A&E Pick of the Week

With papercutting art, the tools are simple — a pair of tiny scissors and some paper — but the process is painstaking and the product magnificent. 

On view at the National Nordic Museum this fall and winter is a beautiful example of this art form in the exhibit “Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories.” The exhibit features a collaboration between papercut artists Bit Vejle from Scandinavia and Xiaoguang Qiao from China surrounding the theme of dragons — mythical creatures that manifest in both cultures in different ways. 

At the center of the exhibit is a colorful 30-foot-long dragon created by Qiao and seven dragon eggs with intricate designs that tell myths and stories from Norwegian history by Vejle. 

Here the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” is flipped on its head as Qiao’s and Vejle’s works transform thousands of cuts into elaborate stories that celebrate life and history.

With the fall and winter seasons upon us, the exhibit is a wonderful reflection of the delicacy of brittle autumn leaves outside and the intricate patterns in the snowflakes that may grace us this coming winter. 

The experience 

The gallery is dark and quiet but for the soft lights directed at the artworks and the spots of light in the shadows the works cast on the walls and floors. 

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In a looping video by the door, Vejle explains some of the symbols and meanings in the details of her works: a key to the food stores in the hand of a monarch that signifies power, a pregnant woman carrying a chemical formula that is an homage to famous Norwegian scientists. The richness of the symbols and details she describes make it nearly impossible to stay for the whole video as it piques your curiosity and the actual artworks urge you to begin your own exploring through the shadowy room. 

As you continue through the exhibit, you’ll soon see that there are so many details in these works that you could easily spend several hours in this small gallery trying to identify them all. Then, of course, there are the ones hidden away, like the faces of famous Norwegians hidden in the outlines of flower petals, how Qiao’s dragon resembles the double helix of a strand of DNA, or the characters that recur in several of Vejle’s dragon egg stories. 

The awe-inspiring details

The detail and precision of the papercutting art form and these specific works are stunning and at times a little overwhelming. The overarching theme of life connects all of the artworks in the exhibit. In Vejle’s seven dragon eggs, some characters show up several times, their roles and bearings altered. There is a story that progresses as each egg tells the story of a different moment in Norwegian history, like time capsules of entire eras. Pregnant women later carry a child in their arms, a bird that appears in each egg moves further and further into the egg until it is at the atomic heart of Yggdrasil, a sacred tree in Norse mythology. 

While the details of the stories told in these works can draw you in deep, you won’t want to spend your whole time squinting at tiny holes in paper. To appreciate the art fully, you’ll want to notice the technique, too. In one egg, the paper was cut unevenly to create a 3D effect. In another, so much of the paper has been cut away that the egg is held together with only the thinnest strands. Another appears almost completely uncut until you notice a tiny bird pecking its way into the egg at the top. 

The intricate details and the tremendous amount of skill and precision that must go into creating such art is unbelievable, but one of the best parts of the exhibit is how it all comes together as a life-giving dragon and her soon-to-be offspring bursting with whole worlds and histories inside them waiting to come to life. 

If you go

  • Walk slowly. Take your time and try to find all the little details. Look and look again and you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised again and again as you discover one more detail here, one more hidden gem there. 
  • Step back. Don’t worry too much about understanding every single reference and symbol in every work. Think critically about the themes and try to notice as many details as you can, but also step back and just appreciate how beautiful these artworks are. 
“Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories”

Through Jan. 31, 2022; National Nordic Museum, 2655 N.W. Market St., Seattle; $10-$20, free for ages 4 and under; 206-789-5707; nordicmuseum.org 

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