Last week, Art Center celebrated the opening of exhibition HYPERBOLIC: Reefs, Rubbish and Reason—on view through August 21 in the Williamson Gallery—with a reception and a pair of presentations in the Ahmanson Auditorium by Jerry Schubel, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, and Margaret Wertheim, writer, artist and co-curator—along with her sister Christine Wertheim—of the Hyerpbolic Crochet Coral Reef project.
We spoke with Wertheim following the reception about what’s new in the coral reef, the mysterious Midden Monsters and growing an installation.
Dotted Line: The crochet coral reef project has travelled around the world. What’s the most unique thing about this project as it appears here in the Williamson Gallery?
Margaret Wertheim: We decided for this show that we wanted to make the plastic a major feature. Not only did we have a lot more of the plastic than we’ve had before—we’ve been collecting it for four years—but here we also had the space. That big pile of trash in the main room is new. We have shown the trash in a very small form once before, but here it’s a huge new element of the exhibition. Another new feature is the Coral Forest room. That is completely new. No version of that has ever been shown before. In fact, we built that in situ. And finally there’s the mathematics room. We’ve never had a whole room devoted to the math before. So three of the four rooms in this exhibition are completely new.
Dotted Line: Are some of the organisms in this particular installation a mutation of the Midden Monsters?
Werthheim: The Midden Monsters are pieces crocheted out of plastic trash. When they’ve been shown in the past—which is rare—the Midden Monsters have been pinned to the wall surrounding it. What happened in this case was that many of them got incorporated into the big white plastic piece in the Coral Forest room. The Midden Monsters, as a flock, transformed themselves into one giant Midden Monster. This show has a tendency to be very organic and, like living things, it evolves and morphs in response to the room that it’s in. The whole show grows to fit its environment. And since each environment is different, things have a tendency to come into being in new ways in each space.
Dotted Line: You mentioned in your presentation Wednesday night that the installation needs to grow into each space that it shows.
Wertheim: This work is very transmutable. It really is organic in the sense that it doesn’t have a fixed-down form. There are parts of it that do, like the bleached reef, which has pieces that look more literal than the others. That’s what we call our “classical work” and those are now fixed. We basically congealed those over the years into their perfect state. But all the rest of it changes each time we do the show. So every time we do it, it really is different. And the work encourages that because each piece is handmade, and that handmade philosophy extends to the exhibitions as a whole. A way to think of these exhibitions is that each exhibition is a handmade installation.
Dotted Line: You had to condense your presentation last week due to time limitations. Was there anything you left out that you wanted to share?
Wertheim: There are many facets and dimensions to this project. It’s easy to give an hour-long talk—it’s harder to give one that’s 20 minutes. One aspect I always go into when I have the time is I like to talk a little bit about the individual people who have been involved. There have been thousands of people who have contributed to the various incarnations of this show over the past six years. And the diversity of people who have participated in this project, and the skills that they bring to it, is extraordinary. There are two aspects to this. There’s the whole ecology, which is greater than any of us. Like a coral reef, the totality of it is great. But, as in a coral reef, there are spectacular pieces. There are those iridescent, fluorescent red and orange and blue things that stand out remarkably. And we have that. And there are individuals in this that are spectacular. We have a core group of people who Christine and I have worked with over the years, and there are around 20 who have put in an enormous amount of time and energy making are most miraculously crafted pieces.
Dotted Line: Could you tell us about one of these pieces?
Wertheim: In the backroom, in one of the small cases, are a number of pieces crocheted around used water bottles, which are resting on some greenish plastic sand as though they’ve washed up on a Hawaiian beach. Those pieces were made by Nadia Severns, who is without question the most skilled person involved with the project. She’s a remarkable woman. A huge number of people have seen her work but don’t realize it—she’s a professional knitter who knitted those bright-colored sweaters that Bill Cosby wore on The Cosby Show. One of the earliest community reefs we did was in New York, and Nadia participated in the New York reef. We were so amazed by her work that we asked her to do a few more things. She has done work that’s incredibly beautiful and based around plastic bottles and discarded pieces of plastic. She’s like an oyster—she takes a piece of grit and spins a pearl around it. And she’s just one person. We have several dozen whose individual stories are just amazing. And these are people who are not famous artists, but they’re all creative geniuses.
Dotted Line: Do you plan on taking the collaborative community aspect of this exhibition into future projects?
Wertheim: We don’t have plans for anything quite like this. It’s not very often a set of ideas come together that enables something like this to happen. We originally came to the project via mathematics, and then realized that was embodied in corals, and thought we could actually crochet a coral reef. We really imagined something small-scale. We didn’t expect or plan that it would evolve into this large-scale project. It’s not easy to dream up a large-scale community project that works, so my feeling is that if another idea came to me I’d be open to it, but I don’t sit around thinking how can I dream up another project of this magnitude. What I do sit around thinking about—because it’s the Institute of Figuring’s mission—is how to engage the public creatively in science and mathematics. And to me that means letting people actually do something for themselves, rather than just sitting there and listening to experts.
HYPERBOLIC: Reefs, Rubbish and Reason is on view through August 21 in Art Center’s Williamson Gallery.