February 2011

Margaret and Christine Wertheim

[The Institute for Figuring]

“It really did seem like a crazy construct.”
Helpful things to have in order to crochet a coral reef:
Knowledge of non-euclidean geometry
Interest in embodied forms of reasoning
A global sewing bee of serious science communication

The one came out of the sciences, the other out of the arts, although that’s probably the wrong way to put it, since they both came out of the same mother in the same place on the same day—identical twins, Australia in the late fifties: Margaret and Christine Wertheim—such that their subsequent divergence (physics and painting, respectively) may never have been as wide as it seemed, and their coming back together years later, in their adopted hometown of Los Angeles, to found the marvelously inspired Institute For Figuring (IFF), may never have been all that unlikely a prospect. The Institute, at any rate, is one of those heterodox polymath L.A. wonders—close sibling of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation and Farmlab and Beyond Baroque—a center, in its instance, for the identification, elaboration, and celebration of all manner of delicious affinities between the sciences, mathematics, and the arts, disciplines that, to hear these twins tell it (in their vividly infectious and enthusiastic manner), may themselves also be well-nigh identical under the skin.

Such, at any rate, is the claim being advanced in their latest, most ambitious (indeed, almost all-consuming) project: a vast crocheted coral reef that somehow manages to meld non-euclidean mathematics, marine biology, evolution, environmentalist concern, feminine handicrafts, and good old-fashioned community activism into a dazzlingly colorful and ever-expanding monument, one, indeed, that is fast becoming the global-warming equivalent of the AIDS Quilt. It is as much a call to urgent action as an occasion for hushed marvel: a creation almost as vivid and various and alive as the reefs whose perilous situation it so urgently seeks to draw attention to.

In its latest incarnation, this ever-growing crocheted coral reef, having previously alighted in Chicago, New York, L.A., London, Dublin, Sydney, and countless other venues, holds pride of place in the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, on the mall in Washington, D.C., through April 24—and it’s well worth a detour, indeed an entire expedition. Where it will go from there, and for that matter where it came from in the first place, were among the questions I wanted to pursue when meeting with the twins a few months back—that’s Margaret in the pixie close-cropped hairdo, Christine with the wild leonine mane—as they were preparing to mount that show in Washington: a town, as much as any, where the fate of the world’s reefs, and for that matter the entire lifeworld they so precariously evince, may well be decided in the years immediately to come.

—Lawrence Weschler


CHRISTINE WERTHEIM: Because in nature, the coral reefs are growing under dynamic conditions, so, for instance, they will deviate from pure mathematics if there is more sunlight coming from one direction, or more nutrients coming from another, etc.

MARGARET WERTHEIM: Nature is interested in feeding, efficiency, mobility, and not in pure mathematics, so a head of coral grows sometimes in the likeness of hyperbolic space, sometimes not. We wanted to work with that complexity. With this project, we took a beautiful, pure mathematical insight that Daina had developed and organicized it.

THE BELIEVER: Let’s come back to the moment when you had this little pile of objects on your table, Christine’s spangly colored ones, and you suddenly realized you were making a coral reef.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Lawrence Weschler is the author, most recently, of Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, a pair of counterpunctal biographies of artists Robert Irwin (a newly expanded edition of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees) and David Hockney (True to Life), and, forthcoming this fall, a new collection, Uncanny Valley.

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