Paper, Paper, Skin and Body

Paper provokes. “Hurt me,” paper says. “It'll be your loss.” The fragility of paper dares me to destroy it. Tear the wing off a paper butterfly. Scratch the skin of a paper tiger. Shred a love letter. Toss a parking ticket. Burn an eviction notice.

Destroying is easy. Creating is hard.

Paper fears a soft flame and a sharp wind, a hard hand and a light rain. In using paper as a medium, the designer defies the elements of fire, air and water.

Paper tears, shreds, burns and rots. Paper is weak. Flesh is weak. Paper decays. Bodies decay. Defiance is one response. Paper persists, and so do I. Give me one more page. Give me one more day.

Works on paper, including Tangible by Robert Klanten and spreads by Aoyama Hina

From left: Tangible, by Robert Klanten (Die Gestalten Verlag, 2009), with spreads of work by Hina Aoyama, who used only paper and scissors, and by Ball-Nogues Studio, which made the Rip Curl Canyon out of laminated cardboard atop a plywood skeleton.

I live, and leave a paper trail: birth certificate, Social Security card, driver's license, passport. I grow up, and go on a paper chase: diploma, degree, marriage license, mortgage. Paper confirms, and paper pursues. Who am I? May I see your papers? So much depends on paper. And paper is weak. Paper decays.

Yet paper can be anything. Paper is a surface and a thing, a toy and a tool. Paper is both skin and body.

I kick against progress and embrace the primitive. I unplug the digital ghost and resurrect the body of paper. I am not digital. I am human. Paper is my metaphorical flesh, my body light as a wafer. My skin flakes like paper. Paper wrinkles like skin. I see my veins branch beneath my skin like dark lines on a lampshade. A paperback has a spine. Pages have headers and footers. Magazines have spreads. Their pages absorb the ink of words and pictures and spread open for my gaze, for my pleasure. Is my mind in the gutter? Paper is a body for anyone's use. Paper is a whore. Paper wrinkles and fades. And so do I.

Paper can be surface and representation and thing itself. Paper can represent a thing, be made to resemble a thing, or be that thing. Paper can be a picture of a cup, a cutout model of a cup, or the cup itself. I can twist a ribbon of paper into a word, making paper into a thing and a representation. I can cut paper into leaves and branches, into the shape of a tree, recalling the real tree from which this paper came.

Works on paper, including O Magazine feature, Nordstrom catalog, ad for Neenah Paper

Clockwise from left: An article in the July 2010 issue of O Magazine featured cut-paper illustrations by Ruven Afanador and Jo Lynn Alcorn. Nordstrom Holiday 2009 Catalog with punch-out gift labels by Lisa Evans and including her DIY paper birdhouses. A toy spaceship made from cardboard paper-towel tube. Print ad for Neenah Paper features a punch-out version of a child's game that advertises the Eames Paper Collection.

With the power to destroy comes the responsibility to protect. Armed to take a life, I am obligated to protect life. Paper insists on this relationship. Paper puts me in power and asks me to be responsible. Paper asks me to take care of it. Handle with care. Do not get wet. Keep away from open flame.

Durability demands harder stuff. Harder stuff does not provoke me. It resists me. Hulking works of metal and alloy dominate me. I must be wary of them. I can't hurt them, but they can hurt me. I have to trust that they will behave. With paper, the relationship is reversed. I am the one who can hurt, and paper has to have faith in me. I will be tempted to touch the paper, to leave a smudge or stain, to crinkle the paper, to tear it a bit, just to see what it feels like. I crumple it. I end it. Paper asked for my faith, and I betrayed it.

Paper cannot police me. I must police myself.

Spreads from the book Papercraft by Robert Klanten

Papercraft, by Robert Klanten (Die Gestalten Verlag, 2009), featuring spreads of cut-paper objects, including paper toys and clothes made of maps.

Paper as surface

Paper is skin for the tattoo of ink. Designers, writers and artists spray their ink, press it and stamp it and needle it into paper. Paper is cut and bound into the bodies of books, magazines, notebooks, newspapers. We use paper as a surface for representing something else, for enduring the tattoos of our words and pictures and enabling us to send messages to each other, even to the future.

Works on paper, including images from Paper Captain and The New Millennium Paper Airplane Book

Top row: Paper Captain, by Juliette Cezzar (Universe, 2008). (See also Paper Pilot and Paper Astronaut). Bottom row: The New Millennium Paper Airplane Book, by Klara Hobza (Public Art Fund, 2009); an origami rooster.

