Jo Kamm: Psuedibranchs and other experiments in hyperbolic crochet

This series of sculptural experiments developed from an interest in a type of form with organically undulating curves and surfaces.  My research led me through discovery and exploration of the process that makes them – a regular pattern that results in an irregular form.

I am fascinated by the contrast between the simplistic, idealized abstraction that underlies the complex, messy intricacies of the thing itself.

There is an ambiguity in these forms – are they made, or found? The metal castings might just as easily be found in a natural history collection as on a pedestal in an art gallery.  Are they abstract sculpture, or an unknown creature, spawned in the deep ocean?

The crochet pattern is surprisingly simple – a spiral, with an extra stitch added in regular intervals.  This is a form of “hyperbolic” geometry – a rapidly expanding surface (though strictly speaking, not a hyperbolic plane but a pseudo-sphere).  While a spiral on a tabletop grows just enough to lay flat, a hyperbolic spiral grows so quickly that the edges get too long to lay flat, and start making wavy ruffles on the edges – the familiar shapes of lettuce leaves and sea creatures, like the nudibranch.

Crochet was first identified in the late 1990’s as a means of representing hyperbolic geometry by Daina Tamina, a mathematician at Cornell University.  Having learned crochet in her childhood, Tamina solved a problem that had plagued mathematicians since hyperbolic geometry was first formally theorized in the mid-1800s.  It took the skills of a female dominated craft in a male-dominated field of study to make this connection.  On further reflection, others noted how these patterns had been used by women for ages to create ruffled shapes found in clothing and embroidery. Now, able to visualize and handle hyperbolic models, hyperbolic geometry was recognized as a fundamental pattern of growth in nature, and maybe even the shape of the universe.  Hyperbolic crochet was then popularized through a series of crocheted coral reef projects, which brought together communities to create crocheted reefs and raise awareness about the imminent threats to these vital ecosystems.

In my own exploration, I returned to the question of gendered associations of material and process. Having learned to crochet, I translated the forms into cast metal.  The sculpture foundry was historically male dominated, and it is still a macho activity among both male and female sculptors to this day.  Then the pieces became successively smaller, crossing the perceived gender line again into small metals and jewelry.

I am interested to note how I think and feel about these objects – the colorful, soft crochet, the hard and heavy metal, and the finely intricate miniatures.  Though fundamentally the same, the transformations among scale, materials, and technique inevitably bring shifts in how I think about and value each instance.  Pseudibranchs pose this question without a definitive answert – the differences invite curious reflection on how the way something is made changes how you feel, and how material matters.


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