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 our 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 creatures 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 critters including humans and cnidarians. Time forms a framework for the project, for as CO2 accumulates in our atmosphere time is increasingly in short supply and what we choose to spend time on is a reflection of our values.

The Crochet Coral Reef project is a condensation of human labor – particularly female labor – hundreds of thousands of hours of stitching quietly performed.

These artworks reflect 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 they are 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, sea sponges and nudibranchs, all of 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.

And just as living reefs are created by the efforts of billions of tiny coral polyps working together, so the Crochet Coral Reef is constructed by communities, thousands of people working together.

Every crafter who contributes to the project is free to create new species of crochet reef organisms by changing the pattern of stitches or working with novel materials. Over time, a Darwinian landscape of wooly possibility has been 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 yet allied strands.

Core Collection

There is Core Collection of crocheted reefs created by Christine and Margaret Wertheim that travels to museums and galleries around the world. This collection 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.) Designed, fabricated, and mostly crocheted by the Wertheims, these sculptures also incorporate exquisite pieces from a curated selection of globally dispersed crafters known as the Core Reef Contributors.

Satellite Reefs

The second aspect of the project is the Satellite Reef program. Here, the Wertheims work with communities around the world to enable citizens to crochet their own local reefs. As of 2023, fifty Satellite Reefs have been constructed: in Chicago, New York, London, Melbourne, Ireland, Latvia, Finland, Germany, the UAE, and elsewhere. More than 20,000 people have participated in creating these citizen-generated art+science installations.

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