Ankon Mitra is an architect by profession and an internationally reputed artist. He is the recipient of the All-India Gold Medal for Sculpture in 2018 from the Prafulla Dahanukar Foundation and the Lexus Design Award for Craft Design in 2020. He studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, and graduated with a distinction and a University Gold Medal. He went on to receive an MSc in Adaptive Architecture and Computation from the prestigious University College London, Magna Cum Laude. His work has been exhibited in India, Italy, France, UK, USA, Japan and at the Shanghai International Paper Art Biennale in 2019. He is a member of the British Origami Society, Origami USA, the Sculpture Network in Europe and the Paper Artist’s Collective Worldwide. His work will be showcased at the Arte Laguna in Venice, CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, and at the Lucca Paper Art Biennale in Italy in 2021.
He is also a TEDx speaker and a warrior for 'making connections across disciplines'. With ‘Oritecture’, Ankon Mitra shares a unique vision of a universe forming and dissolving from acts of folding. To him, the ancient art of Origami, rather than being a child’s craft, is a cutting edge tool that is being deployed by robotic engineers, space scientists, biotech researchers, mathematicians, computation experts, botanists, architects and artists to create solutions for the real world in the 21st century.
Sycamore Maple (Acer Pseudoplatanus) leaf buds and sequence of unfolding leaves. To those more interested in the science and geometry of leaf-folding, I suggest the ground-breaking essay by Kobayashi, Kresling and Vincent, titled “The Geometry of Unfolding Tree Leaves”.
1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?
AM: I am an architect by training, and I practice primarily as a landscape designer, working on landscape projects at all scales: from small gardens to large, city-scale landscape master plans. Since childhood, I have always loved plants more than human beings. I think I'm a tree that got swapped with a human body by mistake! I'm mystified by humans most of the time. On the other hand, I understand the plant world perfectly. Nature has taught me the art of folding – there is folding in the leaves and branches of trees, in the Himalayas, the coastlines of the world’s continents, in our fingers, in our brains. Folding is everywhere (see the Sycamore Maple leaves above). And because of this idiosyncratic worldview, some people around me began to call me an artist. Irrespective of the confusion of whether I'm an architect or artist (I’m really not bothered with these labels), I coined the term ‘Oritecture, ie Origami + Architecture’, sharing a unique vision of a universe forming and dissolving from acts of folding. I passionately believe in the two maxims – Geometry Aims at the Eternal (Plato), and The Universe is Mathematics (Max Tegmark). These most succinctly define the effort of my art, trying to link the human experience to the cosmos, through a language of light, shadows, folds and colours, so that we are able to transcend human language and cultural limitations.
Architectural training creates a strong foundation in pattern identification and analysis. Origami is all about creasing patterns: how the flat sheet gets a specific creasing pattern and how that pattern edifies how the paper will convert into the three-dimensional form. All 3D forms can be reduced down to eight to ten basic architectural geometries, such as cones, hyperbolic-paraboloids, spheres, toroids, etc. Coming from a background in architecture, I ensure that in my work the essential architectonic nature of the Origami process is respected, understood and elevated. I picked up Origami by chance during my Masters’ program in parametric architecture (students could choose their own specializations), at the Bartlett, University College London, while I was designing a roof for an airport project.
I know for a fact now that many Origami artists all over the world are in fact architects. This cannot be a mere coincidence. Architects naturally gravitate towards Origami because of the wonderful tools it offers to create complex geometries with relative ease. However, Origami is still considered a child’s craft by most, so the challenge has primarily been to change those perceptions. The other significant challenge is that I’m often asked, “Is it made of paper?” Most of the time my answer is in fact, “No!” But more on that later!
Matthew Shlian and Tomoko Fuse inspire me with their folding techniques. Ruth Asawa, Richard Serra, Dhanraj Bhagat, Richard Perry and Umberto Boccioni are sculptors I admire greatly. Land-Artists Michael Heizer and Christo and Jean-Claude are seminal and inspirational for their daring and avant-garde visions. Charles Jencks, Roberto Burle Marx and Geoffrey Bawa are three architects/landscape designers I revere. There are of course architects who are too many to name; but Felix Candela, Laurie Baker, Hassan Fathy, Alvar Aalto and Luis Barragan are trailblazers in the ideals they enshrined and they remind me that the path of architecture is a difficult one, but I may definitely not quit. Not today. Not tomorrow. In spite of all the odds.
