When is Origami Museum-and-Gallery-Art?

By Gacharná Ramírez, Gerardo

© May 13, 2016

I became very interested about the relation between origami and art as I discovered how many origamists had such strong opinions about origami as art. This here is my very personal thoughts about the subject.

There is the folding process, there is the model (the immaterial design), and then there is the fold (the folded model). Eric Kenneway (1993) declared that art might be in the folding process rather than the other two. Origami can effectively be a performative art, especially with performers such as Jeremy Shafer and Robert Harbin. However, what I call museum-and-gallery-art is specifically in the folds; making it a plastic art.

According to Wright (1959), artworks include a (1) substance, a (2) form, and a (3) technique. The substance is the theme and content expressed with originality and imagination. The form refers to the medium, being origami in this case. Finally, the technique corresponds to how the artist materializes in a particular way the substance through a defined form.

Working in Marble, by Jean-Léon Gérôme. 1890.

The substance is primordial in order to make origami that is also museum-and-gallery-art. In order to make it, your origami has to move from photocopying the world to say something about it. "This is a horse, this is a polyhedron, a box"... is not substance. What do you want to tell the world through your artwork? That is substance.

In regard to techniques, in the quote and this article, it does not refer to wet-folding or box-pleating, for example. It refers to every choice you make in order to materialize the substance through origami (in this case). Will you fold an existing model, or will you create an original model to fold? Exactly what material will you use in order to fold the model?

In a broad sense, we can call the current instance of art "contemporary art". In many cases, contemporary art is not worried about being as realistic as possible. Through that view, complex origami is not more artistic than pureland, for example. This instance also implies that folds (folded models) made with materials that emulate the subject are not more artistic than those folded with unordinary materials. These should not be unquestionable criteria for your technique.

A Painter, by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. 1855.

The aforementioned questions, regarding folding existing or original models and what material to fold, takes us to the realm of appropriation in the world of art. “Appropriation” means taking an existing work and use it in an original artwork. Appropriation toys with the author’s rights over his or her own work; it can be controversial, many times even illegal, but it is undeniably a part of art history. When you fold someone else's model, including traditional models, as part of your art project you are appropriating that work. When you use printed publicity, a sheet from a book, or even printed origami paper with original patterns you are also appropriating that work or, at least, part of it. What turns someone else’s model and print into your artwork is your technique and substance, which is exclusive to your art piece. Suppose two different artists fold the pajarita. One chooses to represent the natural beauty of bird songs (the substance) and so that person folds it from sheet music with the score of Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending (the technique). The other one folds it with a page from a very old elementary school book while having both hands covered with fresh black paint (the technique), urging society not to forget the elder as human beings which, like most, also lived a childhood (the substance).

Of course, as part of the technique, you can also create an original model especially thought for your art project and you can also prepare your own material for folding; but let me remind you that the immaterial model is not the artwork. Everything takes us back to the relation between substance and technique within the form of origami. What point of view do you wish to share with the world? What characteristics must your model have in order to help express it? With what and how exactly do you pretend to fold that model, materializing through it the substance further?

What I wish to tell you through these words is that origami is not automatically art, but it can be, at least in the terms of museum-and-gallery-art. Questions like the ones posed in different parts of the article are what helps it become that. So, do you want your origami to be that as well?


Kenneway, E. (1993). Complete origami. Books UK

Wright, E. A. (1959). Understanding today's theater. Prentice Hall.