James Bond: debonair hero of the British Secret Service, or Caribbean bird expert? The answer is both. Ian Fleming named his famous spy after an ornithologist who wrote the comprehensive Birds of the West Indies. At Almine Rech Gallery in Paris, artist Taryn Simon fuses the cosmos of 007 with the interests of the researcher to produce a field guide to the birds that appear in James Bond films. The result is a clever, elegant exhibition that adroitly delves into notions of authenticity and narrative against a backdrop of cinematic conventions and evidence-based scientific systems.
Simon’s work assumes the solemn trappings of an accredited body of knowledge: On the walls, large black frames contain multiple black-and-white photos with typed labels, arranged under thick cream mats; the notation for each photo includes the date, location, and a precise time code, for example, 00:29:32 Southern California, United States, 1979 (all works 2013–2014). These are film stills from the James Bond series, and they make up a comprehensive catalog of each instance where one or more birds appear in the frame. Following the convention of motion pictures, Simon’s taxonomy is done in order of appearance. Most birds are indistinct—a speck, a blur, or a series of smudges—but there are also quite a few that contain close-ups of birds in cameo roles, and even one that memorably depicts the classical figure of flight, wings outstretched in the orthodox form of the Holy Spirit (01:10:22 Crab Key, Caribbean Sea. 1962). The stills also hold clues to their origins in the form of stunning vistas or Euro-chic cityscapes; others have mysterious hints of action: cars, guns, and crowds in plazas.
In the middle of the room, a long vitrine contains maps, letters from the real James Bond, images of stuffed specimens, book pages from Bond’s ornithological texts, and a photo album. By applying the visual and material conventions of the natural-history museum to the work of both Bonds, the artist transposes these parallel narratives. And since 007 is far more famous than the Bond of birding, the formal properties of the installation further authenticate the fictional universe of the spy and destabilize the work and life of the ornithologist by validating both practices equally.
The items in the vitrine corroborate this view. Unlike the framed works, which have a weighty materiality, the images of bird specimens are flimsy reproductions on thin paper. Interspersed with these pictures are photocopies of Bond’s typed letters, written in a formal, often peevish tone: “I don’t know why Phil Livingstone told you I had been ill”; and another: “It is possible that some joker signed my name and address for as James Bond (007) I have been subject to many annoyances.” Thrillingly for the viewer, this last missive provides the exact point at which one Bond’s identity slides into the other. The letters are signed “Sincerely yours,” and “Yours faithfully,” attesting to the character of a man who preferred straightforward, honest communication. But in the context of the installation, these linguistic markers of truthfulness seem like another aspect in which all attempts at veracity are turned inside out, and the earnest closings are the site at which fact blurs into fiction.
In the next room, a small video screen mounted in a tall black column provides a kind of key to the exhibition. The film Honey Ryder (Nikki van der Zyl), 1962 documents the work of Nikki van der Zyl, who lent her voice to the overdubbing of a dozen major and minor characters in nine 007 movies from 1962 to 1979. On the screen, van der Zyl reads from a script, spotlit in front of a plain white wall, dressed simply in a cream blouse and beige pants. This uncomplicated and underproduced scene is the opposite of a Bond film, yet it manifestly reveals the ventriloquism necessary to create cinematic fiction, how fantasy transforms plain fact into something richer.
Of naming his character for a living person, Ian Fleming once said, “This brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon, and yet very masculine name was just what I needed.” Likewise, Taryn Simon adopts voices from other sources to construct an exhibition that is suggestive and eloquent. This is how we make sense of our environment and experience: by appropriating and reclassifying, forever reshuffling the so-called known world into new narratives.
Taryn Simon: Birds of The West Indies is on view at Almine Rech Gallery in Paris through March 14, 2015.