The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) presents Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas, on view from September 15, 2016, through January 22, 2017. The exhibition is part of Mad Transformations, the Museum's fall exhibition series showcasing artists who have rethought and continue to reshape perceptions of traditional craft media. Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas celebrates the 10th anniversary of the "Crochet Coral Reef," an ongoing project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and their Los Angeles–based organization, the Institute For Figuring (IFF), which addresses environmental threats to marine life through an ever-evolving handcrafted artificial ecology.
A non-profit dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic aspects of science and mathematics, the IFF was founded in 2003 by science writer and curator Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister, poet and writer Christine Wertheim, to employ craft practice in the service of activism. In 2005, in response to the devastation of the Great Barrier Reef in their native Australia, the Wertheim sisters began to crochet a simulation of healthy and ailing reefs mixing yarn with plastic trash. Using the algorithmic codes of crochet, the sisters produce crenellated forms representing hyperbolic geometry, which is also manifest in the undulating structures of corals, kelps, and other reef organisms.
The Wertheim sisters, aided by an international group of "Core Reef Contributors," have grown and evolved the "Crochet Coral Reef" project. It has been exhibited nationally and internationally, resulting in large-scale collaborative works of coralline landscapes fusing mathematics, marine biology, feminist art practices, and craft. Curated for MAD by Assistant Curator Samantha De Tillio, Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas offers a unique presentation of the project that focuses on climate change and ocean health.
"Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas is a community-centered project that builds on the feminist tradition of using craft in the service of activism. Fiber, particularly knitting and crocheting, is often central to this practice because of its traditionally gendered affiliation with 'woman's work,'" said De Tillio. "Here, a group comprised primarily of women addresses the startling transformation of the oceans during the Anthropocene era through the WERTHEIMS union of science, math, and art, giving voice to the ongoing environmental concerns of climate change and plastic trash in the oceans that haunt our coral reefs."
"When Christine and I started the project a decade ago, we joked that if the Great Barrier Reef ever died out our crochet reef would be something to remember it by," said Margaret Wertheim. "Now scientists are saying this might really happen, so the project is racing against time. Time is at the heart of our practice: it takes huge amounts of time to crochet these works, just as it takes huge amounts of time for coral polyps to grow actual reefs. It's a slow process that can't be automated or mechanically reproduced. Living reefs, with their immense taxonomic diversity, have evolved over vast stretches of time, and so too the diverse ecology of our crochet reefs results from an ongoing evolutionary process in which our community of contributors continually expands and builds on what's come before."
This exhibition focuses on the presentation of three main "habitats":
A giant Coral Forest and a collection of miniature Pod Worlds display the diversity of living corals through the varying textures, colors, and forms of crocheted yarn and beads. This section of the exhibition reveals how crocheted yarn can mimic the hyperbolic geometry of living reef organisms.
The Bleached Reef and a brand-new Toxic Reef serve as invocations of dying corals. Acidification and warming of ocean waters lead to a phenomenon known as reef "bleaching." Toxic Reef: Co2ca Co2la Ocean represents a subsequent stage of reef deterioration, with stark white protrusions indicating dead coral. Here the reef is also inundated with plastic and trash, symbolized by the use of videotape and by glittering litter on the simulated sea floor.
Suspended from the Museum's ceiling in a fishing net, The Midden considers the impact of plastic waste on ocean ecosystems. From 2007 to 2011, the Wertheim sisters collected all of their domestic plastic trash, including bottles, takeout containers, and disposable shopping bags. They were inspired by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast area located in the northern Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, where millions of tons of plastic trash accumulate in a giant ocean gyre. As a uniquely personal record of two people's trash, The Midden is a stunning visual realization of the disposability of contemporary consumption.