When we talk about history’s most significant inventions, paper is often overlooked. Sure, the printing press gets a nod: Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th-century invention is credited with democratizing knowledge and giving literacy quite a boost (though, in fact, the Chinese printer Bi Sheng invented the world’s first-known movable-type machine a few centuries before Gutenberg came along).
But none of it would’ve been possible without paper. Developed in China at the start of the second century, paper spread quickly to other parts of Asia and then, more slowly, traveled to Europe. Before its arrival, the use of impractical, costly, or rare materials like leaves, parchment, and vellum made jotting something down a luxury. Comparatively, paper (made of wood pulp or rags) was inexpensive and easy to produce in bulk. The masses were free to doodle.
And paper isn’t just for putting art on. It’s also for making art with. In China and Japan, people began folding paper into beautiful shapes not too long after paper’s invention; origami, zhezhi (Chinese paper folding), origami's cousin kirigami (the cutting and gluing of paper), and paper quilling are still vibrant art forms today, and artists are reinterpreting these traditions in countless ways.
In this feature, we’re sharing the work of just a few of these artists:
Nguyễn Hùng Cường (the artist behind Horse and Great White Shark) is expanding the definition of origami with his beautiful paper creations—which he says can be viewed as craft, science, or art. (See more of Nguyễn’s origami.)