Crochet, Coral and Hyperbolic Geometry

Over at the Museum of Arts and Design, twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim have taken over the third floor with a coral reef which is a wonderful combination of crochet, mathematics and ecology!   The Wertheims were distressed by the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in their native Australia, and set out to increase awareness of the destruction of coral reefs around the world.  To that end, they began crocheting a simulation of healthy and ailing reefs, using yarn and plastic trash (a major cause of the acidification of the seas, which destroys the corals).  Crochet Coral Reef:  TOXIC SEAS  displays their work from the last 10 years on this theme.

Chalk board showing the evolution of corals

Chalk board showing the evolution of corals

At the beginning, there’s a “black board” which explains the evolution of life, the evolution of coral reefs and the development of plastics.  Coral reefs are among the most ancient life forms.  Even though they occupy less than 10% of the world’s ocean areas, they are home to 1/4 of all marine species.  So their destruction (and the role of plastics in that process) is of great concern to all of us. 

The Midden, personal plastic trash of Margaret and Christine Wertheim, 2007-2011

The Midden, personal plastic trash of Margaret and Christine Wertheim, 2007-2011

Suspended from the ceiling is The Midden, a fishing net holding a collection of the twins’ plastic garbage from 2007 to 2011, inspired by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the northern Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, where millions of tons of plastic trash accumulate in a giant ocean gyre.

As you go through the exhibit, be sure to read the wall labels to see the wide variety of plastics, such as  water bottles, cassette tapes, garbage bags, and other materials such as chicken wire which were used so ingeniously in these sculptures.

Coral Forest - Nin'imma, 2007-14, plastic shopping bags, Saran Wra[, found plastic trash, yarn, felt, cable ties, Sonotube, chicken wire

Coral Forest – Nin’imma, 2007-14, plastic shopping bags, Saran Wra[, found plastic trash, yarn, felt, cable ties, Sonotube, chicken wire

In the next section, the Coral Forest, you’ll find fantastical figures with mythological names like Nin’imma and Medusa, all made with yarn and plastic.  You’ll also notice the lighting is very dramatic, evoking the feel of the ocean deep. 

Detail from "Bleached Reef"

Detail from “Bleached Reef”

The third section of the exhibit showcases more of the international nature of this project.  In two large cases you’ll see Bleached Reef representing the first stage of reef deterioration, and Toxic Reef representing the subsequent stage.  The various elements in these reefs were crocheted by women (mostly) around the world, and then assembled by the Wertheims.  Since 2006, their  Satellite Reef Project, which works with communities around the globe to create local reefs, has had over 8,000 participants.  The wall labels credit all the contributors, so you get a good sense of how much work goes into a project like this.

Pod World - Beaded Baroque, 2007-12

Pod World – Beaded Baroque, 2007-12

Lining the walls of this section are miniature Pod Worlds, which use the textures, colors and forms of the crocheted yarns to mimic the diversity of living corals. 

And now for a word about the math behind the exhibit.  Hyperbolic geometry is widely found in nature, as it allows the expansion and crenelation of surfaces, not only in corals, but also in vegetables like lettuce and kale.  The art of crocheting a hyperbolic plane was discovered by Cornell professor Daina Taimina, who was looking for a way to create a durable model of this mathematical concept, which was widely thought to be impossible. 

Detail, Coral Forest - Eryali, 2007-14, yarn, felt, Sonotube and chickenwire

Detail, Coral Forest – Eryali, 2007-14, yarn, felt, Sonotube and chickenwire

In 2003, Margaret and Christine Wertheim established the Institute For Figuring (IFF) to contribute to the public understanding of scientific and mathematical themes, especially relating to environmental threats to marine life.

All in all this is a wonderful exhibit combining math, science and art, while making us even more aware of how fragile our marine ecosystem is.  It will be at the Museum of Arts and Design  until January 22nd.  Go see it NOW – it might even make you want to learn how to crochet!

More photos are on my Instagram feed  

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