The Last Kopitiam

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Eugene Soh had barely graduated when the photo montage above brought him widespread fame/notoriety, a viral TedTalk and worldwide exhibition opportunities.

It’s a re-imagining of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper in a Singaporean Kopitiam (an open-air food-court), using the real-life tradesmen taking time out from their stalls.

Most commentators use words like “parody” and “spoof” and refer to Soh’s “signature irreverent and humorous style.” And that’s fair enough, since he refers to his work himself in such terms and he has gone on to produce much more in the same vein, restaging familiar classic pictures with quirky Singaporean titles (Eg “The Creation of Ah-Dam“).

And the word “irreverent” is fair enough too, I guess, since he’s also produced work with Christian themes (particularly The Second Coming series) which reviewers have criticised as “playing for laughs” rather than engaging with a concept.

Even The Last Kopitiam has come in for some of that criticism. But here’s the official line (from an online review):

“Eugene Soh’s images parody iconic works of art while providing a tongue-in-cheek commentary on contemporary life in Singapore. The many elements and characters in his works represent multiple narratives within a distinctly Singaporean context. He uses his technological expertise to manipulate various forms of digital art, constantly aspiring towards new ways to share his work. His distinct conversationalist style allows him to engage his audience with humour and grace.

I enjoyed the last sentence here – it reflects the way that Soh talks about his own work. In interviews, it’s evident that he wants to talk it all through. A couple more things are also evident: a) a Christian background (“The Bible I grew up reading…”) and b) a love for Singapore.

So how may we read the “multiple narratives within a distinctly Singaporean context”? Is the main thing here the social context of modern Singapore or the thought of the Last Supper happening there? Both thoughts coalesce in Soh’s own discourse, which makes the “spoof” and “parody” comments a little wide of the mark.

Here’s Soh commenting on the point:

 

“My new series explores possible scenarios that follow should [Jesus] choose to return in Singapore. Would people notice him descending from the sky? Would there be a loud bang to announce his arrival? Would he be interviewed on TV? Would he eat at our Kopitiams? Would he let Kong Hee out of jail? Chances of him choosing Singapore are pretty slim but one can dream.”

These two aspects form the “vertical” and “horizontal” of classic incarnational theology.

First, the vertical (although, of course, I don’t think that God is “up” and we are “down”).

The word Incarnational emphasizes what Christians believe is the most significant act of God in the history of creation: that God incarnated Himself in the person, Jesus of Nazareth.  To hear Paul sing it in Philippians 2, even the crucifixion is a subset of the true miracle, incarnation:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

In the terms of The last Kopitiam, a meal with street traders is an entirely appropiate context for God being “found in human form.” The concept of sharing and eating with friends is the very heart of what it is to be “in human likeness.” And note the two active verbs in this hymn are “emptied” and “humbled,” not “crucified” or “died.”  The emptying of God is incarnation.

And second, the horizontal.  To be an incarnational Christian also means that we consider it our responsibility to enflesh the good news of the Jesus today, to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” in acts of love to our fellow human beings, to, in the words of Francis, “preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.” In fact, we are summoned to love the world as God did, and we are sent to it, just as Christ was.

Elsewhere, Paul exhorts us to be ambassadors of the reconciliation that Christ accomplished — reconciliation between God and humans.  In other words, the very same work that Jesus did — incarnational work — is now our task.

Now, of course Soh’s work does have parodic elements. Of course it evokes surprise and some laughter. But it’s not the same as the sly anti-Christian mockery of the original MASH film (1970), where the characters take up the positions of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

The intent in The Last Kopitiam is not derogatory but celebratory. Soh is asking: “If Jesus came to my town, what would it look like?”

The Christian claim is that God DID come; that the Word who IS God, was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1). And he came not in style and pomp but as a normal human being. And he wasn’t adored on a white podium between two golden candlesticks, but crucified on an execution block between two thieves.

And everywhere -and in everyone- where Christ is Lord , the Christ sits to eat and talk and share his life. Here’s his closing word (and also our modus operandi): “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

 

 

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