The Institute For Figuring Logo

Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS

By Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring

@ Museum of Arts and Design, New York

Exhibition dates: September 15, 2016 – January 22, 2017

Click on photos to enlarge.

Coral Forest - Stheno, by Margaret and Christine Wertheim, stands in solidarity with maintenance art practitioners and women workers everywhere. From the collection of Jorian Polis Schutz.

About the Exhibition

Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS celebrates the tenth anniversary of the “Crochet Coral Reef” (2005–present), an ongoing project by sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring. Mixing crocheted yarn with plastic trash, the work fuses mathematics, marine biology, feminist art practices, and craft to produce large-scale coralline landscapes, both beautiful and blighted. At once figurative, collaborative, worldly, and dispersed, the “Crochet Coral Reef” offers a tender response to dual calamities facing marine life: climate change and plastic trash.

With 2016 the hottest year on record, living reefs everywhere are under stress. Into these arenas of color huge areas of whiteness now intrude; bleaching events signal that corals are sick and dying. In 2005, in response to devastation of the Great Barrier Reef in their native Australia, the Wertheims began to crochet a simulation of healthy and ailing reefs. Using the algorithmic codes of crochet, the sisters produce crenellated forms that are representations of hyperbolic geometry, which is also manifest in the undulating structures of corals, kelps, and other reef organisms. The Wertheims and their collaborators, a core group of worldwide “Crochet Reefers,” fabricate an ever-evolving artificial ecology.

This exhibition consists of three main “habitats.” A giant Coral Forest and a collection of miniature Pod Worlds represent the diversity of living corals through the varying textures, colors, and forms of crocheted yarn and beads. A Bleached Reef and a brand new Toxic Reef serve as invocations of dying corals, while The Midden—four years’ worth of the Wertheims’ own domestic plastic trash—constitutes a deeply personal response to the issue of plastic waste in the oceans, including human-made phenomena such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Mixing environmental science with science fiction, the Crochet Coral Reef calls us into what Donna Haraway has called "a time of response-ability" and sisterhood with the sea.

Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS is curated for the Museum of Arts and Design by Assistant Curator Samantha De Tillio.

This exhibition is part of MAD Transformations, a series of six shows at the Museum of Arts and Design during Fall 2016 that address artists who have transformed and continue to transform our perceptions of traditional craft mediums.

MAD Exhibition Website  

Exhibition Press Coverage:

Scientific American

NRDC - On Earth Magazine

VICE - Creators Project

Shift magazine - Japan

Coral Forest  by Margaret and Christine Wertheim with Latvian Pod at right, courtesy of Tija Viksna and Gallery Consiento in Riga, Latvia. In background at left is the Hyperbolic Sea Snake by Helen Bernasconi.

Core Reef Crafters included in this exhibition:

Helen Bernasconi (Australia), Orla Breslin (Ireland), Anita Bruce (United Kingdom), Gina Cacciolo (CA), Jane Canby (AZ), Chicago Satellite Reefers (IL), Tane Clark (AZ), Pate Conaway (IL), Barbara Van Elsen (NY), Dagma Frinta (NY), Mieko Fukuhara (Japan), Lucinda Ganderton (United Kingdom), Vanessa Garcia (CA), Sally Giles (IL), Kathleen Greco (PA), Beverly Griffiths (United Kingdom), Evelyn Hardin (TX), Chantal Horeau (CA), Irish Satellite Reefers (Ireland), Gunta Jekabsone (Latvia), Helle Jorgensen (Australia), Siew Chu Kerk (NY), Lynn Latta (CA), Lucia LaVilla-Havelin (TX), Nancy Lewis (VT), Irene Lundgaard (Ireland), Anna Mayer (CA), Heather McCarren (CA), Vonda N. McIntyre (WA), Sharon Menges (AZ), Anitra Menning (CA), Marianne Midelburg (Australia), Arlene Mintzer (NY), Una Morrison (Ireland), Clare O’Callaghan (CA), Sue Von Ohlsen (PA), David Orozco (CA), Rebecca Peapples (MI), Shari Porter (CA), Jill Schreier (NY), Nadia Severns (NY), Christina Simons (CA), Diana Simons (CA), Sarah Simons (CA), Pamela Stiles (NY), Ildiko Szabo (United Kingdom), Ann Wertheim (Australia), Barbara Wertheim (Australia), Elizabeth Wertheim (Australia), Katherine Wertheim (Australia), Jennifer White (AZ), Ying Wong (CA), Jemima Wyman (CA), Nancy Youhros (AZ), and Theresa Bowen (NY), Matthew Adnams (UAE), Suha Malqua (UAE). Plus traditional crafters and unknown Chinese factory workers. Also on show is the Latvian Pod by Tija Viksna and the Latvian Reef crafters.