2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?
AM: Currently, our studio is working on a few large paper art projects to be exhibited at the Lucca Biennale and the Arte Laguna, in Lucca and Venice, both in Italy, as well as at the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. Each of these is based on juried competition wins, and they had themes on which we created site-specific responses. For instance in Lucca, the theme was “Fear and Desire”, so we proposed a large billowing installation made of facsimile European currency notes called “Clouds of Illusion”. In India we are working on curve-folded sheet metal sculptures for the Embassy Group in Bangalore and a number of private commissions for clients in Mumbai and Delhi. I’m also excited to be slowly restarting the regular cycle of art shows and gallery viewings in my city after nearly nine months, where the art scene has been really badly affected by Covid. My work “The Song of the Earth and the Sky” was commissioned by the Gujral Foundation and installed at the Sunder Nursery in February 2020. It was seen with much excitement by thousands for a period of two months but lay quiet and un-visited post-23rd March when the lockdown was imposed, until it was uninstalled in early July. It was a work of art in the landscape or landscape within art, quite unprecedented in conception in India; I wish more people could have seen it.
Icon Unfurled (Tribute to Le Corbusier) @ RAW Collaborative, Ahmedabad
Folds of Fragrance, McNroe Corporate Office Kolkata with Studio Lotus
India Art Fair 2018 – The Divine Axis @ Art Centrix Space
Ekaya Mumbai with Studio Lotus
India Art Fair 2020 – The Parting of Galaxies (detail)
India Art Fair 2020 – The Parting of Galaxies
Shanghai Paper Art Biennale
Shanghai Paper Art Biennale
Lucca Biennale – The Sights and Sounds of the Cosmos
Lucca Biennale work in progress – The Sights and Sounds of the Cosmos
Lucca Biennale at work – The Sights and Sounds of the Cosmos
Lucca Biennale, Italy – The Sights and Sounds of the Cosmos (image courtesy of Michela Moretti)
Materiology 2.0 – Our Time in the Sun, Collaboration with Banduk-Smith Studio
Song of the Earth and the Sky – Kirigami Canopy Detail (image courtesy of Sohaib Ilyas)
Song of the Earth and the Sky – aerial view (image courtesy of Sohaib Ilyas)
3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?
AM: In this realm of Origami, which is what I understand, explore and delve in – boundaries melt and fuse – I find that biology and robotics talk to each other, Astronomy and mathematics are in deep conversation, and engineering and art are in deep embrace. We have created kinetic installations, works with embedded technologies, virtual reality Origami, works that are at the threshold of typology and genre. I regularly collaborate with engineers, ceramic artists, fashion designers, textile designers, bamboo artisans, stone sculptors.
For instance, “The Four Noble Truths” and “The Expanding and Contracting Universe” were two kinetic installations the Studio created (see links above), where the natural flexibility and movement possible in Origami folds was harnessed and activated by mechanisms and actuators in collaboration with artist-engineer and tech-wiz Himanshu Bablani.
I love collaborations. It helps the studio to push boundaries of the practice, and challenges my team to innovate, when we start becoming too comfortable in our shoes. As Tagore says and I paraphrase, “Open the windows of your house, and let the breeze flow in from all directions.”
4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?
