Artwork from Trash: Transforming the way we see waste and the disappearing reefs

While Ecologic Designs (one of my previous posts) is thriving by making practical products out of various waste streams – demonstrating green innovation and up-cycling – some artists around the world are working with a new medium: trash. These artists are coming together, actively gathering vast quantities of debris floating up on shorelines or collecting waste wherever it might be piling up and turning it into beautiful pieces of art.

[social_buttons]On a trip to Santa Monica, California, a friend treated my family and I to an amazing – if not also disturbing and mind-opening – display of crocheted sculptures created from trash.  The exhibit, Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs by the Institute for Figuring, was displayed in several rooms of the Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station.  The Institute For Figuring (IFF) is an organization dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and the technical arts.

Created and curated by Christine and Margaret Wertheim, the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef exhibit was a stunning display of an ingenious use of waste materials, creativity and community, bringing together various reefs created by artists from around the world.  The exhibition also brought attention to the plight of our oceans and the depository for our trash that it’s become, accidental or otherwise. The Crochet Coral Reef Project of the Institute For Figuring is conceived as “a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.”

According to one panel that accompanied the artwork:

  • Worldwide, 3,000 square kilometers of living reef are lost each year, a percentage rate attrition that is five times faster than rainforests are disappearing.
  • Of the 100 million tons of plastic produced annually, it is estimated that 10 percent ends up in the oceans.
  • Each year, 1,000,000 sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die of plastic ingestion.
  • The United National Environmental Program estimates that in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch there are 46,000 floating pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean, constituting six pounds of plastic for every pound of living phytoplankton.

A mathematician, Dr. Daina Taimina, who presented a hyperbolic structure made with crochet to demonstrate a surface with a negative curvature, set the stage for this exhibit.  As it turns out, corals, kelps, sea slugs, sponges, nudibranchs and flatworms all exhibit hyperbolic anatomical features.

The diversity of crocheted pieces at the Reef Coral Exhibit is astounding.  There’s jellyfish type artwork in cases, wall-hanging pieces and elaborate floor displays with intricately crocheted artwork that brought back memories of my time snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.  To create a “black kelp forest”, old videotape was employed.  “The Blue Reef” was created entirely of New York Times plastic bags.  Other pieces inventively used a mish-mash of waste that one might find, over time, washed up on the shores.  Artists, Trevor and Ryan Oakes, created a hyperbolic pseudosphere woven out of pipe-cleaners. Artist Arlene Mintzer’s black plastic jelly-yarn corals were made from synthetic hair-ornaments, plastic “rubber bands” and pieces of New York subway pass cards.

Among the natural world’s greatest wonders, the Great Barrier Reef — a reef stretching along the coast of Queensland, Australia — is now threatened by both global warming and pollution.  The Coral Reef exhibit powerfully depicts the escalating problem of plastic trash inundating the oceans and choking marine life.

“All over the world coral reefs are dying out,” explains the IFF website that provides further background for the Crochet Coral Reef Project.  “Marine pollutants, agricultural run-off and, above all, global warming, are taking a toll on these fragile marvels of nature. The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest living organism, has already suffered coral die-off in almost one third of its 133,000 square miles.  Ocean warming is not the only danger that results from our output of greenhouse gasses. Of all the carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere, around thirty percent will ultimately be absorbed by the oceans. This excess carbon dioxide increases ocean acidity, with dire consequences for corals.  ‘More acidic waters make it difficult for corals and other calcifying organisms, such as animals with shells, to form their skeletons, which are ultimately responsible for building the physical structure of the reef,’ says Australian Institute of Marine Science research scientist, Dr Janice Lough.”

Another interesting feat of the exhibition is the sense of collaboration and community.  Many of the artwork pieces were created by numerous artists collaborating across the continent and around the world, like the “The People’s Reef”, a melding of Chicago Reef and New York Reef contributors.  The Chicago Reef was originally created in 2007 under the auspices of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and the Chicago Humanities Festival.  The New York Reef was created in 2008 under the auspices of the New York Institute of the Humanities, New York Crochet Guild and the Harlem Knitting Circle.

“By highlighting plastic waste and recycling it into an ‘art work’ we hope that with ‘The Midden’ we can help focus attention on the tsunami of plastic that is engulfing our oceans and strangling marine life,” write Christine and Margaret Wertheim about their large decorative heap called “The Midden”.  “What we hope to create here is not just an aesthetic experience but a transformation in behavior. Beginning with our own.”

Don’t miss this exhibit if it comes to a community near you.

Photographs:  John Ivanko/with permission from Track 16 Gallery

  1. Kate

    Those statistics about plastic and it’s affect on the ocean and birds are really scary. This is really good information, I will pass it along.

    Thank you for the great post!

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