And special thanks to Christina Simons + Anna Mayer.

Coral Forest - Ea by Margaret and Christine Wertheim, with pink plastic sand by Kathleen Greco and blue New York Times plastic-bag anemones by Clare O'Callaghan. In the background is the Chemical Blackboard - a 30 foot long blackboard drawing charting a timeline of the evolution of life's organic molecules, along with the rise of CO2 and a history of plastic. Designed by Margaret and Christine, with drawing assistance from Ryan Oakes and Caitlin Petit.

Coral Forest - Medusa by Margaret and Christine Wertheim, featuring video-tape kelps by Christine, spiral kelps by Sarah Simons, octopi by Helen Bernasconi, and cable-tie anemones by Evelyn Hardin.

Exhibition signage with plastic crochet hyperbolic pseudosphere by Siew Chu Kerk.

The Midden by Margaret and Christine Wertheim, 2007–2011

This art is literally rubbish! For four years – from January 2007 to April 2011 – Margaret and Christine Wertheim kept all their domestic plastic trash; every bottle, bag and piece of packaging they used. Here it is suspended in a fishing net as a record of two particular twenty-first century inhabitants of North America who were desperately trying to cut down. In total the trash weighs 440 pounds and the average American citizen uses far more than this. 

The Midden emerged as an exercise in self-awareness. In 2006, after learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Wertheim sisters began crocheting plastic with the aim of creating a Toxic Reef as a post-modern sibling to the classical beauty of their yarn-based reefs. But art cannot be our only response to ecological destruction. "How much plastic do we used?" they wondered. So they decided to keep all their trash for a week. Then for a month. They were horrified. The project eventually went on for 4 years. We encourage you each to try this exercise yourself: keep your own plastic trash for a month - you'll be astounded how it compounds. Helpful hint: make sure to wash it thoroughly. There's nothing worse than having to rewash it all if something goes off.

Toxic Reef: Coca Cola Ocean by Margaret and Christine Wertheim.

This elegiac white and black confection is a homage to bleached and dying reefs. The tall black anemones are crocheted from video-tape by Christine and the tableau rests on a bed of red, white and blue medical waste, glitter, and ring-pull tops. Featured also are white-spire tube-worms by Evelyn Hardin, beaded corals by Vonda N. McIntyre and Nadia Severns, and beaded sea urchins by Sarah Simons. At right are a series of miniature coral Pod Worlds, showcasing works by some of our most skilled Core Reef Crafters, including Mieko Fukuhara, Sue Von Ohlsen, Rebecca Peapples, Anita Bruce and Kathleen Greco.

Bleached Reef (detail) by Margaret and Christine Wertheim; with red-and-white sea slug by Marianne Midelburg, blue coral pile by Nancy Lewis, sea creature outliers by Sarah Simons, conjevoi and felted corals by Helle Jorgensen, and miniature beaded coral towers by Nadia Severns. Plus doilies by vintage makers unknown. In the background is (left) Coral Forest - Eryali, (middle) Hyperbolic Sea Snake by Helen Bernasconi, and (right) Branched Anemone Garden by Margaret and Christine.

Bleached Reef  (detail) by Margaret and Christine Wertheim; with red-and-white sea slug by Marianne Midelburg, blue coral pile by Nancy Lewis, sea creature outliers by Sarah Simons, conjevoi and felted corals by Helle Jorgensen, and miniature beaded coral towers by Nadia Severns. Plus doilies by vintage makers unknown.

Photos by Jenna Bascom, courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.

The IFF's work for "Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS" is generously supported by a grant from the Opaline Fund of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.