In the service of 007: Carnegie International artist looks at images that create the mystique



The name is Bond, James Bond. Viewed through the work of New York artist Taryn Simon, however, the pop culture superspy might just as well be known as Honey Ryder, Tiffany Case or even Pussy Galore.

The Carnegie International's presentation of Ms. Simon's "Birds of the West Indies" is a thought-provoking examination of the guns, gadgets, vehicles and yes, comely women who define the man with a "license to kill" and a penchant for Tom Ford suits.

Ms. Simon's work is a series of darkened images, matted against a gunpowder black field, also framed in black. Stretching across the walls of the Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Gallery, it almost resembles a strip of film.

Weapons, gadgets and vehicles float in a sea of black, confined within their framed, 15 3/4-by-10 1/2-inch spaces. The women are a different story, standing out against a mostly white background, although the floor is black. In tiny text below each image is a small, ecru-colored cutout describing the subject of the photo and giving the date of the Bond film in which she or it appeared. In the captions, A refers to women, B to weapons and C to vehicles.

Ian Fleming -- an avid bird-watcher -- said he named his fictional hero after a well-known naturalist, according to a 1962 interview in The New Yorker.

"I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened ... . One of the bibles of my youth was 'Birds of the West Indies' by James Bond, a well-known ornithologist, and when I was casting about for a name for my protagonist I thought, 'My God, that's the dullest name I've ever heard.' So I appropriated it.

"Now the dullest name in the world has become an exciting one. Mrs. Bond once wrote me a letter thanking me for using it."

The James Bond of Mr. Fleming's books is more loutish than the man portrayed in 23 films. Taken as a whole, Ms. Simon's installation at the Carnegie International makes the argument that 007 doesn't actually exist beyond a hollow shell. He lives in reflection of the constants (weapons, cars, bikini-clad women) around him. There are almost 200 images making up "Birds of the West Indies." Mr. Bond is nowhere to be found against those stark white walls.

"People say, 'Where's James Bond?' You have his name in your head immediately as this character and yet, he's noticeably absent," said Tina Kukielski, one of the three Carnegie International co-curators.

"This dance occurs between the absence and the work."

Indeed, some of the "Bond Girls" are missing. Ms. Simon invited them all to sit for her, wearing attire of their own choosing. Ten of the 57 women declined, including Teri Hatcher ("Tomorrow Never Dies," 1997). According to the Carnegie International press materials, their reasons included "pregnancy, not wanting to distort the memory of their fictional character, and avoiding any further association with the Bond formula."

There are frames on wall for the missing women, but with black mat board in place of photographs.

Honor Blackman ("Goldfinger," 1964) is the essence of mature chic in her portrait. Corinne Clery ("Moonraker," 1979) is topless. Grace Jones ("A View to a Kill," 1985) wears nothing but a man's black tuxedo jacket and strappy heels.

The vehicles range from a "Bath-O-Sub" ("Diamonds Are Forever," 1971) to a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 ("Skyfall," 2012). The weaponry is striking in its capacity to frighten or amuse. A Thermos Bomb ("A View to a Kill") and Shark Brain Control Device ("Never Say Never Again," 1983) vie for attention with two of the Bond films' most iconic images: the Razor-Edged Bowler Hat ("Goldfinger") and the Steel Teeth worn by Richard Kiel ("The Spy Who Loved Me," 1977, and "Moonraker").

These repetitive images, which Ms. Kukielski likened to the sort of orderly boxed display of butterflies or beetles found in a museum, appear cold at a distance.

"But then they invite you to come closer," she said. "I've had some people comment to me that they wished the photographs were bigger, but in fact, if the photograph was bigger, it would move outside of the form in which it has been characterized."

"Taryn is someone who wants to create a system and work within that system."

In an interview for the Carnegie International catalog, Ms. Simon says, "I was interested in the economic and emotional value generated by repetition in the construction of fantasy.

"In servicing the desires of the consumer, fantasy becomes formulaic, and repetition is required. Viewers demand something new, but only if it's essentially the same. A contract between Bond and the viewer binds the narrative to a certain set of expectations.

"Satisfying these expectations established Bond as a ubiquitous brand, a signifier to be activated with each subsequent novel and film. The resulting film franchise has reiterated its narrative since 1962 to unprecedented economic success."

Underscoring the interchangeable nature of Bond women is a video that plays out over 8 minutes on a tiny screen. The subject is Nikki van der Zyl, a German voice actress. She dubbed lines for the very first Bond girl, Ursula Andress, in 1962's "Dr. No," as well as several others. In the video, the actress, now 78, reads lines from the "Dr. No" script.

"There is a lot of mystery in the work," Ms. Kukielski said. "Part of that is from a number of things. The photographs are rather small. They require you to get up-close.

"From my experience observing people, there's not that kind of immediate gestalt you might normally have, walking into an installation."

The 56th Carnegie International continues through March 16 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland.


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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