Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS

September 15, 2016 – January 22, 2017
Museum of Arts and Design, New York
Reef sculture with wall text inside gallery

Coral Forest – Stheno. Loaned from the collection of Jorian Polis Schutz.

Image by Jenna Bascom for MAD.

About the Exhibition

Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Crochet Coral Reef, an ongoing project by sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring. Mixing crocheted yarn with plastic trash, the work fuses mathematics, marine biology, feminist art practices, and craft to produce large-scale coralline landscapes both beautiful and blighted. At once figurative, collaborative, worldly, and dispersed, the Crochet Coral Reef offers a tender response to dual calamities facing marine life: climate change and plastic trash.

With 2016 the hottest year on record, living reefs everywhere are under stress. Into these arenas of color huge areas of whiteness now intrude; bleaching events signal that corals are sick and dying. In 2005, in response to devastation of the Great Barrier Reef in their native Australia, the Wertheims began to crochet a simulation of healthy and ailing reefs. Using the algorithmic codes of crochet, the sisters produce crenellated forms that are representations of hyperbolic geometry, which is also manifest in the undulating structures of corals, kelps, and other reef organisms. The Wertheims and their collaborators – a  core group of worldwide “crochet reefers” – fabricate an ever-evolving artificial ecology.

This exhibition consists of three main “habitats”: A giant Coral Forest and a collection of miniature Pod Worlds represent the diversity of living corals through the varying textures, colors, and forms of crocheted yarn and beads. A Bleached Reef and a brand new Toxic Reef serve as invocations of dying corals; while The Midden—four years’ worth of the Wertheims’ own domestic plastic trash—constitutes a deeply personal response to the problem of plastic waste in the oceans, including human-induced gyres of trash such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Mixing environmental science with science fiction, the Crochet Coral Reef nudges us into what Donna Haraway has called “a time of response-ability,” and a sisterhood with the sea.

Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS is curated for the Museum of Arts and Design by Assistant Curator Samantha De Tillio.

This exhibition is part of MAD Transformations, a series of six shows at the Museum of Arts and Design during Fall 2016 that address “artists who have transformed and continue to transform our perceptions of traditional craft mediums.”

Reef sculptures inside gallery

Coral Forest with Latvian Pod at right, courtesy of Tija Viksna and Gallery Consiento in Riga, Latvia. In background is the Hyperbolic Sea Snake by Helen Bernasconi.

Image by Jenna Bascom for MAD.

Core Reef Contributors included in this exhibition:

  • Helen Bernasconi (Australia)
  • Sarah Simons (CA)
  • Orla Breslin (Ireland)
  • Anita Bruce (United Kingdom)
  • Gina Cacciolo (CA)
  • Jane Canby (AZ)
  • Chicago Satellite Reefers (IL)
  • Tane Clark (AZ)
  • Pate Conaway (IL)
  • Barbara Van Elsen (NY)
  • Dagma Frinta (NY)
  • Mieko Fukuhara (Japan)
  • Lucinda Ganderton (United Kingdom)
  • Vanessa Garcia (CA)
  • Sally Giles (IL)
  • Kathleen Greco (PA)
  • Beverly Griffiths (United Kingdom)
  • Evelyn Hardin (TX)
  • Chantal Horeau (CA)
  • Irish Satellite Reefers (Ireland)
  • Gunta Jekabsone (Latvia)
  • Helle Jorgensen (Australia)
  • Siew Chu Kerk (NY)
  • Lynn Latta (CA)
  • Lucia LaVilla-Havelin (TX)
  • Nancy Lewis (VT)
  • Irene Lundgaard (Ireland)
  • Anna Mayer (CA)
  • Heather McCarren (CA)
  • Vonda N. McIntyre (WA)
  • Sharon Menges (AZ)
  • Anitra Menning (CA)
  • Marianne Midelburg (Australia)
  • Arlene Mintzer (NY)
  • Una Morrison (Ireland)
  • Clare O’Callaghan (CA)
  • Sue Von Ohlsen (PA)
  • David Orozco (CA)
  • Rebecca Peapples (MI)
  • Shari Porter (CA)
  • Jill Schreier (NY)
  • Nadia Severns (NY)
  • Christina Simons (CA)
  • Diana Simons (CA)
  • Pamela Stiles (NY)
  • Ildiko Szabo (United Kingdom)
  • Ann Wertheim (Australia)
  • Barbara Wertheim (Australia)
  • Elizabeth Wertheim (Australia)
  • Katherine Wertheim (Australia)
  • Jennifer White (AZ)
  • Ying Wong (CA)
  • Jemima Wyman (CA)
  • Nancy Youhros (AZ) and Theresa Bowen (NY)
  • Matthew Adnams (UAE)
  • Suha Malqua (UAE)

Plus traditional crafters and unknown Chinese factory workers. Also on show is the Latvian Pod by Tija Viksna and the Latvian Reef crafters.

And special thanks to Christina Simons + Anna Mayer.

Reef sculpture inside gallery

Coral Forest – Ea. In the background is the Chemical Blackboard – a 30 foot long blackboard drawing charting the evolution of life’s organic molecules, along with the rise of CO2 and a history of plastic. Designed by Margaret and Christine, with drawing assistance from Ryan Oakes and Caitlin Petit.

Image by Jenna Bascom for MAD.
Reef sculpture in gallery

Coral Forest – Medusa.

Image © Institute For Figuring.
Wall text:

Plastic pseudosphere crocheted by Siew Chu Kerk.

Image by Jenna Bascom for MAD.

The Midden

This art is rubbish. For four years – from January 2007 to April 2011 – Margaret and Christine Wertheim kept all their domestic plastic trash: every bottle, bag, and piece of packaging they used. Here it is suspended in a fishing net as a record of two specific, twenty-first century North American inhabitants who were desperately trying to cut down. In total the trash weighs 440 pounds, though the average American citizen uses far more than this.

Sculpture made from trash inside gallery.

The Midden by Margaret & Christine Wertheim 2007–2011

Image © Institute For Figuring.

The Midden emerged as an exercise in self-awareness. In 2006, after learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Wertheim’s began crocheting plastic, with the aim of creating a Toxic Reef as a post-modern sibling to the classical beauty of their yarn-based reefs. But art cannot be our only response to ecological destruction. “How much plastic do we use?” they wondered. They decided to keep all their domestic plastic trash for a week. Then a month. They were horrified. The project eventually went on for 4 and a half years.

We encourage readers to try this exercise themselves. Keep your own plastic trash for a month – you’ll be astounded how fast it compounds. And make sure to wash everything thoroughly. There’s nothing worse than having to rewash it all if a single item goes off and starts stinking up the house. Living with your garbage for weeks is sure to give you a new perspective on the burden of trash we are all collectively imposing on the planet.

Image Gallery

Reef sculpture in gallery.

Toxic Reef: Coca Cola Ocean, crocheted from video-tape, plastic and yarn, is a homage to bleached and dying reefs. At right are miniature coral Pod Worlds, showcasing pieces by core reef contributors Mieko Fukuhara, Sue Von Ohlsen, Rebecca Peapples, Anita Bruce, Kathleen Greco, Sarah Simons, Nadia Severns, and others.

Image © Institute For Figuring.
Reef sculpture in gallery.

Bleached Reef (detail).

Image by Jenna Bascom for MAD.
Reef sculptures in gallery.

Bleached Reef, with Coral Forest – Eryali, Hyperbolic Sea SnakeBranched Anemone Garden, and Carnation Mound by Sarah Simons and Marianne Midelburg.

Acknowledging our Supporters

The IFF’s work for Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS was generously supported by a grant from the Opaline Fund of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.