THESE days, the interior of Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s rambling Highland Park home resembles an eccentric cross between an undersea documentary and a neighborhood yarn shop. Like the bottom of the ocean, most available surfaces appear to be covered with sea life of all colors, textures and varieties: corals, kelp, anemones, jellyfish and other aesthetically pleasing sea species.
However, these forms are created not by Mother Nature but with a crochet needle: Australian-born twin sisters Margaret and Christine, 48, with the aid of an international cadre of collaborators, are crocheting a coral reef. The project, as they describe it, pays “woolly homage” to an endangered natural wonder, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, through the traditional craft of crochet.
Lawrence Weschler, artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, likes to call the project “the AIDS quilt of global warming.”
The sisters agree. “Coral reefs are, as it were, the canaries down the mine for the global warming system,” Margaret says with characteristic urgency during a conversation at the kitchen table. She is surrounded by bits and pieces of crocheted “coral,” including reconfigurations of doilies snapped up at swap meets and craft fairs, as well as beaded wonders sent unsolicited by one of many crocheters who have become aware of the project.
“Coral reefs are dying out in part because of chemical pollutants and in part because coral reefs can only survive a temperature rise of about 1 degree for a short period of time,” Margaret continues. The crochet reef, she says, “could potentially take over our lives -- it’s already taken over our living room.”
Still in the concept stage is what Christine calls the crochet reef’s “satanic twin,” the “Rubbish Vortex,” a huge hanging sculpture to be crocheted of yarn created entirely from plastic bags by Helle Jorgensen, a Danish-born biologist-turned-artist who lives in Sydney, Australia, and was discovered independently crocheting sea creatures from yarn made from reused plastic bags.
The sisters are also creating an adjunct “Plastic Reef,” much like their coral reef except that the material will be fabricated from plastic trash. Plastic is already piling up at their residence, where they have vowed to save their plastic refuse for a year as a towering example of modern society’s dependence on the stuff.
The “Vortex, they say, will mirror not an endangered natural phenomenon but an alarming unnatural one: the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches of the Pacific, formed when garbage accumulates in the vortex of circulating currents. The Eastern Garbage Patch is believed to be roughly the size of Texas.
The plastic artworks have yet to be born but are coming, along with the “Hyperbolic Crochet Reef,” to Hollywood’s Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in early 2008. During the planned two-month show, visitors may contribute their own plastic trash to eventually become part of the “Plastic Reef.” “In fact, the ‘crochet reef’ really exists to bring attention to the ‘Rubbish Vortex,’ ” says Christine. “It has become the frame, with the rubbish one pushing the other to the edge.”
The plastic problem
MARGARET and Christine hope that as the exhibition travels, each city will begin collecting plastic to make its own rubbish reef. “That’s a lot of plastic,” admits LACE executive director Carol Stakenas of the pending trash onslaught on her art space. “One of the first questions in my mind was, how do we accept this stuff in a state that doesn’t attract bugs, et cetera?
“But I guess the bigger issue is, how do we frame this challenge, what are the different strategies for the future of this material? Part of it will be transformed into art, which potentially moves it into another realm at least for a while. We’re aware of different industries starting to use recycled plastics, and we plan to form alliances with those companies.
“We’re not sure how, but we want to share the struggle in dealing with this kind of refuse and not cover that part up, because that actually is the larger challenge of living in modern society.”
The “Hyperbolic Reef” has already made its way into the art museum world. Bergamot Station’s Track 16 Gallery includes examples of the crochet coral through May 19 in “The Powder Room,” co-curated by Christine along with Georganne Deen. And three “sub-reefs,” ranging from 2 feet by 2 feet to 7 feet by 2 feet, are on display at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum through June 17 as part of its exhibition “6 Billion Perps Held Hostage! Artists Address Global Warming.”
The curator of the show, Matt Wrbican, says he became familiar with the crochet reef through a friend and fellow curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. “She just one day blurted out: ‘There are these crazy Australian women in L.A. who are crocheting a coral reef.’ It’s just so outrageous -- but so great for a lot of reasons.”
Weschler of the Chicago Humanities Festival says the work fit perfectly into this year’s theme: “Climate of Concern.” He plans to include the wool and plastic reefs in the November event. “At first it seemed like a visionary idea, but now we seem to be in the middle of a storm,” he says. “Before we can do anything, we have to see it clearly, it has to be made real. That is the domain of artists and poets and playwrights and musicians.”
And, in Weschler’s opinion, crocheters. “They have worked themselves into an almost perfect storm of intersections and interpretations and discourses,” says Weschler, who is also a writer and director of the New York Institute of Humanities at New York University. “It’s art, it’s science, it’s feminist art -- the whole handicraft movement is having a huge revival right now. And, parenthetically, it’s also cross-class -- there’s the notion that anyone can be doing this. And it’s fun and it’s beautiful. What more could you ask for?
