Great Divide

2010 -- cotton, wire / ~13 x 3 x 3 feet This work utilizes 100 pounds of raw cotton, grown, sourced and discarded near my former studio on the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the passage of NAFTA, more than a million Mexican farmers have lost their land due to the market saturation of U.S. cotton and other crops, driving prices for these goods below the cost of production. Unable to compete, small farmers have been forced out of business.

In addition to being highly subsidized, cotton might be the most toxic crop in the world. Cotton uses more than 25% of all the insecticides in the world and 12% of all the pesticides. Also, 75% of the cotton and cottonseed in the U.S. is genetically modified. These external and intrinsic chemicals have polluted habitats and residents wherever the crop is grown.

It's also said that in the U.S. we ingest more cotton products than we wear. Cotton fiber accounts for around 30% of a harvest, whereas cottonseed and gin trash make up the rest. Most of the cottonseed and almost all the gin trash are fed to cows, thereby entering the human food supply. The remainder of the cottonseed winds up in many different junk foods with the same end result.

Another layer of the work reflects current issues of supply and demand. A recent forecast by the National Cotton Council of America indicates that the fiber will remain in short supply this year while demand increases. Cotton prices have risen 24% since the beginning of 2011, mirroring trends of other natural resources as global population and market production needs continue to grow.

While working on this piece, my studio was a renovated cotton gin in southern New Mexico. There, like in many other parts of the country, agricultural land is giving way to housing development, and while one set of windows looked out over planted fields, the porch faced a growing tract of New Tuscan homes.  This summer’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf, news of which hummed on in the background, also highlighted the precarious balance between preserving resources and fulfilling lifestyle needs.

When first introduced to cotton, medieval Europeans noticed that it resembled wool, a familiar material. Told that it came from a plant, a prevalent belief held that its stalks bore diminutive sheep at each end. In contemporary life, we similarly attempt to draw on the familiar to make sense of things we don’t know. And as an artist, I wonder where our blind spots are – that is to say – what do we now take as a fact that may later seem like a lamb emerging from a bloom?

Contributor's Biography:

Susannah Mira completed her master's degree in Environmental Art at the University of Art and Design Helsinki (now Aalto University) in 2008.  Born in San Francisco and raised in a non-descript Philadelphia suburb, she champions a highly itinerant artistic practice based out of an updated station wagon.