Hosein and Murphy Blog Exchange

Lise Hosein and Jennifer Murphy
introduction by Lise Hosein

As I was leaving Jenn Murphy’s studio for the first time, she told me about the banned French delicacy, the ortalon. This is the tiny endangered bird rumoured to be Francois Mitterand’s last meal; as small as your thumb, it’s caught and kept in a tiny cage after being blinded so that it will live in the perpetual dark, fattening itself by eating around the clock. When it’s plump enough it’s plunged into cognac and drowned. You eat it with a cloth over your head, both to completely immerse yourself in the overwhelming smell issuing from the bird and the cassoulade in which it’s presented, and to hide your shame from God. You eat it whole, crunching through skin, meat, organs, bones, beak and feet in what some describe as an unforgettably sublime experience that quickly morphs into a revolting one. Mitterand’s last meal, though it came several days before his death, affected him deeply enough that he reputedly refused to ingest anything else after the bird touched his lips.

It’s a dizzying story, certainly both repulsive and seductive. The violence done to this bird is matched by reverence for it; the ortalon is often referred to as “the soul of France.” Now, it’s an act of subversion to eat one while it’s become, for some, a compelling and much sought after experience. How this relates to Jenn Murphy’s work is rather convoluted; her workspace is littered with the cut out images of birds, horses, skulls and stamps that she takes from the wealth of books that inhabit her house. I get the sense that she gives the volumes squatters’ rights, moving around them carefully and trying not to get in their way. There are images from them everywhere, even cut out ones stuck in the pages of the books she’s loaned to me. The many pictures of horses and other animals familiar to teenaged girls’ bedrooms threaten to speak of sentimentality, but their forms, scissored out of the pages of books, instead seem rather violent and almost sickeningly rich. Formed into Murphy’s finished work, their backs affixed to metallic or mirrored materials, they seem even more baroque and heavy. And it’s this rather dangerous and overpowering quality of Murphy’s work that fits so well with the story of the ortalon, this dainty and almost impossibly small bird that has become the subject of French lore while it makes you shudder.

My trip through Jenn’s studio and the process of becoming more familiar with her work has been marked by these sorts of stories, the exchange of images, an almost schizophrenic and constant change of topics, a shared obsession with books. This kaleidoscope of subjects and pictures, very much like the cut out images that cover Murphy’s studio, has formed the beginning of a correspondence between us. For our studioblog then, we’ve decided to have a conversation through pages taken from books scanned on the internet, pictures we find through scavenging in online libraries, the websites of book dealers and the collections of bibliophiles. The results tend to mimic the pieces of source imagery found in Jenn’s studio and, I hope, they allow a different sort of entry point to her work. Watching Jenn search for these images online has been like watching a hunter bent on capturing a rare prize, and each time I look at her work now I’m reminded of her story of the ortalon and the number of other conversations we’ve had that have been delightfully morbid, filled with animals, violence, disguises, magic and phobias – the talks that have made their way into this online correspondence.

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