Los Angeles

Taryn Simon, Switzerland, 2014, ink-jet prints in boxed mat and aluminum frame, 39 7/8 x 79 1/2". From the series “Birds of the West Indies,” 2013–14.

Taryn Simon, Switzerland, 2014, ink-jet prints in boxed mat and aluminum frame, 39 7/8 x 79 1/2". From the series “Birds of the West Indies,” 2013–14.

Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon, Switzerland, 2014, ink-jet prints in boxed mat and aluminum frame, 39 7/8 x 79 1/2". From the series “Birds of the West Indies,” 2013–14.

The birth of modern ornithology, according to historian Daniel Lewis, was marked by notable developments in three areas: classification, language, and accountability. The first can be traced directly to Darwin: Following the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, it became practice not just to note affinities among groups of birds but to make fine distinctions between subspecies and to track their evolution over time. These emerging classification systems in turn made fresh demands on language, requiring the invention of new and precise terminologies. Finally, the arrival of such classificatory principles and their attendant vocabularies brought with them important questions of accountability: Who, exactly, should have the authority to develop and impose such systems?

These very concerns have been central to Taryn Simon’s previous work, which has categorized everything from items confiscated at the airport (“Contraband,” 2010), to narratives linked to a bloodline (“A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII,”2008–11), so perhaps it was only a matter of time before the artist turned to ornithology itself. In her latest body of work, “Birds of the West Indies,” 2013–14, Simon plays on the vocation of the real-life James Bond (the ornithologist whose name Ian Fleming borrowed for his fictional agent, and the author of the original 1936 bird guide that lends Simon’s project its title). Her recent exhibition at Gagosian comprised two discrete schemas: first, a photographic guide to three “species”(the weapons, women, and vehicles featured in the 007 movies), and second, what one might call “fieldwork” photographs documenting the array of birds (and their habitats) represented across twenty-four Bond films—that is, black-and-white shots of the film frames in which birds happen to be visible.

For the first group of images (also shown at the 2013 Carnegie International), Simon isolated each weapon, woman, and vehicle against a neutral background, labeling the 190 photographs with basic identifying information, including the year of the film in which they appeared (for example, Leg Cast Missile Launcher, 1995; Pussy Galore [Honor Blackman], 1964; and 1963 Aston Martin D85, 1964). The photographs of the women are simultaneously the most interesting to study and the most disjunctive in terms of a typological project; though “Bond girl” may be a type, the same cannot be said of the actresses who play them. Simon’s presentation of these women as real individuals (many of whom have aged significantly since their star turns) throws a wrench into the generally impersonal nature of such classificatory projects.

In her photographs of “Bond birds,” Simon aggregated the stills by cinematic location (Morocco, France, North Korea, etc.), mimicking the geographic logic of ornithology, just as the real Bond’s Birds of the West Indies followed the template of famous ornithologist Robert Ridgway’s epic eleven-part Birds of North and Middle America (completed in 1950). In spite of Simon’s efforts, however, one learns practically nothing, zoologically speaking, about the birds depicted. In some cases, the grainy shadows of birds are barely visible; in others, it is unclear whether the outlines are birds at all, rather than planes or helicopters. Those birds that are legible as such appear mostly to be pigeons and crows; instead of documenting a range of unique species, the photographs repeatedly show the generic bird-types of everyday urban surroundings.

Despite—or rather because of—the semi-absurdity of Simon’s “taxonomy,” her artificial ordering system surreptitiously yields other kinds of information. Within these decidedly undecisive images are embedded certain quotidian facts (Venice has a lot of birds) but also, more crucially, larger lessons about the unreliability of photographs as visual information. Indeed, both photography and the act of classification—each rooted in traditions of empirical observation—are shown to be uncertain guarantors of verifiable knowledge. Which leads back to the issue of accountability: By denying us access to the type of hard data one expects from such a classification project, Simon makes it the responsibility of the viewer to reconsider just what one is seeing.

Jennifer King