I get excited by the idea that there are things and secrets to uncover, like one of the laws of the universe just there, hidden in a piece of paper.
I first saw Dom Jaeger’s paper art many years ago. It was a greeting card sized piece, cut and folded, sitting on a mantelpiece above an open fireplace, in a cosy workers cottage in Melbourne. It was intricate, beautiful and understated; it immediately pulled me in. I later learnt that Dom is a man of many interests and talents. A film camera technician by profession, he has a long history working with various art mediums. I caught up with Dom in Berlin towards the end of a year long creative sabbatical in France and Germany with his family.
How did you get started in paper folding?
I was always interested in optical illusions, and puzzles. I went to art school and drew a lot, but I was always interested in architectural forms as well. About 35 years ago I stumbled on an article in a Scientific American about someone who had created folding patterns for NASA. They were used to send a satellite dish up into space. They had to fold up the satelite small to transport it and it needed to unfold later. I remember looking at the folding pattern and being fascinated with this idea. I started playing around with tessellating paper. Around the same time I saw a pop up card that someone had made, with a very simple staircase so I started playing with that as well. Then I just kept going.
What resources did you have at that time?
There was nothing specific. I just used to go to shops, I would look at design books, origami books, pop up books and that sort of thing but there wasn’t much. It seemed fairly new and unexplored and that was one of the things that attracted me. I loved how you can take a simple sheet of paper and it becomes so complicated.
Do you set yourself any guidelines with your work?
I use cutting and folding, whatever I can do to make it complicated. The only rule I ever applied to myself was to use just one sheet of paper, though I also avoided using glue for a long time. Some origami purists don’t cut but cutting makes steps and that was one of the first things I tried. I was studying architecture at the time so I think that maybe that influenced my ideas.
How have you fitted it into your life?
I found time at night. I was mainly working so it was always something of a hobby. I had a desk and just used to play around with things. It was time consuming because to pleat a whole page takes hours and hours. You need to draw, then score and then fold it. I would get a burst of enthusiasm and work on something and complete it and then think… I can’t really face having to do all that again. So I would leave it for a while and come back to it later. It has been a long slow process.
I remember coming up with something I thought no one had done before and that was exciting, it was a way of folding a piece of paper and it always impressed people when I showed it to them. It folded in two dimensions and when you opened and closed it quickly it was mesmerising.
I really decided to sink my teeth into paper folding in my mid to late 20s and I really started exploring different aspects of shapes and forms and I did that for a few years.
I always wanted to get more into it but it is so time consuming it was hard to motivate myself, I could do a couple of hours a night but it would take weeks to get something done. I have always had other art like drawing and painting as well. Paper folding is a very dry art form. It is geometric and cerebral and sometimes I am bored of that and want to go into something more expressive.
You have taken this year off to live in Europe and focus on creative pursuits. How has that played out?
This year I was envisioning a lot of time to get into things including painting and maybe writing children’s stories. But I am not so good at getting out of one head space and into another. I would be so involved in the paper that I couldn’t really get out of it to get into painting. I did some life drawing and playing about with water colours in France but it felt like I was pulling myself away.
What is the process of creating your art?
There are different aspects. First, there is purely looking at things I have made, imagining where I could take them, or variations on them. It is a contemplative thing; I need to be in a certain head space to do that.
Once I have decided to follow something then there is a very involved phase with the design of it, trying to figure out how it might work and getting my head around the angles. I might make models of sections to help me later.
Once I have got my head around the whole design I plot it out and then comes the duller part of drawing, scoring and folding. This is much more of a zen practice. I could probably farm it out, I have often fantasised about that. You do need a certain amount of patience and dexterity but you don’t need to be a surgeon. I know a lot of artists who do work that is quite repetitive, maybe thousands of little pencil lines, and I guess it is a similar thing. I get in the zone. There is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction once I finish though, because of all that effort.
If paper art were a person how would you describe your relationship
It is definitely an again off again relationship, we fall out of love occasionally but I am always fascinated by her, she had a mystery to her. I get excited by the idea that there are things and secrets to uncover, like she holds one of the laws of the universe just there, hidden in a piece of paper. The more you play the more you uncover, working on one thing and something unexpected will happen. There is always more to discover. She is also infuriating… and pedantic.
Is there a piece you have made that has a story behind it?
This year I made a little 5 sided box. I was trying to design a lid that would screw into it as it was star shaped, a bit hard to explain! Anyway, I managed it but it needed a handle. Designing a protrusion to grab hold of led to a really complicated pattern which I managed to fold. Then I couldn’t make it again. I just couldn’t get the paper to fold back the way I had the first time. It became a challenge. I developed the patterns a bit and I have folded it twice now.
The funny thing is that actually it doesn’t look that much. I show it to people and they go ‘oh yeah’. I guess people don’t really see the inner workings of something. Something much simpler may look more impressive. But it’s the manner in which something is folded which is often more important to me.
Where would you like to take this?
I struggle with this, I don’t really know where to take it. It is just this enticing thing, which I keep wanting to unfold and see what is inside. I like the idea of sharing it or having an exhibition. I have thought of ways of exhibiting. I have played with the idea of having them as kinetic art, where they might move with a motor, because it is not just about the object but the way it interacts, open and closes, and morphs; but it almost feels like a departure from what I really want to do, which is to get closer into the art. My partner is always saying… you should put in a proposal for this gallery and I think, ‘oh yes, I should do that’ and then I look at the proposal and the gallery wants you to state your intent and what is the meaning behind it and all that stuff.
I often think it would be nice to make them more fine art objects by combining them with painting and making them a little more organic… Yet there is something very nice about that crystalline hard geometry. I am a bit like the modernist architects at the beginning of the 20th century who believed that this beautiful purity of line enhances people’s lives.