Abu Dhabi spins a yarn about climate change

Of the Earth’s many ecosystems, coral reefs are perhaps the most sensitive to climate change. To focus on the plight of the aquatic organisms, twin sisters are taking a crocheted art installation around the world. And it’s in Abu Dhabi until December 4.

The coral reef crochets are an art installation – a “satellite” offshoot of the Crochet Coral Reef Project. Ravindranath K / The National
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These are no ordinary reefs – they are artificial: crocheted yarn, plastic, audio-cassette tapes and other materials fixed to traditional fishing pots from Mina Zayed. Each one represents a different emirate and, collectively, they bear a message about the devastating effect of climate change.

“Global warming is affecting everybody everywhere and coral reefs are just ecosystems that are particularly sensitive to global warming,” says Margaret Wertheim, a science writer and public speaker.

“The rising sea temperatures devastate the corals because they are very sensitive organisms and they can’t withstand much of a sea temperature rise.”

An NYUAD marine biologist, John Burt, told Margaret that 80 per cent of corals in the Arabian Gulf had already been wiped out, the same proportion destroyed in the Caribbean.

The coral reef crochets are an art installation – a “satellite” offshoot of the Crochet Coral Reef Project. The project is run by Margaret and Christine Wertheim, identical twin sisters from Queensland, Australia and creators of the “Institute of Figuring”.

While Margaret is a scientist, Christine is an artist, and the project is what they call a “synthesis of art and science”.

More than 7,000 people have participated in 35 satellite exhibitions, which showcase the institute’s art around the world, while encouraging local communities to crochet reefs of their own. This figure includes more than 900 people who contributed to an exhibition hosted by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Similarly, more than 800 western Europeans contributed to a reef at a museum on an island off the coast of Germany and Denmark.

It is fitting that Abu Dhabi hosts the project’s newest satellite exhibition, given that the World Wildlife Fund last week revealed that UAE residents have one of the highest environmental footprints in the world – third only to Kuwait and Qatar. The UAE’s footprint of 7.75 global hectares per person is mostly the result of carbon emissions and it is precisely this carbon dioxide, says Christine, that increases the acidity of oceans – bleaching corals.

“Maybe it’s not going to end up being apocalyptic, but certainly one thing that is very clear is that reefs are being wiped out at a massive rate – so, something is happening and it’s not just a futurology prediction.”

Margaret says the project is predominantly a means of addressing environmental issues, but is also an exploration of mathematics. Hyperbolic geometry, an intimidating term, is often cited by the twins. It is a field of geometry that accounts for complex shapes, such as the way lettuce curls around the edges, just as corals do. Although, as Margaret says, “sea creatures have been making hyperbolic structures for 500 million years”, it was only in 1997 that Cornell University mathematician Daina Taimina first created a physical model of hyperbolic geometry using crochet.

“And it’s a very interesting thing that all of these sea creatures, in some sense, know mathematics in the architecture of their being. Our project is, in some ways, a continuing experiment in evolution – everybody starts with the very simple instructions for crocheting … and then you just start playing.

“As time goes on you get more and more complex structures evolving, which is exactly what happened in evolution.” This sense of evolution, she says, eventually results in some contributors branching out from hyperbolics completely. “And they do things like sea turtles,” she says, pointing out a crocheted sea turtle perched on top one of the reefs, “which are not hyperbolic at all”, she laughs.

Intriguingly, the maths behind the hyperbolic shapes is perhaps best explained in the artistic context of how the coral crochets are made.

Crocheting is a technique where a single hook is used to craft objects one stitch at a time, as opposed to knitting, where two needles are used, Christine says.

“You crochet a single line of stitches, then it’s like a chain. Then, you go back and you do the next line, so there is a single line but the reason it’s curly is because you put three or four stitches into the next line, which forces it to curl.”

Using this method of adding increasing stitches towards the outside of the coral crochets, people are able to create shapes that look very much like corals.

But equally as important as the crocheting itself is finding a suitable structure, one that is hard and rigid but porous enough to allow the crochet work to be sewed or zip-tied to it. This is a curatorial role, one that the sisters have been keen to encourage satellite project co-ordinators to undertake.

In the case of the Abu Dhabi crochet, this challenge falls at the feet of Michal Teague, an artist and the university’s reef coordinator. She says some of the nearly 50 contributors were “complete novices” when they first began.

“Even though they’d never crocheted before, they took it up very fast. The turtles, for instance, were made by a woman who has really only crocheted actively for four to six months.”

Margaret usually visits satellite projects 18 months before they are set to exhibit, to give some initial workshops. She later returns a few times to give talks and advice about installation, usually a month before the opening. Teague, however, is responsible for working with local contributors and making sure it all goes to plan.

The Abu Dhabi reefs are unique in their inclusion of certain materials and objects, such as shisha pipes. “One of my students got a hole in his ghutra, so he abandoned it. I got that and cut it up and it’s been crocheted as well,” Teague says.

Another of the reef’s most distinctive features is a striking “bling factor”. “There’s a lot of sparkly and that was deliberate – it obviously is a cultural reflection,” Margaret says.

One of the most prolific contributors created a reef entirely by herself. Her coral features bright turquoises and purples – colours that also adorn her hair. Pam Mandich, a programme coordinator at the university, says the only additions from other contributors were a piece made by her daughter, and scarves a friend made 15 years ago.

“I got involved because I was new to NYU, and because I really enjoy anything creative and being involved with the community. And the whole idea of the reefs: the idea of physical representations of mathematical concepts, which is great for kids. There are just so many aspects to the project that are really inviting.”

She says she has not crocheted since she was 14, when suddenly, an older woman wearing a headscarf interjects: “Look at her hair, and look at her style – you know she’s a born artist.”

The pair share a laugh before Sufa Mulqi, a pharmacist who has worked in the UAE for three decades, proclaims: “You know what I was thinking? I was thinking these poor corals – no one is reaching out to them.”

Mulqi speaks from the heart, with unapologetic passion: “You know, they suffer from osteoporosis. When we suffer from osteoporosis, we go to the orthopaedic department in a hospital. They can’t go there – and that’s why I pity them so much.

“That’s why I want to put some corals in every orthopaedic department in every hospital in the UAE, just to tell them, ‘Look at these – we can’t prescribe any medicine for them, except keeping the sea and the ocean clean.”

Mulqi, who in the past made beanies for children undergoing chemotherapy, says: “We have to make our hobby purposeful, this is the most important thing.”

Walking past a series of smaller, finer pieces, away from the crowd, Margaret explains that three of them are made of plastic. She stops at one of the crochets, which sits on a bed of small plastic chippings, and says: “There are several places in the world where vast amounts of plastic are accumulating in the ocean, because it just comes out of rivers and off beaches and off boats.

“The biggest place is this one near Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific rubbish patch, and it’s one of the great environmental tragedies on the Earth. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade; it just breaks up into smaller particles and vast amounts of it wash up on beaches.”

The Crochet Coral Reef exhibition will run until December 4 at New York University Abu Dhabi. Contact Michal Teague for more information: 050 761 8708.