Paul Hurley: Suck it from the shell

Osunwunmi

Part 1

Isn’t it strange how we’re sanctioned to eat oysters, an intimately brutal procedure, in the name of both metaphoric awareness and sensory gratification? Control, surrender, a dirty great shucking tool, salty sea-tinged juices, a series of little deaths…even the self-confessed vegetarian amongst us was necking them down.

For a number of years Paul Hurley has worked on performances in which he “becomes” an invertebrate. For Inbetween Time, he “becomes” an oyster. And, as apparently “it’s nice to eat them, as well as become [them]”, we, future witnesses to his transformation, in the interest of our general enlightenment, have been invited to a feast. The artist has set up quite an occasion, an educational dinner event—not quite a party, though the company was both civilised and convivial.

The table was set with 10 covers, the ambient light was dim, coming from a string of feathered white fairy-lights arranged on the table. Silver service waitress, fashionable photographer, silver and china and each plate holding a napkin folded in an oyster shape. We had bread rolls and fresh butter, there were white roses on the table, and we were offered champagne as Mr Hurley held forth at the head of the table on a subject obviously close to his heart.

I can truly say I’ve been enlightened, because it was quite a lecture. In order to explicate the oyster which he would spend 6 hours the next day becoming, Mr Hurley (and I have to call him that, as the relaxed formality of the event has rubbed off on me) touched on palaeontology, zoology, cultural studies and gastronomy. He stood at the head of our table, in dinner jacket and loosened bow tie. A kitchen console stood to one side of him and a flipchart to the other. He lectured us, consulting his notes from time to time: “Two hundred million years!” he would confirm, going through the taxonomy of the creature and waxing lyrical about the pleasures of eating it. He explained that this morning’s supply had to be specially flown in from Wexford. He drew explicit analogies between oyster eating and various acts of love.

Hurley took a sturdy metal tool—we could hear the champagne corks popping—forced it between the lips of the hapless bivalve sliced through its abductor muscle to force it wide open—we knew exactly what he was doing because he talked us through it – worked the knife all the way around the shell under the little creature’s body, and tipped the excised morsel into his mouth. He’d written a poem about this:

Bite the tongue from the mouth
And suck it from the shell
And chew, never swallow…

He took sips of champagne. There was an acid tang in the air. “This is not sex,” he quoted, “remember you’re drinking from the sea.”

Well, they served us the oysters and I was going as far as I could with this thing; I held my gnarly goblet of mollusc in both hands and discovered it smelt of rock pools. To the left and right of me, people were gulping and enjoying themselves. Mr H was explaining more about his process, and we diners were asking polite questions. Some guests asked how long the creature takes to die after the shell is opened. You’re worrying about this after you’ve eaten it? We were served angels on horseback (grilled oysters wrapped in bacon) with a different, fruitier champagne. I asked my neighbour what the difference was. “When they are cooked, they become more texture than taste”, he replied.

The lecture concluded with a disquisition on the in-betweeness of the being of oysters: hermaphroditic; rocky on the outside, pearly on the inside; flesh and liquid; two hundred million years old and ephemeral, fading once they are out of water. Mr H told us more about oysters as aphrodisiacs and the incredibly erotic experience of eating them. I wanted to ask Paul Hurley if he’s ever considered becoming a sausage, but I just didn’t have the nerve…

Part 2

I ain’t saying nothing. Just that the crack about the sausage wasn’t as off as I’d thought it would be.

Oh, and, maybe I will say a little something about how well conventions of social ritual do camouflage a kitsch aesthetic, which body art may foreground rather vividly.

4 February 2006