Austria's Greatest Coral Reef: Crocheted Seas and Other Abstractions

Oct 5, 2023 – July 2, 2024
Schlossmuseum Linz, Austria

Austrian Frieze and Pod Worlds at Schlossmuseum Linz.

Photo courtesy Schlossmuseum Linz, by Michael Maritsch

An exhibition of the Crochet Coral Reef  is on show at Schlossmuseum Linz – also debuting the new, specially-designed Austrian Satellite Reef.

Over 100,000 hours of female labor. Over 30,000 coral pieces. More than 2,000 contributors – the Austrian Satellite Reef is a mistress-ful retort to modernist obsessions with “individual genius.” Here is art collectively produced on a scale rarely seen in the contemporary world and dynamically illustrating mathematical dimensions of textile craft.

For this unique installation, artists Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim collaborated throughout 2023 with Schlossmuseum Linz to design a suite of crochet coral islands inspired by Upper Austrian folk-art traditions, thereby lending a distinct local flair to this exhibition.

Our inspirational touchstones included the region’s famous red-and-white cross stitch; its blue-print (blauprint) fabrics; and the surreal stylings of its goldhauben hats, a bizarrely beautiful kind of headgear dating back to the Middle Ages. The resulting constellation of works is an archepelago of aesthetically distinct crochet reef islands that collectively constitute the Austrian Satellite Reef.

Even after the show opened in October 2023, this Austrian reef has continued to grow as ever-more participants across Austria (and beyond) contribute new corals, and new islands are being made. Like a living reef, this crochet reef is also spawning.

See New York Times article about the project+exhibition.

Austrian Frieze (8 meters wide x 2 meters high), designed by Christine Wertheim and Romina Dodic Szepe, with assistance from the whole Austrian Satellite Reef curatorial team.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

For this show, the Wertheim’s have taken cues as well from the Austrian symbolist Gustav Klimt who’s ‘golden era’ paintings served as a catalytic seed for the creation of a vast glittery ‘coral wall painting’ measuring 8 meters wide x 2 meters high. The Austrian Frieze contains more than 5,000 coral pieces arranged into a vast sinewy symphony of golds, greens and violets.

Geographically, the Austrian Satellite Reef  responds to the discovery of an ancient coral-filled sea whose fossilized remains are being found throughout the region of Upper Austria. Inside the museum the artwork is displayed adjacent to the collection of fossils and other natural history specimens thereby creating an intense dialog between art and science.

Exhibition curated for Schlossmuseum Linz by Genoveva Rückert.
Project managed by Petra Fohringer.

The names of all 2,000+ contributors are projected on the gallery walls and can be seen in a pdf here.

Included in the exhibition is a suite of Crochet Coral Reef sculptures by Margaret and Christine, containing special coral pieces by their select, skilled, group of “Core Reef Contributors”.

On display too is the massive ‘coral wall painting’ Five Fathoms Deep from the Baden Baden Satellite Reef created by the Wertheim’s in collaboration with Museum Frieder Burda in 2022. A listing of names of all 4,000 German contributors to this piece is included  in the gallery, and can be seen in a pdf here.

Austrian Satellite Reef – Goldhauben Riff,  inspired by traditional goldhauben hats, plus vitrined Pod Worlds.

Photo courtesy Schlossmuseum Linz, by Michael Maritsch

Artist statement about the exhibition:

“To “abstract” means “to take from.” Claude Monet, a pioneer of modern art, took colors and forms from the beloved water lilies in his garden to create paintings that blurred the line between realistic representation and a kind of pure abstraction. Likewise, the crocheted coral reefs in this exhibition confound the distinction between ‘documentary’ and more evocative modes. They may invoke a sense of reality, but no one who has dived would confuse these woolen artefacts with their living counterparts. Rather than simulating the look of actual reefs, these works mimic the collective methodology by which real reefs are formed. Here, issues of representation and abstraction are put into play in dialog with the natural history collection of Schlossmuseum Linz.” – CHRISTINE & MARGARET WERTHEIM:

The Austrian Satellite Reef has been collectively curated by: Petra Fohringer, Romina Dodic Szepe, Petra Hansche, Gabriele Kainberger, Sandra Kratochwill and Genoveva Rückert in collaboration with the Wertheims – and with the assistance of Elisabeth Ajmi, Regina Demuth, Karin Gerber, Elisabeth Gierlinger Stelzer, Nina Hartl, Michaela Heidlmeir, Claudia Heidlmeir, Susanne Hennerbichler, Anna Höllhuber, Ulrike Mally, Maria Neumüller, Lilia Obermüller, Ulrike Ozlberger, Zoa Reitböck, Elisabeth Selig, Alexandra Springer, Julia Stöckl, Juliana Zapata Leal.

The exhibition also includes two specially commissioned 3D-printed models of hyperbolic surfaces by mathematician David Bachman.

