Zaragoza’s Origami Museum: A world one-off seeking to…

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IF YOU WERE asked to guess where the biggest Origami museum in the world was based, you’d probably say Japan.

But of course, now you’ve read the question on here, you know it must be in Spain.

In fact, it’s in Zaragoza, but the management wants to open branches beyond the Aragonese city and spread to Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, Dubai – and even Tokyo.

If this sounds a bit like selling oranges to Valencia, you might be surprised to hear how many Japanese tourists head to Zaragoza to see the Origami museum – many of whom first heard about it after watching documentaries on TV and booked a flight to Spain on that basis.

According to travel site TripAdvisor, the Zaragoza Origami Museum and School (EMOZ) is the second-highest ranked of all the city’s tourist attractions, after the Basilica del Pilar, and ahead of the majestic stone edifice, the Monasterio de Piedra.

Opened in December 2013, the EMOZ has effectively been fighting to survive, says its director, engineer Jorge Pardo, but says he hopes this will change once Spain gets its elected socialist government, since ‘it does not make sense’ that there has ‘never been any support’ for the museum and that its maintenance has never been included in the regional budget for Aragón.

If everything goes according to plan, this one-off museum will become one of two – another branch of the EMOZ is, Pardo says, hopefully due to open in Málaga, ‘the city of museums’.

The Origami tradition in Aragón has, in fact, been alive and well since before the end of World War II: it started with the Zaragoza Papiroflexia Group, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and which was founded by a group of artists and intellectuals who used to meet in the famous Café Nike and, from the 1980s, in the Café Levante.

Now, every year, the EMOZ makes giant folded-paper statues and sends them to New York’s Natural History Museum, where they are set up alongside the Christmas tree.

Visitor numbers since the EMOZ’s opening are about to hit the 150,000 mark, and they average 25,000 a year, of whom about four in 10 are from Zaragoza city or province, and the vast majority of the remaining six in 10 are from abroad – mostly Europe, but with a significant minority from Japan.

For this reason, the EMOZ changes its exhibitions every three months to keep visitors coming back for more.

Ancient, international and mathematical

“You can do anything with a sheet of paper,” says Pardo.

“The universe is flat and is contained in a paper square.”

He says the most difficult Origami figures are the smaller ones, rather than the gigantic statues – many of which you can see at the EMOZ – since artists need a microscope to see what they are doing.

But the giant ones need such a large sheet of paper to start with that they often have to be created in a sports hall.

“In my case, the only prerequisite is that you can get the figure out of the door,” Pardo explains.

A creative flair, a microscope and a basketball court are not the only staple requirements for successful Origami – geometrical knowledge is crucial, as are exceptional spatial skills.

In fact, some of the world’s best paper-folders are mathematicians, according to Pardo.

Practically every country in the world has Origami artists and a tradition of paper-folding art that dates back centuries, even though it started in Japan – it’s big in South America, Pardo reveals.

Also, Spain has a long Origami custom, although it is known here as Papiroflexia and is mainly associated with much simpler shapes, like birds.

At the EMOZ, seven different styles are on display: the ‘traditional’, which is the most basic; the ‘essential’, which involves the fewest possible folds; the ‘sculpture-style’, using damp paper; the ‘hyper-realist’, with very complex figures; the ‘tessellation’, resulting in geometric shapes; the ‘modular’, where lots of separate pieces are linked together without using glue, and the ‘organic’, which uses creased paper and involves a great deal more folds than most of the other types.

The name comes from ori, which means to fold, and kami, which means paper – simple, really.

Exhibitions with the world’s top artists

“Having your work displayed in the EMOZ in Zaragoza is, at the moment, the highest possible distinction the best Origami artists on earth can aspire to,” Pardo explains.

Author of the exhibition open at the moment, Hungarian József Zsebe (pictured with two of his sculptures), says he is ‘delighted with’ the reception his work has had.

And the recently-closed ‘Origami Vietnam’ exhibition featured around 30 of the top paper-folding artists from this east-Asian country, who spent a whole year working on their display pieces they planned to send to Spain.

You won’t find anywhere like this in the world – at least, not yet, although the EMOZ is quietly confident the next few years will bring funding and publicity that allow them to expand across three continents – which gives you yet another excuse to travel to Zaragoza for a mini-break: the Basilica and stone monastery are not going to go away any time soon, either, and you could take a trip to the village of Borja where the controversial unfinished painting of the Ecce Homo restored by the now 88-year-old parishioner Cecilia Giménez has become such a huge tourist attraction that local bars and hotels are run off their feet.

The EMOZ is right in the heart of Zaragoza’s historic quarter, and the city itself can be reached by air, rail or via the A-2 motorway.

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