Op-Ed: Even plastic coral artwork can’t survive climate change

While world leaders hesitate about tackling climate change, an eerie echo of the destructive power of global warming has played out in a project created as an artistic response to this apocalypse. Even art can be destroyed by the toxic effects of our runaway carbon emissions. Also plastic Art.

In 2005, when scientists discovered that abnormal patterns in coral bleaching were related to rising ocean temperatures, my sister and I began crocheting simulations of living reefs. Art meets science meets environmental disasters, channeled through the medium of a craft that we grew up with. Crochet was not an arbitrary choice because the crowned, crenellated shapes of real coral organisms are biological manifestations of hyperbolic geometry – a mathematical structure that crocheting is easy to mimic.

To our surprise, our “Crochet Coral Reef” has developed into a community art project spread across the planet, with almost 20,000 crochet participants in 50 cities and countries, almost all of them women. We have worked with artisans to create crochet reefs in London, New York, Chicago, Melbourne, Abu Dhabi, Latvia and many other locations. Woolly reefs are currently underway in Germany and Canada, as well as New York and North Carolina states. But in Finland recently the forces of destruction were at play.

As part of this year’s Helsinki Biennale, we were invited to work with citizens there and an astonishing 3,000 Finns took part. During the COVID-19 lockdown, many people everywhere turned to crafts as a calming force, and crocheting coral also offers a targeted response to environmental degradation. Just as living reefs are made up of millions or billions of tiny coral polyps, our reefs are created by thousands of crochet workers who work together. Both biological and cunning reefs illustrate the power of collaboration on a large scale. The Great Barrier Reef, which served as the inspiration for our project, is the largest living being on earth and one of the few organisms that are visible from space.

A detail of the crocheted plastic coral.

(© Institute for Figuring by Margaret Wertheim)

In addition to crocheting in yarn, we asked the Finns to use plastic. My sister and I have been crocheting plastic in coral since we learned of the horrors of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2006. How ironic that when living reefs disappear, giant eddies of plastic waste form in the sea, like some kind of synthetic material substitutes were in progress.

It’s hard now to buy something that isn’t plastic-wrapped. Do you remember the pandemic months when we had toilet paper in stock and every jumbo pack was wrapped in a clear plastic membrane? This viral infection emblem became a feature of the Helsinki Project when local reef organizer Lotta Kjellberg approached a toilet packaging manufacturer about possible nifty by-products.

When the toilet paper wrapper rolls off the production line, an inch wide strip is cut from the edge, which is a perfect medium for crocheting. Two hundred kilos of the stuff were delivered in a dumpster outside Kjellberg’s door. In a time-consuming act of devoted recycling, she distributed it to libraries, craft stores, community centers, schools, and senior facilities across Helsinki. Tinted in an elegant blue-violet and covered with light splashes of ink, its availability in this quantity enabled the production of a multitude of color-coordinated plastic corals. We couldn’t have wished for a better scenario.

On my first foray into Highland Park in 15 months, I flew to Helsinki in May to work with a team of local ladies to shape thousands of individual crochet pieces into large-scale sculptures. Along with the purple and white tones of the toilet paper packaging were sparkling black videotape corals, as well as others in red, yellow, and blue tones from wrapping paper ties, shopping bags, and various synthetic waste. All of which recycled material.

The four resulting works of art were great examples of community-oriented art. Beautiful, absurd, lavish forms full of life – together they formed a false ecology that rehabilitated garbage through female handicrafts.

However, as the summer progressed, Finland experienced one of the hottest and wettest periods in its recorded history. Further north, the Greenland ice sheet was also soaked in rain, an unheard of phenomenon – it never Rain in Greenland – and an ominous sign that the forces in our atmosphere are being unleashed.

At the Biennale, most of the artwork on an island off Helsinki was displayed in a series of stunning abandoned fortresses. Unfortunately the rooms were infested with mold. Other artists’ projectors burned out, sound systems sparkled, video screens dripped with slime. But these were solvable problems. A more permanent tragedy ensued for the corals.

Mold stains bloomed on the bases and substructures of the works. It might also have crept into the crochet stitches. Instead of traveling to other exhibitions, these beautiful monsters now had to be destroyed.

Art mimicked life. Even crocheted sea creatures made of plastic cannot withstand the consequences of petrochemical domination of mankind. Killed by climate change, this unique colony of Helsinki corals has disappeared and is a reminder of the fate of its living cousins, who will soon be mere memories.

Margaret Wertheim is a science writer and artist. The “Crochet Coral Reef” created with Christine Wertheim was exhibited at the Venice Biennale 2019 and many other international locations. crochetcoralreef.org

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