Austrian Frieze (Detail), with Coral Forest – Stheno in background.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

Coral Reefs and Global Warming

The night Christine and Margaret conceived the Crochet Coral Reef project in 2005 they jokingly imagined that if the Great Barrier Reef in their home country, Australia, ever died out, their handcrafted reef may be something to remember it by. This sentiment is no longer a jest. As the Linz exhibition opens, water temperatures around the GBR are at historic highs and, with an El Nino event getting under way in the Pacific Ocean, it is expected that during the Australian summer of 2023/24 temperatures will get higher still, putting vast sections of reef at risk. Scientists now predict that if global warming continues, reefs worldwide may be wiped out this century. For more about the Crochet Reef and climate change see here.

Coral Forest – Nim Imma and Coral Forest – Little Orange Follower crocheted from plastic (featuring coral by Siew Chu Kerk), with glimpse of Austrian Satellite Reef – Blue Print/Blaudruck.

Photo courtesy Schlossmuseum Linz, by Michael Maritsch

Crochet Reefs and Mathematical Knowing

What does it mean to know mathematics? Corals, kelps, sea sponges and nudibranchs are biological manifestations of negative curvature surfaces, a type of geometric structure epitomized by the hyperbolic plane, an alternative to the Euclidean plane we learn about in school. Though human mathematicians spent hundreds of years trying to prove that hyperbolic geometry was impossible, nature has been playing with its potential for millions of years, notably in the shapes of reef organisms. While the Euclidean plane has zero curvature, its geometric cousins, the sphere and hyperbolic plane, have positive and negative curvature – making these 3 surfaces geometric analogs of zero plus the positive and negative numbers.

So we may ask: does a head of coral ‘understand’ negative curvature space? The Crochet Coral Reef project postulates that in some sense it does, for corals make hyperbolic spaces in the structure of their being. Also we may ask: Do crafters looping corals for the Crochet Reef understand non-Euclidean math? We assert they do. Here making becomes a form of embodied learning, leading to an understanding of mathematical knowledge via material hand-made processes. Indeed, women have been crocheting hyperbolic ruffled-lace doilies since at least the 19th century, and writing out algorithms, or patterns, for these forms, thereby putting their knowledge into symbolic form. In this crafty approach to geometry mathematical knowing is demonstrated by fingers manipulating yarn – a truly digital revolution. For more about the mathematics behind the project see here.

Collection of antique doilies, ruffled hyperbolic doilies and old crochet pattern books. Plus contemporary 3D printed hyperbolic model by David Bachman.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

Austrian Satellite Reef – Kreuzstich, inspired by traditional Upper Austrian red and white cross stitch embroidery.

Photo courtesy Schlossmuseum Linz, by Michael Maritsch

Austrian Satellite Reef – Kreuzstich. View as visitors enter the exhibition through vitrines of the natural history collection with macroscopic models of fungal spores.

Photo © Institute For Figuring
Photos © Institute For Figuring

Red and white cross stitch embroideries (“kreuzstich”) from the Schlossmuseum’s collection of Upper Austrian folk art.

Austrian Satellite Reef – Blue Print/Blauruck, inspired by traditional blue print textiles.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

Pod World – Red and White, with Five Fathoms Deep ‘coral wall painting’ from the Baden Baden Satellite Reef in background.

Photo courtesy Schlossmuseum Linz, by Michael Maritsch

Five Fathoms Deep ‘coral wall painting’ (7 meters wide x 3 meters high), from the Baden Baden Satellite Reef made at Museum Frieder Burda, Germany 2022. Beside the work is a panel listing names of all 4,000 contributors to this piece.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

Austrian Satellite Reef – Goldhauben Riff, with vitrined Pod Worlds.

Photo courtesy Schlossmuseum Linz, by Michael Maritsch

Austrian Satellite Reef – Elk Mound, with Nudibranch Reefs and Coral Forest – Stheno in background.

Photo courtesy Sclossmuseum Linz, by Michael Maritsch

Nudibranch Reefs, with doilies and 3D printed hyperbolic models in background.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

4 women from the local curatorial team of the Austrian Satellite Reef – Elizabeth Amji, Elizabeth Selig, Ulrike Mally and Ulrike Ozlberger.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

Exhibition project manager Petra Fohringer with the Austrian Satellite Reef – Candy Reef installed among the dioramas of the natural history collection.

Photo © Institute For Figuring

AUSTRIAN SATELLITE REEF – Project Call-Out March 2023

In March 2023, Schlossmuseum Linz in collaboration with Christine and Margaret Wertheim invited crocheters everywhere to contribute to the production of an Austrian Satellite Reef. Christine provided inspirational sketches based on local Austrian handcraft traditions.

Project contact:

Participation Call-Out Webpage

Austrian Satellite Reef  – Project Webpage
Austrian Satellite Reef – Instagram
Schlossmuseum Linz – Facebook

Austrian Satellite Reef – Inspirational sketches

Inspirational collages for Austrian Satellite Reef emphasizing blue and white, plus black and gold, color themes inspired by Upper Austrian folkart traditions – and featuring tall branched coraline shapes.

Collages by Christine Wertheim

Austrian Satellite Reef – Goldhauben Riff.

Photo © Institute For Figuring