News Environment Intricate Paper-Cut Sculptures Show Superpowers of Threatened Corals Corals are rapidly being lost but they can also bounce back. By Kimberley Mok Kimberley Mok Twitter Writer McGill University Cornell University Kimberley Mok is a former architect who has been covering architecture and the arts for Treehugger since 2007. Learn about our editorial process Updated February 3, 2022 12:42PM EST Fact checked by Haley Mast Fact checked by Haley Mast LinkedIn Harvard University Extension School Haley Mast is a freelance writer, fact-checker, and small organic farmer in the Columbia River Gorge. She enjoys gardening, reporting on environmental topics, and spending her time outside snowboarding or foraging. Topics of expertise and interest include agriculture, conservation, ecology, and climate science. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email Rogan Brown News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive Corals play an integral part in marine ecosystems, as they function as hotspots for nurturing biodiversity underwater, sometimes supporting thousands of different species. Corals also act to protect coastal areas, as they can soften the impact of incoming tidal waves, which in the long run can help coastal ecosystems and human communities weather out the worst effects of climate change. Unfortunately, since 1950 we've lost about half of the world's coral reefs due to a constellation of factors, including human-driven pollution, destructive fishing practices, as well as rising sea levels, increased ocean surface temperatures, ocean acidification, and changes to ocean currents and storm patterns. All of these elements combine to cause the phenomenon known as coral bleaching, where tiny algal organisms called zooxanthellae, which live on the coral skeleton in a symbiotic relationship, are expelled off due to these environmental stressors. What's left is a coral skeleton that looks starkly white—still living but stripped of its colorful algal guests. It's a sad and solemn image, one that artists like Rogan Brown attempt to capture in intricate, multi-layered sculptures made out of paper. Rogan Brown Brown's elaborately detailed work is inspired by the "narratives of scientific discovery and innovation," while expressing itself in the delicate and ephemeral medium of paper. As Brown explains: "A recurrent theme in my work is the limitations of science when confronted by the vast scale and complexity of nature. Science's goal of containing and defining nature is constantly subverted and fractured by the sheer volume and variety of data that needs to be observed, analyzed and classified. This is figured in the excessive detail that characterizes my work as I attempt to overwhelm the eye through the scale and volume of what I depict." To that end, Brown says his art pieces are grounded in a lot of research, both from a scientific and artistic perspective: "My work begins with observation of nature using all the various imaging technologies that open up the natural world to us: microscopes, telescopes, satellite images, and so on. For these coral-based sculptures I visited and observed actual reefs and also spent a great deal of time looking at images of coral online, pencil in hand, sketching different coral forms to create a repertoire out of which the sculptures would later be collaged." Often, Brown uses hand-operated tools like a sharp scalpel knife to painstakingly cut out his large-scale works, which can often take months to create. But in conjunction with these simple tools, he also strives to push his work further with the help of machines like laser cutters, which was also used with his latest series pictured here, titled "Ghost Coral." Rogan Brown This particular piece took about three months to create and involves hundreds of individual elements, from many sheets of carefully hand- and laser-cut paper, as well as their hidden supports. Brown doesn't use colored paper and rather chooses to hand-paint the components to create a much more nuanced contrast between the somber whiteness of the bleached coral hemming in on the last remaining vibrancy of healthy coral at the center. While "Ghost Coral" might speak to the distressing phenomenon of coral bleaching, Brown says that his other new work, called "Coral Garden," attempts to portray the more hopeful directions that marine conservation is currently taking: "'Coral Garden' seeks to offer some kind of positive hope for the future, as it is inspired by the work of marine biologists and activists in different parts of the world who are working to reseed damaged reefs with heat-resistant 'super corals.'" Rogan Brown The superpowers of such "super corals" are highlighted by the shiny bubbles that Brown has chosen to envelop them in, even as they are surrounded by weakened and palely blighted corals. Rogan Brown While it may be too early to know if transplanting heat-resistant "super corals" will help other degraded coral reefs rebound, Brown says it's important for people who see such worrying images to go beyond merely witnessing and to proceed to action: "With these pieces I was looking to find a powerful and accessible visual metaphor to show the devastating impact that man-made climate change is having on some of the world’s most beautiful and biodiverse habitats, namely coral reefs. They are the canary in the mine, the microcosm of the macrocosm; what happens there today -- progressive destruction –- will happen everywhere if we do not radically alter our habits. Paper is a simple delicate material and perfectly embodies the fragility of the reefs themselves. "I have chosen to engage with this issue because coral has been an inspiration to me from the very beginning of my practice and it saddens me deeply to see what is happening to it and at such speed. But political action is not done very well in artists’ studios or galleries. To limit climate change a more direct and energetic path must be taken: organizing and campaigning, going door to door, demonstrating and marching in the streets, civic disobedience. Art can play a propaganda role, but no more." To check out more of Rogan Brown's work, visit his website.