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A Thousand Fold 

Robert Lang advances the art of origami as mathematic science.

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Robert Lang is currently working on a new book that he says “has a lot of math in it.” Using such weighted phrases as “twists, tilings and tessellations,” and “abstract rather than representational,” Lang comes off as an academic theorist exploring the inner workings of a complex problem. What he's really talking about, though, is folding paper into fun shapes.

A former physicist and engineer with NASA, Lang is one of the foremost theoretical and artistic authorities on origami sculpture, having spent the past decade helping to bring the art form into the realm of mathematics, science and technology. Scheduled to make a special appearance in Richmond on Jan. 26 as part of Virginia Commonwealth University's visiting artist lecture series, Lang considers origami to be more than a simple matter of playing with paper.

“It is a constrained art,” says Lang, who lives in California and has had his work exhibited in art galleries and convention centers in Paris, New York and Tokyo. “The rule sets, so to speak, that people have more or less settled on is that folding is the primary means of creating the art form, as opposed to cutting or painting or putting together bits from multiple parts. And that's a voluntary limitation,” he says, “and what people find is that if they do adopt some set of limitations or some sort of rules, that provides enough focus you can get to really interesting areas within that rule set.”

Once a recreational art form meant to bring good luck in Japan as far back as the sixth century, for hundreds of years origami patterns were limited to basic shapes such as cranes, boats and hats, all requiring fewer than 30 folds to complete.

Today, with the precision of modern mathematics, Lang and other contemporary origami artists have developed works and designs with the kind of intricacy requiring hundreds of folds and hours of work. Whether depicting turtles with patterned shells, insects with thin, segmented limbs, or fish displaying individual scales, Lang is able to give new form to fixed material, creating his complex figures from a single piece of paper. No cutting, no gluing, just some math and a lot of painstaking folding. As origami began to require equations, it also entered the realm of practical application.

The art of complex folding in recent years has helped researchers to develop collapsible blood-vessel stents and more efficient air bags for cars. The manipulation of sheet metal, the movement of solar panels, the convenient collapsing of cell phone antennas out of harm's way: Origami has brought us a long way from the flapping wings of the paper crane. Lang himself was commissioned to design a 100-meter diameter telescope lens capable of being packed into a rocket and deployed into space.

“Once you have a mathematical description of origami and use mathematical tools to design origami art, you can also use mathematical tools to design origami to meet technological needs and solve real-world problems,” Lang says.

As Lang hopes to demonstrate during his visit, potential can be found in any kind of crease. “It definitely has come to a new level totally different from anything before, but it's not like it's gotten to a final stopping point,” he says. “Where we are right now is amidst an incredible explosion of origami capabilities as an art form. It hasn't hit any visual plateau yet. We're still on the exponential growth curve.”  S

Robert Lang will speak in the VCU Student Commons theater, 907 Floyd Ave., Monday, Jan. 26, at noon. Free and open to the public. 828-1511.

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