A Honda “Tuk Tuk” taxi from
1983 and a “Leg Cast Missile Launcher” from 1995 are some of the inventory of
objects, vehicles, and weapons that appear in James Bond films—and now in Taryn Simon
’s latest body of work, “Birds of the West
Indies.” Interested in hidden, secret, and little-known narratives, as well as
archival materials, Simon’s deeply researched artworks have taken her through
the vaults of the CIA’s art collection and to New York’s JFK Airport, where she
explored the 1,075 items that were detained or seized from passengers and mail
entering the U.S. Now she takes on the story of the real James Bond, an
ornithologist whose taxonomic book Birds of the West Indies
of the fictional Bond, Ian Fleming, owned, prompting him to borrow the name for
his iconic character.
Pursuing various, alternative
lines of inquiry into her subjects, Simon approaches the Bond franchise like a
detective, creating her own taxonomy of the femme-fatales, gadgets, birds, and
vehicles that appear in the films—in effect transposing the real Bond’s method
onto his fictional other—and photographing all those she was granted
access to. Simon captures 1984 Aston Martin V8 Volante
, used in a 1987
Bond shoot, and Golden Gun,
from a 1974 shoot, against black backgrounds
and in studio lighting, reflecting their status as fetish objects while also
reading like the components of a forensic investigation. Among the photographs
Simon took of female characters in Bond films, Honor Blackman cuts an elegant
figure with coiffed hair in a gold lamé shirt, black pencil skirt, and heels,
while Denise Richards—one of the younger representatives of the Bond-girl
cohort—is unassuming in denim cut-offs and a white tank top. Simon suggests the
afterlives of all the numerous elements that make up Bond and, elevating its more
marginal narratives, deconstructs and demythologizes a fictional character
deeply embedded in the popular imagination. We caught up with Simon to weigh in
on her absorbing new body of work, now on view at Gagosian Gallery
, Beverly Hills.
Artsy: How did you arrive at
the subject of James Bond, the ornithologist and namesake for Ian Fleming’s
fictional James Bond?
Taryn Simon: I was researching
the mechanisms and formulas behind the success of the most globally adored and
economically successful film franchise of all time (with adjusted
dollars)—James Bond. Focusing on patterns and substitutions in the film’s
narratives led me to Ian Fleming’s writings, which then led me to a taxonomy of
birds, titled Birds of The West Indies, by an ornithologist named James
Bond. This taxonomy was with Fleming during the development of his iconic
fictional spy. He used the name for his lead character because he found it to
be perfectly plain and appropriate for “a blunt instrument in the hands of the
Artsy: What interested you
about the little-known narratives of the real Bond and Nikki van der Zyl—the
voice for several characters in Bond films?
TS: The heart of the project
rests in an effort to look off-center—to look into the background of the
background. Both Nikki and the real James Bond inhabit this space. They also
both illustrate methods of construction and creation through substitution.
Nikki is the voice of several characters, including Ursula Andress, in the
films. These lead women are fragmented together like virtual characters or
robots; a futuristic form, ahead of their time. Their voices are not their own.
And Nikki’s voice is associated with a different body. There’s a scrambling
I’m also exhibiting
correspondence, awards, and bird study skins from the collection of James Bond
the ornithologist. It’s almost impossible to read about his hunts, travels, and
expenses without thinking it is the fictional James Bond. Reality and fiction
collide and open up a space that is neither.
Artsy: What was it like to
shoot 65 Bond girls so many years on? Did your subjects have input into how
they were presented?
TS: My work often involves
accessing difficult subjects. Mistakenly, I assumed this would be easier
terrain than usual as I was dealing with performers and props, not government
sites or corporations. Yet I met the one thing I couldn’t trespass—a form of
vanity, I guess. Ten of the 57 women I approached to be part of “Birds of the
West Indies” declined to participate. Their reasons included pregnancy, not
wanting to distort the memory of their fictional character, and avoiding any
further association with the Bond formula. I represent each missing woman by
reinserting the black rectangle cut from the mat to frame their would-be
portrait, covering and at the same time representing their absence.
Artsy: Your larger practice has
often explored the archive, and in “Birds of the West Indies” you create your
own taxonomy of birds that appear in James Bond. The process of indexing and
cataloguing could be endless and some of your work is conducted over several
years—how do you know when you are finished with a particular research project?
TS: This one was finite. The
films were watched obsessively in an attempt to capture every speck that passed
by the lens. They [the birds] often appear as dust on a negative—a form that
has disappeared with the perfection Photoshop allows.
“Birds of the West Indies” is on view at
Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles, through April 12, 2014.