What do cutting-edge developments in heart stents, air bag logistics and space telescope lenses have in common with a folded paper frog? These advances in technological design all are based on the principles of origami — an ancient sculptural art form with strong links to mathematics, engineering and science.
Origami once was dismissed as a simple children's craft, and for many of us the word still brings to mind images of folded paper toys and those little cootie catchers used to tell fortunes in elementary school. A major new exhibition, “Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami” at the Japanese American National Museum, rapidly disabuses us of this simplistic image, showing origami to be a highly sophisticated and significant contemporary art form.
Featuring 150 works by 40 international artists from 16 countries, the exhibition demonstrates that not only can origami be exquisitely beautiful but it's also capable of inspiring engineers, conveying complex political commentary and acting as a conduit for spiritual expression.
“Many of the folders who have elevated origami to its new place in the art world are not only accomplished artists but also respected mathematicians or scientists,” says exhibition curator Meher McArthur.
Exhibition adviser Robert J. Lang is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. Lang, who holds a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology, gave up a career as an eminent physicist and mathematician with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech to devote himself full-time to his passion for folding paper.
Now considered one of the world's foremost origami artists, Lang says he finds “no end of artistic and intellectual challenge in the world of origami and its accompanying mathematics. Origami scratches all the itches that physics did and much more.”
Japanese master Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005), widely regarded as the father of modern origami, elevated the traditional Japanese folk craft to a more complex art form. In the mid-20th century, he also developed a picture-based language to convey the instructions for how to fold paper, facilitating global communication between artists and scientists.
In the 1980s and '90s, Lang built on Yoshizawa's work by developing a design technique he called “circle packing,” which revolutionized origami by allowing artists to design multi-appendaged origami creatures, a technique also discovered independently at around the same time by Japanese biochemist Toshiyuki Meguro.
By the end of the 20th century, Yoshizawa's universal language, circle packing and other new mathematical and design techniques allowed origami experts to push the limits of the form not only in art but also in science. Scientists mainly use origami techniques to reduce the size of objects that eventually need to open up and become bigger. For instance, one of the origami-based algorithms developed by Lang has been used in German software that simulates air bag deployment, giving manufacturers the first geometrically correct way to fold a three-dimensional air bag, enabling them to do fewer air bag crash tests.
In 2000, Lang helped the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California develop its Eyeglass Telescope, designed to be 40 times larger than the Hubble Telescope and equipped with a diffractive lens the length of a football pitch. Lang used computational origami to determine how to fold the lens compactly so that it would fit inside a small rocket and then reopen in space. He dubbed the origami structure “the umbrella” for its resemblance to one. The final project remains unbuilt, but a 5-meter-diameter prototype was tested successfully in 2002.
Also on view at the museum is the collapsible heart stent developed by a British-Japanese team from Oxford University. Zhang You and Kaori Kuribayashi-Shigetomi used the so-called water-bomb base technique — a rounded cube form that folds flat and can be inflated through a hole in one corner — to create a prototype from stainless steel that can be reduced from a width of 23 mm to just 12 mm. The stent, which was finally produced in bioplastic, is threaded into a blood vessel, maneuvered into position in a blocked artery and then opened up to 23 mm again to prop open the artery and restore blood flow.
Technology aside, the exhibition is packed with aesthetically intriguing surprises. Fantastical characters inspired by Japanese anime are displayed alongside a trompe l'oeil origami skull by a Belgian folder that appears complete only when placed on a mirror. An off-the-shoulder star-tessellated dress and matching high heels each were folded from a single sheet of white parchment by Japanese-American designer Linda Tomoko Mihara, while a dramatic, red silk satin organza evening gown by Los Angeles designer Monica Leigh Rodriguez was inspired by an origami crane and box.
The exhibition also shows how contemporary artists are using origami as a medium to convey powerful political and social commentary. A swarm of origami locusts hovers menacingly in midair, each made from one uncut sheet of 21 dollar bills. Each insect took the Swiss-South African artist Sipho Mabona five hours to fold. Israeli artist Miri Golan's conceptual piece Two Books, in which origami figures of people tumble from the pages of a Torah and a Koran and unite, conveys a message of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
The smallest exhibit in the show is also the most heartrending. The miniature crane folded from a candy wrapper is so tiny that its maker — a little girl from Hiroshima battling leukemia resulting from the atomic bombing — used a pin to fold it. Japanese tradition holds that those who fold 1,000 origami cranes will be granted a wish, and Sadako Sasaki folded more than 1,300. She died at age 12, but her cranes live on as the symbol of the international peace movement she helped inspire.
And today, five decades later, our understanding of the principles of origami can indeed help save lives, not via superstition or wish fulfillment but through science.