Reef sculptures in a gallery

Coral Forest at the Museum of Arts and Design (NYC).

Photo by Jenna Bascom for MAD.

At a time when living reefs are dying from heat exhaustion and oceans are awash in plastic, the Crochet Coral Reef offers a tender impassioned response. This is a crafty retort to climate change, a one-stitch-at-a-time meditation on the Anthropocene. Like the organic beings they emulate, these 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, for as CO2 escalates in our atmosphere 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 stitching 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 rather 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 rejoinders 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 technology here, for the crochet hook 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 human survival.

Reef sculptures in glass vitrines in gallery

Pod Worlds at the Museum of Arts and Design (NYC).

Photo by Jenna Bascom for MAD.

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, and sea sponges 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? Does a head of coral? This project suggests that in some sense they do. 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 equations and codes, the Crochet Coral Reef reveals that form is only one aspect of being. A model crocheted in stiff acrylic will be a very different object to the same form crocheted in silk. Wool, cotton, wire and plastic have different media qualities that play out in the models we create. Matter matters, and diversity becomes manifest in the literal fibers of being. Each crafter who contributes to the project is free to create new “species” of crochet reef “organisms” by working with novel materials or changing the pattern of stitches. A Darwinian landscape of wooly possibility is thereby brought into being. What started from simple seeds, is now an ever-evolving, artifactual, hand-made “tree of life.”

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

Toxic Reef and Mathematics Blackboard, at the 2019 Venice Biennale, curated by Ralph Rugoff.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

Structure of the Project

The Crochet Coral Reef project has two distinct and allied strands.

Core Collection

The Core Collection of crocheted reefs that travels to museums and galleries around the world is created by Christine and Margaret Wertheim. This collection of sculptures has been shown internationally, including at the the 2019 Venice Biennale, Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), Hayward Gallery (London), Museum of Arts and Design (New York), Science Gallery (Dublin), and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington D.C.).

The Core Collection consists of the following works: Coral Forest (6 large-scale sculptures on pedastals), Bleached Reef, Toxic Reef, and Branched Anemone Garden (3 large vitrined works), miniature coral Pod Worlds (12 small vitrined works), and Hanging Works (3 wall-mounted pieces). Two additional works – The Midden and the Mathematics Blackboard – can also be added to the show. Designed, fabricated, and mostly crocheted by the Wertheims, these sculptures also incorporate pieces from a curated selection of globally dispersed crafters known as the Core Reef Contributors.

Satellite Reefs

The second aspect of the project is our Satellite Reef program. Here, the Wertheims work with communities around the world to enable citizens to crochet their own local reefs. As of 2020, more than 40 Satellite Reefs have been constructed, in Chicago, New York, London, Melbourne, Ireland, Latvia, Germany, the UAE, and elsewhere. More than 10,000 people have participated in creating these citizen-generated art-installations. During COVID lockdown, three new Satellites are under construction – in Helsinki, Toronto, and Illinois.

If your institution would like to exhibit the Core Collection or make your own local Satellite Reef please contact us.