AM: We have created a foldable and portable baby box for working mothers who have to go to factories or construction sites and have no option but to carry their infants with them. This was a project initiated by the Indian Institute of Habitat Studies for the World Health Organization. Between 2016 and 2019, I worked on a three-year project with leather puppetry artisans from Andhra Pradesh who create shadow puppetry called “Tholu Bommalata”– depicting scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The art of shadow puppetry is dying a slow death owing to the fact that its viewership is dwindling even in villages. By infusing the techniques of folding into their illustration work, they are now able to fold leather and their craft has transformed into lighting products that can be exported, thus elevating their craft, as well as fusing contemporary geometric sensibilities with their culturally rich and layered graphic traditions. This project was supported and funded by the Asian Heritage Foundation and the Japan Social Development Fund. As much as is possible, I try and work with young adults and the specially-abled in self-help groups, facilitating the conversion of Origami skills into livelihood opportunities such as in the making of distinctive packaging, bags and gift items. I strongly feel people in the creative professions have many skills and ideas, which they can deploy to help bridge the gaps in the socio-cultural fabric. Our lives should be based on empathy and immersed in the joy of making, doing and giving, but society is instead alienated from this way of living by the inevitable march of a heartless capitalistic system which only understands monetary profit. Artists straddle many worlds in many different ways and can be healers and change-makers.
5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?
AM: The first paper models happen either in my library in the quiet and peace of my home, or in the Studio Hub (where it is absolutely frantic with discussions, collaborations and cross-talk). Both are fertile grounds in their own ways. The first is my womb space, a place for meditative thought and reflection. The second is where my team is busy bouncing ideas and forms, a place of great animation and excitement, where the collective tends to tear apart ideas and then reconstitute them back together in the best manner possible.
My desk in the library, I make my little paper models here. This is my quiet and meditative space.
The Studio Hub – chaotic and frantic folding activity is always going on here. Very large things are folded often. We hang them, prototype, test, tear, remake; it is in every sense our little Karkhana. We have a blue Origami clock hanging on a column, which tells us Origami time (folded and circuitous).
6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?
AM: Showing and seeing art cannot permanently become virtual. Many art-related activities are now occupying virtual as well as physical spaces simultaneously; for instance, many museums have thrown open their collections for virtual viewing during this year. But connoisseurs and buyers of art cannot conduct the business of buying and selling art without seeing the work in the flesh, as it were. A virtual viewing may be all right to a certain extent, but cannot go all the way. Owing to Covid, many avenues have been created for showing art online, through augmented and virtual reality mediums – this trend may accelerate, but it will coexist with the physical modes of dissemination. As the pandemic slowly fades from memory in the coming years, as it surely will, the art world will bounce back. One counter-narrative: some artists are now wholly in the digital virtual space. They produce art which is virtual, moving images, that can be projected, that can be immersive and that can saved on a pen drive or emailed. This trend will keep growing, because as a society we are spending more and more time in the digital realm. Wherever we are, artists will be there, holding a mirror to our ever-changing realities. Covid has only accelerated this trend. In summation, most artists lead difficult and challenging lives, spending lifetimes trying to find avenues to show their work to earn a decent living. But artists are a resilient community; their art and their passion will keep them going.
7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice . Does it get reflected
in your art?
AM: I'm interested in space-travel, astronomy and world mythologies. These often merge with the concepts I create. For instance, recent works are called “The Parting of Galaxies”, “Sights and Sounds of the Cosmos”, “Tripura in Alignment”, etc.
The Parting of Galaxies
Coming back to an earlier question about challenges in my practice - I often get asked if all my work is in paper. All the experiments start with paper for sure. But very little of the final output is now in paper. Interest in diverse materials stems again from my curiosity as an architect. Given below is a small selection of materials that I have folded in the last 12 years. This is a personal project – to fold a hundred materials by 2023, when I complete 15 years of my artistic practice. When I say a hundred materials, different types of paper count as only one material – paper! So, in many ways it is an exhilarating challenge, as I go about finding sheet materials which I can fold. Some materials can be directly folded while some others are folded through derivative processes. Concrete, stoneware slip and chocolate are examples of casting where the derived folds are achieved by moulds which are directly folded from sheet materials.
A few samples from “Folding 100 Materials” – my personal project due for completion in 2023
Ankon Mitra’s works can be viewed at https://www.instagram.com/ankonmitra/
(Images are courtesy of Ankon Mitra unless otherwise mentioned.)
The artamour questionnaire is a regular series of interviews with visual artists across disciplines, who share their views about art, their practice and their worldview on a common questionnaire template. Like, comment, share and subscribe to stay updated.