Self-identity, the ways in which it is arrived at, its anxieties and the navigation of the social pressures exacted upon women are key subjects of Sarah Knobel’s show Recover. The work charts this internal investigation through the documentation and reimagining of the act of folding 999 paper cranes through video, animation, photography, and installation. Traditionally, 1000 cranes are made by a bride and groom to signify their commitment and patience through the repetitive folding. By making one less, Knobel undermines the commitment to the endeavor and thus questions the relevance and implications of self-actualization through appropriated strategies of self-discovery in an intensely mediated culture.  

The success of Recover can be attributed to Knobel’s impeccable craft as well as the associative freedom that she grants the viewer. For instance, Knobel pairs the folding of paper cranes with the self-portrait, an in doing so creates a narrative about how the two are vehicles for self-actualization. The delicate color scheme of her video pieces and the fragility of the origami paper feminize Recover without forsaking the universality of the show’s line of inquiry.


Knobel uses cuteness, with its connotations of femininity, helplessness, and overall aesthetic indeterminacy, as a pique. This is best exemplified in The Falling Cranes, a video triptych that features a shimmering record player with a pink aura in the center monitor, superimposed hands feverishly making paper cranes on the left monitor, and the awkward stop-motion flight of the paper cranes on the right. Despite its initial appearance, the record player darkens the mood of the piece through visual incongruities. On a continuous loop, the record rotates in alternating directions, and its menacing command to “begin” initiates the action in the flanking panels.[4]  As a result questions of completeness and purpose emerge. These quandaries are especially poignant given that the practice of folding origami is customarily used as a meditative activity as a means to achieve enlightenment through “doing”. This can also be read as a broader indictment of the notion of gaining personal enlightenment through any equally insular activity. The disembodied voice and hands also call the artist and viewer’s location into question despite indications of an interior domestic space.


The theme of location and self-identification is also addressed in the ensemble of three photographs from a series called Cover. [5] The photographs show bust length self-portraits that conceal portions of the human figure behind fragments of origami paper. In one photograph -a back view- the Knobel is covered in paper, revealing only her upper arms and hair. In another, the background and figure are covered in a sea of patterns, leaving only the faintest outline of the Knobel’s profile visible. For an artist who frequently uses herself as the main subject in her artwork, this is a major shift. This erasure of the self deepens the work and shifts the conversation in an interesting new direction, directly addressing notions of identity and personhood. By masking herself through the paper covering, Knobel separates herself from the work and allows the viewer to take her place. That said, Knobel has painted colored shapes into the bed of patterns, in a way re-announcing herself in the quietest way possible. The photographic suite is complemented by a video piece in which origami fragments gradually overtake the artists body. Disparate pieces of patterned origami paper begin to creep up the length of Knobel’s body from her feet to her head, and once completely covered, she is enveloped by a pastel violet and pink halo- a visual that implies that the artist’s enlightenment is achieved when she (and, perhaps more broadly, the “self”) disappears completely.


The biggest surprise in Recover is the installation Unfolded, a knee-high plinth illuminated by pink and yellow fluorescent lights. On top of this structure sits a stack of all 999 unfolded pieces of origami paper with their creases still visible. These are the remnants of Knobel’s animated cranes from the Flying Cranes video that Sarah painstakingly made. By placing these relics on an illuminated plinth, the paper is transformed into a relic; the only physical remnant from the project. These pieces of paper thus serve as an intermediary between the tangible world and the world that Knobel created in Recover. Just as the word “recover” suggests concealment (to cover again) and rediscovery.