As I approach the last six months of my thesis, I’m currently in the process of piecing together a coherent visual narrative from the hundreds of pages of images I’ve examined over the last two and a half years. And there are a fair few; my thesis examines over one hundred years of National Geographic magazine’s representation of Brazilian dress, with a focus on the period since 1988, when the magazine celebrated its centennial. These magazine images are all contextualised, of course, by numerous examples from contemporary visual media, as I’ve tried to analyse the networks of meaning produced across the global mediascape.
Yet it was only fairly recently that a colleague passed on the Autumn/Winter 2013 25th edition of 032c, which featured an interesting pop-up art piece on National Geographic. I was curious to find out what sort of framework this Berlin-based contemporary culture magazine (which has been described by New York Times journalist Andreas Tsortzis as ‘below the radar of mainstream, but required reading for the movers and doyennes of the art and fashion world’) would adopt in commemorating the Washington-D.C. based, and now unequivocally mainstream, National Geographic. Entitled ‘L’Origami du Monde’, the artwork was created by French artist Cyprien Galliard to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the popular ‘scientific’ and educational journal. Gaillard is, after all, an avid collector of National Geographic. As he told Purple magazine: “It’s the kind of magazine your father had. It was this prism that you looked at the world through. There’s something very colonial about it.”
National Geographic was first established as a tall, slim scientific brochure devoid of images with a dull brown-coloured cover in September 1888. It’s now a global brand that encompasses cable television, books, maps, merchandising, additional magazines and a website, all easily recognisable by its popular motif: a bright yellow border. Gaillard’s artwork in 032c juxtaposed six brightly coloured photographs sourced from unknown locations in the trajectory of National Geographic’s documentation of ‘the world and all there is in it’. The instructions that accompanied it read:
‘Gaillard’s art edition for O32c can be assembled by making three simple folds from left to right into the inside hinge of the magazine. No glue is required. This anachronistic monument is held together by tension’.
So the interpretation of the artwork, I quickly realised, was entirely dependent upon the 032c viewer, who acquired an active as opposed to passive participatory role in its construction. This offered an interesting twist on the common complaints about National Geographic’s distanced ethnographic gaze, which has rendered subjects as dehumanised objects. Rather than analyse National Geographic at arm’s length, as many of its harsher critics have, Gaillard provided a critical and material re-engagement with the magazine at close quarters, and encouraged readers to do the same. This provided an alternative re-reading of National Geographic that cut through its purportedly disinterested anthropological gaze. Of course, for the naïve reader, there is no doubt an excitement in looking at colourful photographs culled from National Geographic. Indeed, some might deduce that the aesthetic qualities of Gaillard’s sculptural collage present a further aesthetisisation and exploitation of National Geographic subjects. I would argue, however, that the aesthetic is a critical device used here by Gaillard to subtly draw the reader in, in order to then boldly undermine their preconceptions of National Geographic, by treating the magazine itself as exotic specimen.
Crucially, Gaillard’s sculptural collage was designed not just to be read, but to be felt too. The O32c viewer had to physically assemble the artwork with her hands, a process that encouraged readers to rethink dressed National Geographic subjects in multidimensional terms, experienced concurrently as image and object. As a result, L’Origami du Monde hinted at the way in which National Geographic has communicated with its readership not just in terms of linguistic signification or effect, but also through the sensations, memories, emotions and affect that have been folded into its representations of dressed Brazilian subjects.
032c Issue 25 Winter 2013/4, pp. 158-167
Andreas Tsortzis, ‘A new breed of fashion magazine comes into vogue’, New York Times, August 20, 2007
Sven Schuman, ‘Cyprien Gailard: Architectural Hangover’, Purple, Issue 18 Autumn/Winter 2012