In 2005, the newspapers were filled with stories about the human-caused destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world.
For Christine and Margaret Wertheim, it hit close to home – literally. The California-based twin sisters, one of whom is a former painter and poet and the other a science writer, grew up in Queensland, Australia, where the reef is located. They decided they had to take action – so they picked up their hooks and asked the others to join them too.
Around 2005, scientists began to discover that coral bleaching events, such as in the Great Barrier Reef (above), were due to human-caused warming of the oceans.
What began 17 years ago as a way to draw attention to global warming caused by human activities has become quite possibly the largest collective arts and science initiative in the world: the Crochet Coral Reef Project .
Alongside the Wertheim sisters, more than 20,000 participants – mostly women – from around the world spent countless hours crocheting millions of stitches, creating woolly corals and other underwater creatures that the sisters then brought together in a large-scale and ever-changing collective art installation. .
“If someone had told me in 2005 that I would still be crocheting corals in 2022, I would have thought they were crazy,” Margaret Wertheim told DW. “The scale at which the project has been embraced internationally is absolutely delightful…We had no idea it could scale to this level.”
Since the launch of the project, approximately 2 million people have viewed Crochet Coral Reef in galleries and museums around the world.
In 2019 he gained international attention at the Venice Biennale.
Today, the Frieder Burda Museum in Baden-Baden, southwestern Germany, is showing the installation in a giant retrospective titled “Value and Transformation of Corals.”
Crochet Coral Roof is inspired by the sisters’ professional experience, as well as their love for craftsmanship
Crochet with hyperbolic code
The entire exhibition space of the museum is filled with ruffled corals, towering tube anemones, and winding spirals in bright, eye-catching colors, reflecting the vibrancy of nature.
The sisters’ reef creations, which combine videotapes, garlands and trash with yarn, and a community creation (known as “Satellite Reef”) are on display. Together they transform the museum into a fantastical and eerily realistic underwater landscape.
The Wertheim sisters’ original coral creations also incorporated materials like videotapes and detritus
But crochet creations have more than just a superficial resemblance to coral reefs.
The ruffled shapes of the corals are living manifestations of what is known as hyperbolic geometry. Unlike Euclidean geometry, which deals with flat surfaces, hyperbolic geometry captures curved planes in space. Such shapes are found in nature, as they are ideal ways to maximize surface area, which is often essential for survival.
“All the frilly shapes we make are basically derivatives of a kind of service called hyperbolic geometry, which uses an alternate geometry that mathematicians discovered quite late in history, but corals have been doing for hundreds of millions years,” Wertheim explained.
Corals are brightly colored hyperbolic structures, which mathematicians once thought impossible to model
Mathematicians have long considered hyperbolic geometry impossible to model, but in 1997 Daina Taimina, a mathematician at Cornell University in New York, realized that such models could be created by doing what women had been doing at home for centuries. centuries: the hook.
Coral Reef Crochet uses its hyperbolic crochet code as its base pattern, turning crafting into a form of applied math.
“So there is this beautiful story, which underlies the making of these objects is both female craftsmanship but also knowledge of the fundamentals of geometry,” said Wertheim, who started crocheting with her sister at the his early teens.
At its core, the hyperbolic crochet code is all about increasing stitches at a steady pace. If the rate remains unchanged, a perfect hyperbolic shape emerges, “something you might pick up in a math class,” Wertheim said. “But things that are mathematically perfectly regular appear very rarely in nature. A coral is growing and maybe there’s a little more sun on that side, or the flow of nutrients from the water is a little more than that side, so it grows a little more curly on that side.”
Corals are hyperbolic structures, and the hook allows you to recreate their shape
She and her sister encourage contributors to “queer the code” or vary the rate of point increases. The result is crocheted corals that look like corals – imperfect, varied, diverse – and echo through the production and appearance of the organic creativity of evolution.
“Just like there’s no end to life on Earth – you know there will be creatures in a million years that we haven’t even thought of now – and the hook reef is like that too , and we didn’t really expect that,” Wertheim said.
Crochet Coral Reef contributors receive a basic pattern and are encouraged to use their imaginations
The contributed corals are combined into Satellite Reefs, the crowdsourced element of Crochet Coral Reef, yet another parallel to actual coral reefs, which are collective structures created by billions of individual coral polyps.
By 2021, more than 48 satellite reefs had been created in different locations around the world. Outside of pandemic times, museums held open sessions where contributors came together to crochet.
For the Frieder Burda exhibition, the museum appealed to a popular German women’s magazine, whose huge readership meant entries poured in from the German-speaking world and beyond. The resulting Satellite Reef is by far the largest to date, with over 40,000 corals. Previously, the largest satellite reefs had around 4,000 to 5,000 corals.
“We always envisioned it as a community project that would bring people together to make beautiful coral reef installations and through crochet, which is a wonderfully expressive medium, and that the installations would be beautiful works of art that could help to draw attention to global warming and the fact that it was real and happening now, not just some nebulous future issue, maybe 100 years from now,” Wertheim said.
Since 2005, more than 20,000 people have brought crochet creations to Satellite Reefs
Global warming has only intensified since 2005, and Wertheim believes it has contributed to the growing success of the project. “The problem of global warming has only gotten worse with each passing year, and the project’s relevance to the most important issue of our time is only getting worse. That’s the wrong thing.”
But she also thinks the project has benefited from a pivot by museums toward more community-focused programming. “A lot of museums and institutions, galleries, etc., really want to do participatory projects that directly engage the public rather than, say, the public just coming to museums to look at works by famous artists,” said she declared.
While demand for showing Crochet Coral Reef has grown, as a community art project whose works are not sold and therefore generate no profit, its continued existence is entirely dependent on funding – much like coral reefs themselves, says Wertheim.
“Everybody wants the corals. Everybody loves the corals. The people of the region need the corals. , and community art is kind of like that. It’s not in the monetary system of the art world.
The exhibition “Value and transformation of corals” is presented at the Frieder Burda Museum from January 29 to June 26. Virtual tours are available through the museum’s website.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier