Devon Tsuno — Senbikigoi 千匹鯉 (One Thousand Carp)
Devon Tsuno’s work developed out of his recreational and artistic relationship with the waterways of Los Angeles. For most of his life he has fished the various ponds, creeks, and tributaries of the L.A. River, but more recently he has also looked there to find the subject matter for his paintings—diaphanously layered, intensely colored images of water and vegetation. Other aspects of Tsuno’s fishing inform his work too, most notably the conservationism he attributes to being in nature so frequently from a young age. Many of his recent projects have a social, activist element, encouraging participants to appreciate and conserve the unique ecosystem of the L.A. watershed. His work highlights the history and diversity of these aquatic habitats (often, significantly, rich in species introduced from elsewhere—notably, the common carp), but also their ecological precariousness.
The current project for X-TRA is part of Los Angeles River Carp Fishery Sustainability Act (C.F.S.A.), an ongoing series of works by Tsuno that invite viewers to reconsider their relationship to the L.A. River, its flora and fauna. Here, Tsuno invites X-TRA readers to participate in the project by folding origami carp using the patterned paper you will find overleaf. The paper approximates the smallest sizes of traditional origami—three-inch and six-inch squares. Readers are invited to cut out four pieces of paper and fold each of them into miniature Los Angeles River Carp following the instructions provided. The accompanying text alludes to the history of the practice of origami in Japan as well as the more troubling associations it has in the recent history of the United States—tying together personal narratives with the intersecting histories in which they played a part.
A boy and his father set out with rods and tackle to fish a lake in a park in Baldwin Hills. The park is not far from La Cienega Boulevard, which cuts through the center of Los Angeles. During the long dry periods of the summer, lakes and streams grow murky, but the boy and his father catch carp, which thrive in this habitat—unlike some other species, they have a natural inclination to persevere in adverse conditions. One can track the city’s water to many sources—lakes like this one, reservoirs, native aquifers, the Colorado River; each of these watercourses traces unseen histories across the landscape. Follow one of them, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, two hundred and fifty miles north and it skirts the site of the Manzanar camp where, during World War II, more than ten thousand Japanese Americans were incarcerated under armed guard. There, kids snuck out of camp at night to fish for trout in the tributaries of the Owens River.
On another day, the boy’s grandmother gives him Sakura oil pastels and washi paper. He folds origami fish and makes patterns with the pastels. The grandmother’s parents came from Japan, but she does not mention the cultural origin of the materials to her grandson, and the significance of the gesture only occurs to him many years later. Fittingly, traditional origami animals often have hidden meanings: carp, for example, stand appropriately for perseverance; the most traditional shape of all, the crane, for longevity. This symbolism is an undercurrent of the first extant book on the subject, Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (The secret of folding one thousand cranes), published in Japan in 1797, which contains illustrated instructions on how to fold interconnected chains of origami cranes; each illustration is accompanied by a poem reflecting on each chain’s veiled significance. Its author envisions multiplicities of arrangements, each one resonant with social, familial, and personal meaning: cranes are grouped in complex, cascading flocks; others fly side by side; some are set in intimate groups, beaks touching as though kissing. Yet the essence of origami is that it unites the practical and the metaphysical. Hiden Senbazuru Orikata is at once a set of instructions on how to manipulate a material and a meditation on the fundamental mutability of the physical world. It emphasizes the way the seemingly simple sheet of washi paper in your hand can be transformed through the act of folding into something radically new and different—something almost alive.
Washi paper has been produced in Japan using traditional methods for over a thousand years, but making a sheet involves a similarly pivotal moment of change that is central to the nature of the material itself: as the saturated cellulose fibers are gathered into a frame and set to dry, their delicate tubular structure collapses, becoming flat and ribbon-like. The microscopic framework resulting from this collapse—randomly dispersed, flattened fibers, woven minutely together—gives the paper its distinctive qualities: its strength and pliability and the sheen of its surface. In spite of its deep historical roots, these characteristics make washi paper feel like a distinctly modern material. The fibers themselves, made from the bark of the mulberry or gampi trees, are never allowed to dry out during the preparatory phases of the paper-making process, during which they are soaked, boiled and beaten. Water is a critical element; if the fibers dry prematurely the process must begin again. In the period before the sheet is formed, they are suspended in water in large wooden vats, the fibers only a tiny fraction of the solution’s volume. Their removal from the water is a moment of gathering and dispersion, of coalescence and distribution.
There is an allegory in this, of course. The fibers are traditions and the water the social currents that shape them; at decisive moments, traditional practices coalesce, cultural forms solidifying when removed from the flow of habitual social life. For Japanese Americans, paper folding was one such form, brought to the surface at a time of crisis. While interned, Japanese Americans folded paper wagasa umbrellas using only the materials available to them in the camps. They fashioned these delicate objects out of cigarette packet wrappers, using toothpicks as a frame. When camp authorities prohibited overtly Buddhist and Shinto religious practices, origami, steeped as it was in traditional symbolism, became a way to honor and pass on religious ideas and traditions. I make a point of these intersecting histories, but origami is also a form that draws us into the ever-evolving present. It forces its maker to pay attention to the now of the fold, and its transformative potential, fulfilling the quintessential modernist imperative of uniting the transient and the eternal.
Devon Tsuno is a native of Los Angeles. His recent abstract paintings, social-practice projects, artist’s books, and print installations focus on the Los Angeles watershed, water use, and native versus non-native vegetation. Tsuno is a 2017 Santa Fe Art Institute Water Rights artist-in-residence, the 2016 SPArt Community Grantee, and was awarded a 2014 California Community Foundation Emerging Artist Fellowship for Visual Art. His long-term interest in bodies of water in the Los Angeles area has been central to his collaborations with the Department of Cultural Affairs, Big City Forum, Theodore Payne Foundation, grantLOVE Project, and Occidental College. Tsuno has exhibited at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Venice Beach Biennial, Venice, California; Current: LA Water Public Art Biennial, Los Angeles; the US Embassy in New Zealand; Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, Indiana; and Roppongi 605, in Tokyo. He received an MFA from Claremont Graduate University in 2005 and a BFA from California State University Long Beach in 2003 and is currently an Assistant Professor of Art at California State University Dominguez Hills.
Jon Leaver is Professor of Art History at the University of La Verne. His research focuses on nineteenth-century art and criticism as well as the contemporary art of Los Angeles.