Crochet Coral Reef, Toxic Seas at The Museum of Arts and Design

Forrest 2 Installation View
Coral Forest, Installation View (All Photos By Gail)

Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Crochet Coral Reef (2005–present), an ongoing project by sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim and their Los Angeles–based organization, the Institute For Figuring. Mixing crocheted yarn with plastic trash, the work fuses mathematics, marine biology, feminist art practices, and craft to produce large-scale coralline landscapes, both beautiful and blighted. At once figurative, collaborative, worldly, and dispersed, the Crochet Coral Reef offers a tender response to the dual calamities facing marine life: climate change and plastic trash.

Forrest 1

With 2016 being the hottest year on record, living reefs everywhere are under stress. Into these arenas of color huge areas of whiteness now intrude; bleaching events signal that corals are sick and dying. In 2005, in response to devastation of the Great Barrier Reef in their native Australia, the Wertheims began to crochet a simulation of healthy and ailing reefs.

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Green and Purple Detail
Detail from the Photo Above

Using the algorithmic codes of crochet, the sisters produce crenellated forms that are representations of hyperbolic geometry, which is also manifest in the undulating structures of corals, kelps, and other reef organisms. The Wertheims and their collaborators, a core group of worldwide Crochet Reefers, fabricate an ever-evolving artificial ecology.

CCR White
Coral Reef Crocheted in Part from Plastic Dry Cleaning Bags

Orange Red Black CCR
Coral Reef Crocheted in Part from Recycled Plastic Toys

Orange Detail
Detail From the Photo Above

This exhibition consists of three main “habitats.” A giant Coral Forest and a collection of miniature Pod Worlds represent the diversity of living corals through the varying textures, colors, and forms of crocheted yarn and beads. A Bleached Reef and a brand new Toxic Reef serve as invocations of dying corals, while The Midden—four years’ worth of the Wertheims’ own domestic plastic trash—constitutes a deeply personal response to the issue of plastic waste in the oceans, including human-made phenomena such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Branched Anemonie Garden
Branched Anemone Garden

Installation View
Toxic Reef and Bleached Reef, Installation View

Often called the Rainforests of the Sea, coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. They occupy less that a tenth of one percent of the world’s ocean area, yet are home to at least a quarter of all marine species. Reefs are vulnerable to many threats, such as destructive fishing techniques, pollution and tourism, as well as the global effects of climate change. The burning of fossil fuels and the raising of livestock are two of the major contributors to an increasing level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which ultimately leads to the acidifcation and warming of ocean waters.

Bleached Reef
Bleached Reef, Detail

When reefs are stressed, a phenomenon known as “Bleaching” may occur. Photosynthetic algae —  which live symbiotically within coral colonies — leave, thus depriving corals of both their color and a major food source. The Bleached Reef seen here is a crochet invocation of such ailing corals, reflected in the contrast between the still saturated red and pink areas and the soft white yearn of bleached portions.

Pod World Plastic Fantastic Too
Pod World — Plastic Fantastic Too

Pod World Beaded Baroque
Pod World — Beaded Baroque

Pod World Red and White
Pod World — Red and White

The Midden
The Midden

In 2006, Margaret and Christine Wertheim began to crochet household plastic into a Toxic Reef, which they have since developed into plastic and coral sculptures seen in the Coral Forest section this exhibit. The initial use of plastic, such as video and audio tape, tinsel and zip ties, in their artwork evolved into an awareness of the artists’ own plastic consumption. From 2007 to 2011 the Wereheim;s collected their domestic plastic trash, includign bottoles, take out containers, and disposable shopping bags.

The Midden Detail

The Midden, Detail

The Midden, seen suspended in a fishing net from the ceiling of the exhibit’s front gallery, is a record of the family’s personal waste, with a stunning visual realization of the disposability of contemporary consumption. The work was inspired by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast area located in the northern Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, where millions of tons of plastic trash accumulates in a giant ocean gyre. Other such gyres dot the globe, ad these ghastly legacies human consumption are having detrimental effects on biological, ecological and economic systems.


Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas is an important exhibit that is appropriate for the entire family. Not only will you see many beautiful crocheted sculptures, but you will learn something, while having your eyes opened to serious ecological issues that require our involvement and action right now.

Crochet Coral Reef Signage

Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas By Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring will be on Exhibit Through January 22, 2017 at the Museum of Art and Design Located at 2 Columbus Cicle (59th Street at 8th Avenue) in NYC. This Exhibit represents a unique presentation of the Crochet Coral Reef that focuses on climate change and ocean health, is curated by Assistant Curator Samantha De Tillio for the Museum of Arts and Design.

Installation View

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