Paper as representation

Paper is material. Paper can be a thing made to look like something else. Designers cut, tear, rip and fold paper into the shapes of birds, queens, rockets and wedding cakes. Paper can be material for arts and crafts, for illustration and decoration, for origami and model-making. The paper model of a boat doesn't float. The paper shoe can't be worn. The paper cut and curled into a butterfly will not fly. Very often cut-paper objects are photographed and printed… on paper.

Images from the book Unfolded, by Petra Schmidt and Nicola Stattman

Unfolded, by Petra Schmidt and Nicola Stattman (Birkhäuser Architecture, 2009), including paper objects that work—including lamps, clothes, houses, jewelry—and wood-like boards made of newspaper.

Paper as object

Paper is the object itself, an object that can be used. I drink from a paper cup, eat from a paper plate, wipe my hands on a paper napkin. I blow my nose in a paper tissue. I flip burgers while wearing a paper hat. I cradle my newborn son while wearing paper booties. I strike a paper match and light the matchbook on fire. In this case, to be useful, a thing need only damage itself. Paper self-destructs.

A paper airplane soars. A paper airplane is not a model. It does not represent a real airplane. It is not a picture of something else. It is itself. Fold the paper along the dotted lines, crease the folds and throw the plane. It glides.

I can wear a paper shirt, a paper hat, a paper ring. I can turn on a paper lamp, and it will light up. Designers have made dolls, furniture, playscapes and even houses out of paper. Paper can package as well. Paper can bag groceries and liquor bottles, envelop mangoes and Raisinets. Packages have an inside and an outside. Words and images can be printed on their outside surfaces. Bags and boxes hold real things, but they also show pretty pictures of other things, which means paper can lie to me.

Utilitarian paper products such as tissues, postage stamps, money, coupons, a lint roller and coffee filters.

Clockwise from top left: Kleenex tissue, postage stamps, money, coupons, lens-cleaning paper, paper bag, box of matches, coffee filters, paper plates, lint roller.

Paper as value

Some paper blurs boundaries. Paper money is a surface for printed ornamentation, and it is an object that has value and can be used in exchange for something else. It is not a model of money. It is not a picture of money. It is money. It functions as money. Coupons are another surface for representing something else (pictures of little cereal boxes and snack foods), but coupons also function as objects and as objects with value. Paper is value, as long as authorities agree. Postage stamps, too, and personal checks are value. Paper value is always limited. Coupons expire. Tickets are used. The bank account empties. The country is overthrown.

Books featuring cut-paper designs

From top left: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, illustrated and designed by Jeremy Holmes (Chronicle Books, 2009). I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, by Damien Hirst, designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, with paper engineering by Herman Lelie (Booth-Clibborn, 2005). Pop-Up Architecture, a monograph by Wendy Evans Joseph (Melcher Media, 2009).

Paper suffers, and paper preserves. In grade school I made hand-shaped turkeys, lunch-bag puppets, Mother's Day cards of folded construction paper. I made holiday lumieres and papier-maché masks. For Valentine's Day I cut hearts out of paper. Now I keep my kids' art as mementos, tucked in Pendaflex folders. I moved a box of folders into the bedroom for a while, near a window, and a corner of blue construction paper poked out. In the sunlight, a little triangle faded to orange.

Time burns. Flesh wears out.



Creative Paper Cutting, edited by Shufunomoto (Trumpeter, 2010)

Paper Cuts: 35 Inventive Projects, by Taylor Hagerty (Lark, 2010)

Paper Wonderland: 32 Terribly Cute Toys Ready to Cut, Fold & Build, by Michelle Romo (How Books, 2010)

The Art of Paper Cutting, by Henya Melichson (Quarry Books, 2009)

Home, Paper, Scissors: Decorative Paper Accessories for the Home, by Patricia Zapata (Potter Craft, 2009)

The Paper Architect, by Marivi Garrido (Potter Craft, 2009)

Paper: Tear, Fold, Rip, Crease, Cut, by Raven Smith (Black Dog Publishing, 2009)

Slash: Paper Under the Knife, by David Revere McFadden (5 Continents Editions, 2009), from the MAD exhibition of the same name 

Creating Snowflake Art: Designing Original Papercuttings, by C. Angela Mohr (Schiffer Publishing, 2008)

Paper Cutouts, by Helene Leroux-Hugon and Juliette Vicart (Firefly Books, 2007)