by John JervisMar 27, 2020
American architect and artist Mark Cottle’s The Cost of Money: Raft was recently displayed at the iconic Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Mies van der Rohe in Spain, from July 1-23, 2023. The site was built to serve as the German Pavilion of the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition and saw a great deal of avant-garde architectural work displayed during that time. Cottle’s work, while of far humbler materiality than what the architecture exhibition displayed, is nonetheless an important artistic intervention, and one worth meditating upon, for both, its form, which utilises nearly 10,000 single-use plastic bags, as well as its powerful message regarding the amount of trash that now chokes our planet’s oceans and the grim plight of those who sail those waters, in search of sanctuary.
Cottle explores the piece, telling STIR, "I was haunted by images in news reports of vast quantities of garbage in the oceans, and boats in the Mediterranean Sea, packed with people desperate to reach Europe, often resulting in tragedy. Théodore Géricault's painting, The Raft of the Medusa, a late 19th century depiction of a French naval disaster, served as a starting point. And gave me the title, ‘raft’.”
Upon first entering the space, the architect in Cottle quickly assessed that the vertical surfaces of the pavilion were “spoken for”, with due consideration given to their rich marbling. He decided that he would approach the large-scale art installation horizontally, and began creating two rafts for the pavilion, with one carpeting the floor of the main hall, and the other floating in the large pool. He says, “Both rafts are the same size and shape. Both are the length of the main room and the proportion of the pool.”
The artist chose plastic bags such that the colours in the interior raft would complement the richness of their surrounding materials, while those in the pool would speak to their immediate environment. Prior to this art installation, he had already been collecting plastic bags for many years, as he was attracted by their colours and sheen, and was reluctant to throw them into the trash. “I didn't have any idea what to do with them, or even how best to store them. So, I was delighted to find an entry point into new material for my work. These puffy triangles of plastic, laid out on a table, began to form tile patterns. From there, I devised a way to string them together with cotton twine into tapestries,” mentions Cottle. This birthed The Cost of Money, of which Raft is a continuing work.
The architect discusses the role of shopping bags within The Cost of Money, explaining that its single-use nature suggested the larger project’s title. In Cottle’s own words, “It is an artefact that epitomises the callously wasteful, disposable culture that surrounds us, and at first, I was only thinking of it as the title for the first piece I made with them, roughly four metres by three metres, tessellated in greens and pale blues, that I saw as a map, or portrait, of an unmarked, undetermined part of the ocean.” Prior to his work in Barcelona, Cottle also undertook an installation titled The Cost of Money: Tapestry at the Neutra VDL House in Silver Lake, Los Angeles in the United States, and regards this project as being site-less, or as he explains with a touch of humour, it is something of a vagabond and carries its site within itself.
Cottle did not consciously begin his career wishing to create works that shed light on pressing social and environmental issues, but as he explains, the desperation all around us, and the increasing evidence of inequity and inequality is hard to ignore. “Social issues came into my artwork sideways, following upon a theory seminar I have been teaching on the topic of the shadow, which until recently had focused mostly on optics and cognition, together with a look into how it works in art and architecture.”
However, he does not believe that architecture possesses any great power to address major social issues or an environmental crisis and cites the fact that vernacular and informal housing are generally able to perform the disciplines first responsibility, which is to provide shelter, while architecture as a discourse and a profession reports to the professional-managerial class, and serves the interests of the elites. As he says, “It's a system thing; I mean no disrespect to the number of socially-conscious practices around the world, doing great and meaningful work.”