Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) is an exhibition drenched in color, with yarn in orange, blue, teal, purple, and green popping from mounds of crocheted material. Look closer, though, and an infestation is revealed, with discarded bags, tinsel, zip ties, magnetic tape, and other plastic trash embedded in the vibrant fiber sculptures. The installation marks 10 years of the Crochet Coral Reef project, an art initiative launched by twin sisters Christine and Margaret Wertheim in response to the destruction of the coral reefs by climate change and other human activities.
The Wertheims began crocheting the artificial coral structures, with titles like Cthulhu and Ea referencing ocean monsters and water gods, in 2005. They were initially highlighting loss in the Great Barrier Reef of their home country, Australia, then built larger and larger fiber ecologies with their Los Angeles-based Institute For Figuring. The exhibition at MAD sprawls over one floor of the museum, with three “habitats” representing different stages of the ongoing project. “The Coral Forest” has freestanding sculptures that flow over their pedestals with their organic shapes. Nearby works in the smaller “Pod Worlds” cases include miniature landscapes like the “Bleached Reef,” which respond more directly to coral decay, where its algae-powered color is sapped due to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Another work, “The Midden,” is dramatically suspended in its own space with heaps of plastic waste amassed by the Wertheims between 2007 and 2011. The hanging mass represents the domestic trash production of just a couple of individuals, but feeds into larger environmental hazards like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
As a component of this fall’s MAD Transformations, an exhibition series considering how contemporary artists reinterpret traditional crafts, the use of crochet for addressing ocean pollution is a vital part of the project. Each of the “Crochet Forest” works took several years to create, a slow build of collaborative shapes constructed by many hands, much as a coral reef takes incredible amounts of time for its diverse polyps to build their intricate life. And the hyperbolic geometry of the designs, similar to the forms of the reef organisms, reinforces the connection between the natural and handmade.
Crochet Coral Reef is a striking exhibition, and one that’s engaging to explore, with all its painstaking details. Yet does it create a more immediate connection with climate change and the human impact on the oceans? The message to reduce plastic trash is certainly there, but the installation also oddly makes this human-made material more beautiful than repulsive. Beneath this environmental issue, though, are the feminist undertones of crochet, which is often considered a “women’s craft,” becoming an activist medium through the transfiguration of trash into a tactile environmental statement.