Reef sculptures in a gallery

Coral Forest at Lehigh University Arts Galleries, 2019. White and black forms crocheted from plastic and video tape, orange and blue forms crocheted from yarn.

At a time when the world is awash in garbage, when oceans are inundated with plastic and living reefs are dying from heat exhaustion, the Crochet Coral Reef project offers a tender impassioned response. Like the organic beings they emulate, these intricate handmade sculptures take time to make – time that is condensed in the millions of stitches on display; time that is running out for earthly creatures, including humans and cnidarians. Time forms a framework for the reef project, because time is increasingly in short supply and what we choose to spend time on is a reflection of our values.

The Reef project is a condensation of human labor, particularly female labor; hundreds of thousands of hours of labor quietly performed. These works reflects the history of handicrafts, traditionally done as a means of necessity but now being embraced by the art world as a way of claiming – or reclaiming – the aesthetic power of “fancywork.” For, of course, handicrafts have always been aesthetic tools, rich in symbolism and expressive possibility, and ladies doing their embroideries have long been artists, even if rarely acknowledged as such.

These crochet reefs are time-laden retorts to a culture of doom, quietly asserting – in what Donna Haraway has called this “time of response-ability” – a message of hope. What can we humans do when we work together, not ignoring ecological problems, but also not capitulating to fantasies that rescue is around the corner from some sudden technological solution? These reefs are militantly “un-tech.” There are no microchips or bit-streams involved. And yet there is a technology here, for the crochet hooks and its myriad cousins, knitting needles and fishing net hooks among them, are some of humanity’s oldest, most critical technes. By insisting on the value of the hand-made, the Crochet Coral Reef project makes a claim about history and the importance of material labor to prospects for future human survival.

If time is a subject here, so is space. The forms we create in crochet are manifestations of hyperbolic geometry, an alternative to the typically taught Euclidean variety. The frilling surfaces of these crochet reefs mimic the structures made by living reef organisms such corals, kelps, sea sponges and nudibranchs, which are biological incarnations of hyperbolic space. Although nature has been playing with hyperbolic shapes for hundreds of millions of years, human mathematicians spent centuries trying to prove they were impossible. Which raises the question of what does it mean to “know” mathematics? Does a sea slug “know” hyperbolic geometry? This project suggests that in some sense it does – we claim that making mathematical structures is a form of doing mathematics.

Thus arises the age-old dichotomy of form and matter. Where Western culture, steeped in Plato’s philosophy, has long valorized the invisible forms of things (epitomized by the codes and equations science now describes), the Crochet Coral Reef projects reveals that form-ality is only one aspect of being. A form crocheted in stiff acrylic yarn will be a radically different object than the same form crocheted in floppy silk. Wool, cotton, wire and plastic have different media qualities that play out in the physical models we create. Matter matters, and diversity becomes manifest in the literal fibers of being.

The Crochet Coral Reef is at once an art project, a participatory exercise in applied mathematics, and an open-ended experiment in evolutionary theory. What started from simple seeds is now an ever-evolving artificial “tree of life.”

Reef sculptures in a gallery with a black board in the background

Toxic Reef and Mathematical Blackboard at the Venice Biennale 2019.

Structure of the Project

The Crochet Coral Reef project has two separate strands.

Core Collection

The Core Collection of reefs that travels to museums and galleries around the world is created by Christine and Margaret Wertheim. This collection of sculptures has been shown nationally and internationally, including at the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), Hayward Gallery (London), Museum of Arts and Design (New York), Science Gallery (Dublin), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington D.C.), and the 2019 Venice Biennale. This collection consists of the following works: Coral Forest (six works), Bleached Reef, Toxic Reef, miniature coral Pod Worlds ( 12 works), Branched Anemone Garden, and Hanging Works (three pieces). Created and mostly crocheted by the Wertheim’s, these sculptures also incorporate select pieces from a small group of very skilled crafters from around the world. See a list of these Core Reef Contributors.

Satellite Reefs

The second aspect of the project is our Satellite Reef program. Here the Wertheim’s work with communities around the world to enable citizens to create their own local reefs. More than 40 Satellite Reefs have been constructed – in Chicago, New York, London, Melbourne, Ireland, Latvia, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

If your institution would like to Exhibit the Core Collection or make a Satellite Reef please contact us.