Hyperbolic: Reefs, Rubbish, and Reason

June 7 – August 21, 2011
Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA

The Institute For Figuring is delighted to announce our return to Los Angeles with the exhibition Hyperbolic: Reefs, Rubbish and Reason at Art Center College of Design’s Williamson Gallery. This meticulously detailed, labor-intensive installation, hand-built on-site and marks the culmination of the Institute’s six-year long investigation into the nexus of hyperbolic space, oceanic ecology and community art practice. Featuring a core collection of the IFF’s most exquisite Crochet Reefs the exhibition also includes a site-specific Coral Forest, a giant plastic-trash Midden, and a mathematical Play Tank. At once hyper-real, super-real, and unreal, Reefs, Rubbish and Reason is a domestically inflected meditation on the mystery of mathematics, the evolution of life, the well-spring of human creativity, and the environmental crisis confronting marine ecosystems.

Bringing together themes the IFF has been exploring since its inception — public engagement with mathematics allied with participatory creative practice — the exhibition showcases the power of material play. Everything in this show is hand-made, yet at the same time embodying theoretical ideas. From the seeds of a mathematical concept, a fantastical universe has been spun into being. What began humbly in Highland Park in 2005 culminates now in this wide-ranging exhibition in Pasadena after a journey of discovery that has taken us from Chicago, New York and London, to Scottsdale, Dublin, and the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

Aisle of Feminine Creativity. Left: Wall-mounted cases with works by individual contributors. Right: letters and documents comprising the “Holy Document” Collection.

Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures in white-walled gallery.

Installation view of the main room at the Williamson Gallery. Left: the Greater Rubbish Vortex. Right: Toxic Reef.

Framed by reefs and reason, rubbish commands the center-stage of the exhibition. Anchoring the space of the Gallery’s main room is The Midden, an installation compiled from all the domestic plastic trash IFF directors Margaret and Christine Wertheim used and accumulated during a four year period from February 2007 to February 2011. In the same gallery is the latest incarnation of the Toxic Reef, our all-plastic reef, displayed here in an atoll-like configuration and featuring video-tape kelps by Christine Wertheim, Evelyn Hardin, and Julie Tomiko Smith. Highlights of the installation include a cluster of plastic-bag tube-worms by Gina Caciolo, and a perennially superb grove of blue New York Times plastic-bag anemones by our superlative LA contributor Clare O’Callaghan. Above the Toxic Reef floats a flock of jellyfish crafted from plastic water bottles by Pasadena contributor Vanessa L. Garcia.

In the second room of the exhibition is a site-specific installation of a giant Coral Forest, comprising a collection of towering sculptures up to 10 feet high. Huge, voodoo-like objects, each composed from hundreds of crochet coral pieces, these organic sculptures were grown in situ. Just as the evolution of life on earth has had a vertical trajectory from ocean the floor towards the sky, so we at the IFF aim towards the heavens. In center of the forest is Dr Axt’s remarkable new work Requium Reeficus, made in response to the BP oil spill. This is the fourth work in Dr Axt’s “Reefer Madness” series. The IFF is awed by the power of the doctor’s oeuvre and her continuing inventiveness with color and form.

The exhibition included a mathematics “Play Tank” exploring the geometry of hyperbolic space. On a 20 foot wide blackboard are diagrammatic explanations of Euclidean, spherical and hyperbolic geometries, showing the ways in which the three different types of surface can be “tessellated” or tiled. As one enters the room, the first thing a visitor encounters is a large paper model of hyperbolic space constructed using the “hyperbolic soccer-ball” technique invented by mathematician Keith Henderson. Visitors can engage interactively by making a hyperbolic model of their own. Paper instructions, scissors and tape are provided at two sit-down play-stations.

Framing the play-stations are a series of crocheted hyperbolic manifolds by Dr. Daina Taimina, the Cornell University mathematician and inventor of hyperbolic crochet. Dr. Taimina’s models cast projective shadows onto the Euclidean floor. Displayed in a vitrine at the far end of the room, are a further series of Taimina’s hyperbolic models demonstrating mathematical principles inhering within this unique geometry. The Play Tank also includes a large red model by local Pasadena contributor Myrna Gutierrez.

In the “Beautiful Holy Jewel” room at the opposite end of the gallery, a selection of the IFF’s classic crochet reefs are displayed, showcasing fine and delicate works by our beloved Contributors. On display are the Cold Water Reef,  the Bleached Bone Reef , and the Branched Anemone Garden. In a series of small vitrines around the walls are miniature “Pod Worlds” featuring extremely skilled pieces by Nadia Severns, Arlene Mintzer, Sue Von Ohlsen, and Rebecca Peapples. In this room also hangs Helen Bernasconi’s Hyperbolic Sea Serpent and a large coral pod by the Latvian Reef crafters, curated by Tija Viksna in Riga.

In the “Aisle of Feminine Creativity” a series of small wall-mounted vitrines showcases works by some of our most exceptional Contributors. Opposite are framed letters and diagrams sent to the IFF by Contributors along with their crochet pieces. These letters constitute our Holy Document Collection, displayed here in an aisle-like configuration culminating in an “altar” on which stood a large pink paper-model of hyperbolic space.

Aisle of Feminine Creativity – Contributor Credits:

Case 1: Fluorescent corals by Ildiko Szabo. Case 2: Orange plastic-bag coral piece by Christine Wertheim. Case 3. JellyYarn coral sculpture by Kathleen Greco, with orange crocheted mathematical sequence by Heather McCarren. Case 4. Beaded jellyfish by Vonda N. McIntyre. Case 5. Staghorn corals by Mieko Fukuhara. Case 6. Painted seascape on used, plastic takeout container by Alecia Escott and plastic bin-liner jellyfish by Margaret Wertheim. Case 7. Knitted wire sea creatures by Anita Bruce, and Diatom book by Sarah Simons.

