Marc Kirschenbaum keeps all of his erotic origami pieces in a box, except for the model of a couple copulating in missionary position, placed near one of his parent’s Picassos. His ex-girlfriend, the one he recently broke up with, found his practice of folding 18 x 18 inch paper squares into designs—such as a pair of lips sucking a dick and a cute little vagina made out of a dollar bill, the tip of Washington’s wig peeking just above the vulva—a bit embarrassing. She preferred other works displayed in his Trump Place apartment: the turtles, the teddy bears, the sailboats. Maybe now that the relationship is over he’ll display his pornigami out in the open again.
When most kids doodled, Kirschenbaum folded. The 37-year-old native New Yorker didn’t grow up fashioning private parts, though at age three, his paper planes showed signs of origami greatness; at 10 he saw his first formal origami exhibition at Japan Airlines’ New York headquarters and was sold. Origami is usually thought of as craft and equated with kindergarten affairs — something to be stuffed in one’s lunch box — but Kirschenbaum discovered that it was a serious art form, good enough for museums and coffee-table books (and, as he found later on, flexible enough to depict the naked human form).
Throughout the ’80s, instead of obsessing over the coolest new pair of LA Gear sneakers or MC Hammer pants, Kirschenbaum was busy hammering down his origami creations. At 16, two of his works—models of a bassist and violinist—were inducted into the Smithsonian’s permanent origami Christmas tree ornament collection. After multiple exhibitions and the publication of a book titled Paper in Harmony (an advanced guide to making one’s own origami orchestra), he got bored with the usual zoo and barnyard animal designs.
“What about missionary position?” a friend asked him in 1996. It was a challenge the young Kirschenbaum couldn’t resist. Besides, he was excited by the idea of breaking some taboos within the traditional family-oriented origami scene—not to mention the prospect of extra attention.
Kirschenbaum’s hair is short, and what little of it is left doesn’t pay heed to gravity. He’s a couple of shades (but not much) darker than a standard-ruled white 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheet of paper and wears wire-rimmed glasses with whimsical wing-like designs on the side. To put it frankly, he’s not exactly the image one would conjure when hearing the words Origami Master, but the title has nothing to do with looks. “It’s who you know,” says Kirschenbaum. “And the connections you have.”
His designs are complex: Each figure requires more than 100 steps, and each is made with only one sheet of paper. The blowjob piece, which he calls “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” is multicolored—the lips red, the penis beige—and is constructed using paper with a different hue on each side. The model with a couple in the 69 position, called “Each One, Eat One,” is made from one large gray sheet of paper.
He envisions each model for more than a month before working the design out on paper. From the design to the actual paper figurine, at least another month is necessary.
Although Kirschenbaum is an IT consultant by profession, he is deeply steeped in the origami community. As a board member of OrigamiUSA (the headquarters are in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History), he’s expected to help instruct children on Sundays for family folding day. He doesn’t go, though, believing it’s a waste of his time, like Mario Batali using his gourmet cooking skills to teach people how to refill a saltshaker. Plus, they only practice G-rated origami. “I try to avoid it,” Kirschenbaum says.
Pornigami is a relatively new niche and not accepted by all who inhabit the tightly folded origami circle. Jan Polish, the treasurer of OrigamiUSA and someone considered a bit of an origami purist, has on various occasions seen examples of Kirschenbaum’s work. “Well . . .” she says with a long pause. “I think they’re very . . . [silence] . . . very [pause] . . . witty.”
While the public accepts nudity in a Botticelli or Rodin, pornigami still lacks an appropriate venue. At the annual origami exhibition put on by OrigamiUSA at FIT, anyone who folds can show their work. This past year, Kirschenbaum was told to cover his pieces with black cloths. “My models are a lot less risqué than what I’ve seen in a lot of galleries,” said Kirschenbaum, adding that the cloths just added to the mystique, making more little boys and girls want to take a peek.
Recently, Kirschenbaum held a retrospective of his work at the Arts Club near Gramercy Park—the one place in the United States he’s openly shown his erotic pieces. He had Emmanuel Benador, an art director at an Upper East Side gallery, appraise their worthiness in the art world. “Marc’s work is very aesthetic,” Benador recalls of that evening. Unfortunately, Benador says, he’d never be able to display the erotic figures because he doesn’t show contemporary art.
Kirschenbaum, who’d prefer not to share the pornigami spotlight, has company on the scene nevertheless. Nick Robinson, a U.K.-based origamist, published a book called Very Naughty Origami, while Kirschenbaum is still struggling to get a publisher for his own designs. Kirschenbaum’s got his paper in a crumple over this and can’t help expressing the competitive nature common to many advanced origamists. “[Robinson’s] models are good, but highly stylized,” says Kirschenbaum. “I think my stuff is better.”
While he’s had trouble getting the world to view his pornigami as serious art, commercially, Kirschenbaum has had more luck. In 2001, Playboy commissioned him to make a vagina out of a dollar bill, and just this January, Maxim commissioned copulating bunnies, each made out of a hundred-dollar bill. Like a makeup artist, he was on standby as they shot the scene. He had just a single touch-up; one of the bunny’s ears had come slightly undone.