Crochet Coral Reef : When Crochet Goes Wonky

Installation at the Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS at the Museum of Arts and Design

Installation at the Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS at the Museum of Arts and Design

During Christmas break in 2005, sisters Christine and Margaret Wertheim sat in their living room crocheting while they binge-watched Zena Warrior Princess.  The Australian women were working on a crochet project that would lead to thousands of people learning about coral and global warming.

The Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS is now on display at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan.   Margaret Wertheim talked about the exhibit last September 21 and how she hopes the exhibit opens up the discussion on how art can be used to make people aware of the plight of corals and ocean life.

“Since we started the project 11 years ago, the plight of corals has gone down so much. It’s really alarming how much its been affected in one decade,” said Margaret Wertheim, one of the artists behind the crochet coral reef. “A third of the Great Barrier Reef has suffered from coral bleaching and a lot of it is dying.”

Corals can be found in the tropics where the water is clear and blue because there is a lack of nutrients. The corals grow there and become an oasis for fish and other organisms. Once the corals die and turn white, referred to as coral bleaching, the ecosystem is affected.

Coral reef biologists say it takes hundred of years for corals to grow, and it also took 10 years for some of the crochet figures to come together. One of the oldest pieces in the exhibit has varying shades of orange and shows the colors of the Central Australian Desert.  Coral bleaching and different types of corals are also on display.

One of the bleached coral reef installations

One of the bleached coral reef installations

Growing up, Margaret Wertheim says, she and her sister made craft projects. When they heard about a crochet pattern that is rooted in mathematics, they decided to give it a try. The crochet pattern is based on an algorithm invented by a mathematician from Cornell University, Dr. Daina Tainima, to illustrate hyperbolic geometry. Real life examples of the geometry are lace ruffles, the crenellated edges of lettuce, even the wavy sides of a sea slug.

“We started playing with Dr. Taimina’s formula and realized that if we didn’t make mathematically perfect ones, if we made them a bit wonky, they look like corals,” said Wertheim, a science journalist. “That’s because real corals are doing mathematical structures but they’re not doing it perfectly.”

For the first coral reef, they used green yarn and it ended up looking like a kelp garden. As the sisters kept on crocheting, they experimented with different kinds of yarn – cotton, wool, silk, synthetics – and adjusted the hyperbolic formula to come up with various designs.

“We started playing with the algorithms and seeing what taxonomy variety we could get,” said Wertheim. “Then we had the idea that wouldn’t it be nice to engage people with global warming, because scientists are saying that corals might actually disappear, that by the end of this century the Great Barrier Reef might be gone.”

Mixed media crochet piece

Mixed media crochet piece

The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia, is composed of millions of corals. A coral polyp is an animal, with two different types of cells within their epidermis. One is stinging cells like that of jellyfish and the other is a symbionic algae, called zooxanthellae, that facilitates photosynthesis. Coral polyps derive their energy from the zooxanthellae, according to Joseph De Giorgis a professor of Biology at Providence College.

“It turns out that these plant cells are sensitive to temperatures and when the water heats up either the zooxanthellae die or they leave the coral polyp,” said Giorgis. “And once that happens, the animal part of the coral polyp itself dies.”

The exhibit also features work from crochet crafters in Latvia. The Wertheims collaborate with different crafters for the various exhibits that have been staged throughout the world.
“A single artist couldn’t make all this, it could only be done because it’s done by multiple people,” said Wertheim. “So we see this as being a project in regeneration, we humans can do great things if we work together.”