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Taryn Simon on Human Truths and Indexing Bond’s Birds

To understand Taryn Simon’s work, you must understand multiple human truths at once: Women often become objects, James Bond will never die, and we cannot control the flight of birds. Born 1975 in New York, Simon creates indexes and “taxonomies out of perceived disorder.” Her two-part work, Birds of the West Indies, appeared in the 2013 Carnegie International exhibition and takes its name from a taxonomy by American ornithologist James Bond, published pre-Casino Royale and 007 days. Author Ian Fleming picked Bond for his lead character’s moniker, thinking it “ordinary,” “brief,” “Anglo-Saxon,” and “masculine,” according to Simon. While those descriptors fit 99 percent of male action stars, they are the antithesis of her exhibit.

Birds of the West Indies begins as a photographic inventory of 47 of the 57 “Bond Girls,” weapons, and vehicles from over the half-century and 24-film body of Bond lore. The photographs are a catalog, Simon said, of the “essential accessories of the film’s seductive, powerful, invincible Western male.” The Silver Teeth appear near Pussy Galore, an Aston Martin near Grace Jones—and so on and so on.

Simon, who has talked her way into nuclear sites and the CIA headquarters, said she surprisingly met her greatest roadblock “in the form of vanity.” Ten Bond actresses declined to participate, telling Simon they did not wish to distort the perception of the characters, were pregnant, and or wanted to leave the film in the past. Simon still put up frames and labels for these women, portraying the absences against a white background.

“Time disrupts the inventory as the women confront an indelible fiction with nature’s reality,” Simon said. The invincible Bond is also absent from the exhibition’s 200 frames, suggesting that he is only a product of constantly replaced props. Consumer culture rewards the familiar, even if in the mystical case of a spy elevated by sex and money.

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Left to right: Taryn Simon, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), 1964, 2013; Plenty O’Toole (Lana Wood), 1971, 2013. (Courtesy of Taryn Simon/Gagosian Gallery)

For the second part, Simon shows that birds are the only thing that can break and disengage from the Bond film formula. Simon, whose grandfather and father were photographers and researchers, plays Bond the ornithologist: identifying, photographing, and displaying the birds that appear—purposefully or by chance—in the films.

Simon said she attempts to reach a work’s center, while also acknowledging the impossibility—or seemingly impossibility—of getting there.

Through a video of the German voice actor who gave several of the character’s their seductive drawls, Simon illuminates a facade in the Bond formula. You probably haven’t heard of Nikki van der Zyl, but you have heard her—as Honey Ryder and Solitaire, to name two. She finally gets her credit in Simon’s thoughtfully constructed world, where James Bond, action hero and protagonist, is no longer in the foreground.

Since its inception in 1896, the Carnegie International has been Carnegie Museum of Art’s signature survey series, the preeminent exhibition of new international art in the United States. To learn more about the artists and artworks showcased throughout the history of this storied exhibition, visit the archivesImage (top): Taryn Simon, installation view of Birds of the West Indies, 2013 (Courtesy of Taryn Simon/Gagosian Gallery).