Three crochet coral reef sculptures on plinths in a dark gallery.

Left: Coral Forest – Orange, featuring orange plastic skirts by Chantal Hoareau, orange “blossoms” by Christine Wertheim, and pink anemone by Orla Breslin. Center: Plastic coral piece by Siew Chu Kerk. Right: Coral Forest – Blue and Orange, featuring sea-slug by Marianne Middelberg, pink tube worms by Heather McCarren, rubble corals by Shari Porter, spiral horns by Una Morrison, rainbow corals by Irene Lundgaard, blue and orange kelps by Christine Wertheim and Sarah Simons.

Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures in front of red wall in gallery.

The Coral Forest, featuring Requium Reeficus by Dr. Axt.

White coral reef sculpture.

Coral Forest – White. This 8 foot tall installation is made entirely from crocheted plastic. Featuring anemones by Margaret and Christine Wertheim with cable-tie heads by Evelyn Hardin, plus finger crochet saran-wrap corals by Pate Conaway, Katherine Wertheim and Barbara Wertheim.

Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures in front of red wall in gallery.

Play Tanks and chalkboard featuring explanations of Euclidean, Spherical and Hyperbolic geometries.

Pink paper model of hyperbolic space using hexagons.

Hyperbolic Soccer Ball Model. Made using technique invented by Keith Henderson. Model constructed by Christina Simons, Autumn Le Brannon, Cindi Kusuda, and Daniel Hockensen.

Installation view of crochet coral reefs installed in vitrines in darkened gallery.

The “Beautiful Holy Jewel” room, featuring the Cold Water Reef (front), the Bleached Bone Reef (at left), and the Branched Anemone Garden (far end). Plus vitrines containing miniature “Pod Worlds”, the Hyperbolic Sea Serpent, and the Latvian Pod.

Hyperbolic: Reefs, Rubbish and Reason was curated by Margaret and Christine Wertheim with assistance from Anna Mayer and Jemima Wyman.

The IFF also thanks the Pasadena Crochet Meetup group for contributions from the local Pasadena community, plus Williamson Gallery director Stephen Nowlin and his superb install crew.

This journey would not have been possible without the amazing group of people who have contributed works to the project in its various manifestations and we are delighted to showcase here pieces by our most skilled and talented Contributors.

IFF Core Reef Contributors represented in this exhibition

  • Christine Wertheim (Australia/CA)
  • Margaret Wertheim (Australia/CA)
  • Anna Mayer (CA)
  • Daina Taimina (NY)
  • Sarah Simons (CA)
  • Evelyn Hardin (TX)
  • Helen Bernasconi (Australia)
  • Marianne Midelburg (Australia)
  • Barbara Wertheim (Australia)
  • Helle Jorgensen (Australia)
  • Ildiko Szabo (England)
  • Heather McCarren (CA)
  • Dr Axt (OR)
  • Nancy Lewis (VT)
  • Anitra Menning (CA)
  • Shari Porter (CA)
  • Vonda N. McIntyre (WA)
  • Sue Von Ohlsen (PA)
  • Rebecca Peapples (MI)
  • Clare O’Callaghan (CA)
  • David Orozco (CA)
  • Eleanor Kent (CA)
  • Kathleen Greco (PA)
  • Aviva Alter (IL)
  • Nadia Severns (NY)
  • Arlene Mintzer (NY)
  • Jill Schrier (NY)
  • Pamela Stiles (NY)
  • Siew Chu Kerk (NY)
  • Anita Bruce (UK)
  • Mieko Fukuhara (Japan)
  • Tija Viksna (Latvia)
  • Irene Lundgaard and Orla Breslin (Ireland)


  • Ann Wertheim
  • Elizabeth Wertheim
  • Katherine Wertheim
  • Allie Gerlach
  • Quoin
  • Catherine Chandler
  • Sally Giles
  • Pate Conaway
  • Kristine Brandel
  • Cindy Bennish
  • Spring Pace
  • Karen Frazer
  • Karen Page
  • Lynn Latta
  • Diana Simons
  • Dagmar Frinta
  • Barbara Van Elsen
  • Njoya Angrum
  • Lily M. Chin
  • Ranu Mukherjee’s class at CCA
  • Katy Bevan
  • Rosy Sykes
  • Beverly Griffiths
  • Jane Canby
  • Jennifer White
  • Sharon Menges
  • Linda Shirey
  • Ellen Davis
  • Tane Clark
  • Nancy Youros
  • Gunta Jekabsone
  • Aoife Canavan
  • Audrey Cremin
  • Elzbieta Rzechula
  • Emer Brady
  • Jacinta Douglass
  • Jennifer Byrne
  • Madge Kenny
  • Moira Jones
  • Serene Baird
  • Una Morrison
  • Geraldine Coogan
  • Ashling Miller
  • Gina Caciolo
  • Chantal Hoareau
  • Ying Wong
  • Janice Ogata
  • Julie Tomiko Smith
  • Myrna Gutierrez
  • Vanessa L. Garcia

and contributors for the Pasadena Crochet Meet-Up group. Plus vintage doily makers and unknown Chinese factory workers.

Detail of pile of plastic trash on the gallery floor. Detail of hyperbolic model made of small sticks on red background. Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures inside a glass vitrine. Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures in darkened gallery. Crochet coral reef sculpture on the floor of the gallery. Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures inside a glass vitrine. Crochet coral reef sculpture. Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures inside a glass vitrine. Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures inside a glass vitrine. Detail of crocheted plastic. Crochet coral reef sculpture hanging in the air from a thin filament. Detail of plastic trash. Detail of plastic sculpture. Installation view of crochet coral reef sculptures inside a glass vitrine. Detail of the word