Reefs, Rubbish & Reason—with Ruffles

Jul 11, 2011

Vertical knitted reef

The stunning new show at Art Center’s Williamson Gallery is part of a series of thought-provoking explorations of science and art. For the summer, curator Stephen Nowlin has installed the extraordinary work of twin sisters and Australia natives Margaret and Christine Wertheim. A few years ago, the sisters became alarmed at the rate of coral degradation, a result of environmental degradation of all kinds, in the Great Barrier Reef in their home state of Queensland. Margaret did some research and learned that a female math professor at Cornell had recently discovered that crocheting was a way to create a certain sort of involuted, folded geometry (“hyperbolic”). This geometry was the key to how corals grow.

Beaded reef

The twins (Margaret is a science writer and filmmaker; Christine is a professor of art at CalArts) began crocheting reefs “while we were sitting around watching Xena: Warrior Princess,” says Margaret. They founded the Institute for Figuring to further the intersection of mathematics and art and used their crocheted reefs to draw attention to the beauty and fragility of the world’s oceans. Their first piece, a fairly realistic representation of a section of corals, filled the top of a coffee table. It struck such a chord that they were asked to fill larger and larger gallery spaces.

The Wertheims enlisted the help of interested crochet-collaborators all over the world (about 5,000 at last count)—and continued to crochet after their day jobs, while watching second-rate television. The show at Art Center, which follows an installation at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, consists of dozens of pieces: huge reefs 12 feet long and waist-high, as well as delicate stand-alone, beaded and fringed anemones and crinoids, brain corals and starfish. Some reefs are made from colorful, exotic yarn, while some “toxic reefs,” in a statement about the state of the oceans and the human impact on them, were crocheted from discarded plastic trash. Some of the constructions are realistic, some fanciful. Most haunting are the white reefs, which recreate the bleached, dying corals that inspired the project in the first place.

Colorful, toxic reef

There is much to contemplate in this exhibition: ecology, craft, biology, art, math, gender, collaboration and the intertwined roles of nature, the ocean and humans. It is also strikingly beautiful. Corals, which create a single, elaborate organism from hundreds of smaller animals, who come together to share an environment, have found expressive champions in the Institute for Figuring and their extraordinary show. It’s definitely not your granny’s afghan. The sisters encourage collaboration, satellite reefs, and exploration. Ladies (and gentlemen), start your needles.

Hyperbolic: Reefs, Rubbish & Reason
June 7-August 21, Tuesday – Sunday noon – 5 p.m. (Fridays to 9 p.m.)
Art Center College of Design, North Campus
1700 Lida St., Pasadena



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