Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s coral reef crocheted project has been shown all over the world, but the current exhibition of their work and that of their many worldwide collaborators at Museum of Art and Design’s Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas show is one of the best that I’ve seen.
The basic concept is fairly self-explanatory. In order to draw attention to the declining health of worldwide coral reefs due to human-originating causes, the Wertheims’ crocheted sculptures of coral reefs have been shown in many venues since 2002, often alongside the work of other collaborators, either solicited by the Wertheims or contributed by the general public. The colorful works of twisted, handcrafted fiber are fun, participatory, and educational as well, a friendly introduction to a serious subject.
In this incarnation, the work is highly detailed. Crocheted structures of fragile magnetic tape and fine wire join those made with more common yarn. Plastic “sand” washed up from the Pacific plastic gyre backdrops many of the pieces, adding a layer of physical evidence to the much-storied “floating plastic island” that captivates the anthropocene media. The scale of the work is intensified. Massive pieces, each named for female figures of divinity from a variety of cultures, take center stage in the gallery, emphasizing the way in which small fragments of plastic, manufactured, discarded, and leached into our waterways add up into a global crisis of geologic proportions.
We can never see the true scale of the devastation, of course. There is no way to visualize the combined effects of the hydrocarbon flotsam that we have inflicted upon our earth’s sheltering ecosystems. We cannot see the microscopic organisms that are being slaughtered by the billions, leaving the coral reaches bleached, a haunted skeletal indicator of the diversity consigned to the bottom of the sea. We cannot perceive the systemic suicide that we have committed over the last century, as we have developed a global culture founded on the exploitation of former biomass through conversion into plastic, and the fundamentally transitory nature of that plastic as it passes through our hands in sometimes mere seconds, before needing a new resting place somewhere within the bowels of the planet’s chemical exchange networks.
To even consider this fate we have created for ourselves, we need to envision new geometries. We need to render visible not only the resources at hand and the waste created, but those networks extending outward into a future extending thousands of years. That length of time is longer than that of written human history, and we have no model for extrapolating that into the future. But it is the visualization of new geometries at which the Wertheims excel. Their research vehicle, the Institute for Figuring, experiments with hands-on models for representing mathematics, and their first explorations into crocheting was for the purpose of visualizing hyperbolic space. Hyperbolic space incorporates folds, and creates a maximum of surface area. It just so happens that crocheting allows one to easily form hyperbolic shapes, which in turn are similar to those found in nature, such as in lettuce leaves, and also in coral reefs.
In this way, each loop and whorl of the act of crocheting forms another representative piece of the larger whole. Each small act of labor completed by the Wertheims and their collaborators, becomes part of the work of showing the state of the oceans’ ecology. And it is just this sort of work that will be necessary to correcting the problems facing the earth, if anything will. On one end of the exhibition is the piece “Midden,” which in a giant fishing net, contains every piece of plastic from the Wertheims’ household garbage, from 2007 to 2011. Hanging over the gallery, ever present and yet somehow hidden in plain sight, the piece drastically understates the huge amount of labor each individual act of labor entailed, to pull the plastic out of the waste stream. This sort of labor, hidden in each loop of Toxic Seas, is the only thing that will save us now.