTube instructional videos, uploading pictures of their work on Flickr and posting the crease patterns online.
That willingness to share origami designs has not been without controversy. In 2012, Lang sued artist Sarah Morris for copyright infringement, arguing that she had created paintings based on his crease patterns and those of other artists without crediting them. The case ended with an out-of-court settlement in 2013.
Some may question the artistic merit of a craft most often associated with elementary school art class. But, McArthur said, the artists featured in her show elevate origami to a new and surprising level. For example, Lang’s complex, intricate folded scorpion, complete with eight legs, two front pincers and a tail — all from one uncut sheet of paper — “is a work of paper sculpture,” she said.
“For me, the origami artists are the ones who aren’t just folding something that’s been folded before in the same way. They’re creating something new,” she said.