“And it’s way cool -- I think that’s the main thing it is. Way cool.”
The “Hyperbolic Crochet Reef” and the “Rubbish Vortex” are projects of the Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring (www.theiff.org), founded by Margaret and Christine in 2003 and dedicated to “the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and the technical arts.”
The nonprofit institute does not yet have a building. But according to Margaret, it does have “a headquarters in the conceptual landscape at a very precise location.”
“We are located in the mathematical space known as the complex plane, which is the intersection of the real and the imaginary numbers.”
As yet the location cannot be looked up in the Thomas Guide, but it does have coordinates on the complex plane. (For those so inclined: -0.7473198, i0.1084649).
Margaret, a science writer and commentator who has written opinion pieces and book reviews for The Times and whose resume includes a stint as LA Weekly’s “Quark Soup” columnist, moved to Los Angeles in 1991, following an Australian expat boyfriend with a job in the entertainment industry.
Christine, who trained as a painter and holds a doctorate in philosophy and literature, taught critical studies, writing and studio practice at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and Goldsmiths College of London University before moving to L.A. several years ago to teach in the critical studies department at CalArts.
Margaret, her beau and Christine decided to buy the house together, pooling funds so they could afford a better one. Margaret’s onetime love interest has since moved on, but Margaret and “Chrissy,” as her sister fondly calls her, now share the place with their neatly stashed accumulation of plastic trash and Monster, their feral cat.
Mind-bending mathematical art
UNDER the Institute for Figuring’s auspices, Margaret served as curator of the Echo Park gallery Machine Project’s 2006 Menger sponge exhibition, fashioned by software engineer Jeannine Mosely. The project involved creating huge and intricate cubes, or “sponges,” out of hundreds of folded business cards in a configuration invented by Austrian mathematician Karl Menger.
The institute was also involved in another 2006 collaboration, “Inventing Kindergarten,” at Art Center College of Design’s Williamson Gallery in Pasadena, presenting diminutive artworks created by teachers and children by adhering to a precise method of learning through play devised by 19th century German educator Friedrich Froebel.
And on view for the foreseeable future at Culver City’s Museum of Jurassic Technology is the institute’s exhibition “The Logic Alphabet of Shea Zellweger,” another mind-bending project, exploring crystallography.
The Wertheim sisters live to make unexpected connections between art and science. While others may focus on the environmental statement made by the crocheted reefs, to Margaret and Christine, crochet is equally fascinating because of its connection to a mathematical revelation.
A few years ago, they were delighted to find out that Daina Taimina, a Latvian adjunct associate professor of mathematics at Cornell University, had discovered that crochet could be used to create a physical model of hyperbolic space, useful in making tangible the concepts of non-Euclidean geometry. “What’s important for me is, people really need to see and touch mathematics so they won’t be so scared of it,” says Taimina. “It’s something about the grandmother’s touch -- people got so relaxed when they saw these models.”
Margaret and Christine agree. “What I like about it was that it was brought into being by a simple women’s handicraft, but it is an analog of what is a deep, significant, major issue in the foundation of mathematics,” Margaret says.
The Wertheim women also took full advantage of the negative curves of Taimina’s hyperbolic plane looking a lot like those found in a coral reef. In fact, a few pieces crocheted by Taimina have been included in the project.
There are no limits to how large the reef might grow, but the project will end eventually. “The art world goes through seasons like the fashion world, and it happens that collaborative work, ecologically based work and crafts are very much a part of the current season,” Christine says. “But believe me, it won’t last long.
“People will go on collaborating, women will keep on doing craftwork as they have for thousands of years -- and the ecology will keep on suffering. We’ll go back to, I don’t know, some kind of plastic-based individual narcissism.”
Despite the dark words, Christine laughs as she says them, acknowledging the fickleness of humanity. And despite inhabiting such a heady and complex plane, Margaret and Christine crochet partly because it’s fun. To keep themselves entertained, they have patterned various sub-reefs after periods in Western art history. An Impressionist reef, for example, is crocheted from multicolored “yarn fur,” a sort of hairy synthetic that creates the effect of multiple soft strokes of the paintbrush.
That being said, the two are not particularly comfortable with calling the reefs art.
“We weren’t planning to be in the art world avant-garde,” Margaret says, bursting into giggles at the idea.
“It should be said that neither Chrissy or I consider ourselves to be artists. We don’t think of this as being an art project; we think of it as an ecological, communicative project. If you want to call it art, that’s fine.”
Adds Christine, “I don’t care whether a thing is art. I care whether it’s interesting.”