Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs

The Institute for Figuring and Companions
Track 16
Santa Monica, CA
Leslie Dick

A strange dichotomy persists, an opposition between “craft” and “conceptual” art practices, as if the handmade quality of handcrafted objects somehow drains them of meaning and ideas, as if an emphasis on “process” would negate the possibility of complexity and contradiction. Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs explodes this preconception, presenting handicraft as a place and (more importantly) a time for thinking—about mathematics, about color, texture, and form, about ecology and climate change, about community and women’s experience, and about art.

Historically, the classic types of women’s handwork, such as knitting, quilting, crochet, weaving, became hobbies when mass production provided cheaper versions of the sweaters, socks, quilts, and other useful items previously made at home. As hobbies, specifically women’s hobbies, these practices were culturally disparaged, valued only within an almost secret society of practitioners, that is, experienced crafters who could assess and appreciate workmanship, innovation, and aesthetic choices. Nevertheless, within the context of contemporary art, another kind of conversation took place, a conversation which reconsidered the “wasted” time given over to repetitive gesture, to produce a more-or-less unnecessary object; a conversation that recognized this special kind of time as unfolding outside the system of exchange that structures and values our lives. Theories of the gift as a moment of excess which exposes the narrow parameters of the exchange economy can even salvage the (possibly ghastly) sweater your grandmother knits for you every other year, retrieving such ordinary objects for cultural criticism. The value of the hand-knitted sweater lies in the unnecessary and excessive pleasure experienced in the making of it, as well as the disruptive and inexplicable gesture of the gift. As an object signifying both kinds of excess, it testifies to the hours withdrawn from the exchange economy, the maker’s pleasure woven into every stitch. Ultimately, the homemade object represents unmeasured time invested in its making, and I would argue, the mental space which that time may open up.

In other words, the notion that (conceptual) thinking necessarily precedes (hands on) fabrication is a preconception that this show challenges with precision and force. I propose that any consideration of handwork, fancywork, women’s work, or indeed any practice which falls under the heading of what might be called “Michael’s culture” (in homage to the chain of gigantic craft stores known as “Michael’s”), any consideration of these hobbies (and art practices) requires a re-evaluation of reverie, as a particular kind of mental state allowing certain kinds of imaginative thought to emerge, which a more focused, conscientious thinking may suppress. My dictionary defines reverie as “an act or state of absent-minded daydreaming,” and gives its etymology as deriving from Old French resverie meaning “wildness,” from resver, to behave wildly, or to wander; it concludes: “see RAVE.” Reverie, therefore, is a raving, a wild wandering of the mind, where unexpected thoughts and images can jostle each other, memories can momentarily replace present reality, dreams can be remembered in fragments of color and light. Valuing this kind of mental experience is a characteristic move of feminist thinking, which looks again at the disparaged and the overlooked, especially those experiences specific to the isolation of domestic space, to reconsider their possible meanings and agency.

That reverie and mathematics should go together is one of the thrilling paradoxes of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs project. The origins of the project lie in a personal investigation (by twins Margaret and Christine Wertheim) into the models of hyperbolic geometry originally constructed in crochet in the 1990s by Daina Taimina, a Latvian mathematician working at Cornell. I won’t attempt to give a history of hyperbolic geometry; instead, I refer the reader to Margaret Wertheim’s small book, A Field Guide to Hyperbolic Space: An Exploration of the Intersection of Higher Geometry and Feminine Handicraft (2007), published by the Institute for Figuring, an organization created by the Wertheim sisters and responsible for the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs exhibition, and other projects which hover on the boundaries of art and science. If geometry is the mathematics of flat and spherical surfaces, hyperbolic geometry is the math of a surface not unlike a sphere turned inside out, in which the meridians curve outwards (as opposed to curving inwards, as spheres do). It is also the bio-logic of many different organic life forms, for example, various undersea creatures that use their large surface area to absorb nutrients from the sea. Hyperbolic form is familiar to us from the structure of a lettuce leaf, crenulated and frilled, yet mathematicians were blind to the many examples of hyperbolic structures in nature. Indeed, until Taimina made her breathtaking conceptual leap, no one had ever successfully produced an actual model of hyperbolic space. If you can imagine people doing math about spheres, without having an actual sphere to handle and observe, and then one day someone appears with a beach ball, you get a sense of the impact of Taimina’s crochet models.

Further Reading