Once upon a time, long ago, all human beings were rampant savages, without responsibility to anyone else but to themselves. But, at least according to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, as soon as we started to live in families and made camp together with other families, to stake out land for ourselves and try to protect our families and tribes from intruders, there was also a need to create some sort of deal that everyone could agree upon. Our ancestors agreed to what Rousseau dubbed “a social contract” of sorts, which was the beginning of civilization as we know it today, and was a way of ensuring future prosperity for all and not only for the strongest few, or the “fittest” to speak with Darwin.
The punishment, which plays an important part in this contract with other people, is inscribed like laws or in religious scriptures that we all have “signed” when born into what we call “society” or “civilization”. Punishment is basically the practice of imposing something unpleasant as a response to bad or immoral behaviour by an authority above you. This authority may be your mother, God or the society at large. The logic being that if you do something bad, someone else – the authority – will do something equally bad to you.
Beyond the governmental laws, or the rules of the adapted religion in the particular society, there are also other adopted rules in society – these rules are most commonly categorized to be derived from the heritage of “culture” and have different expressions in different cultures and are named “customs”. A custom, quite related to a particular punishment; the death penalty, is the custom to offer the sentenced person a last supper of their choosing just before the execution. This is a custom that remarkably enough seems to be the same regardless of what religion, society or culture one takes part of where it is still done.
Artists Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström, who teamed up together already in 1986 and has since worked with a wide variety of innovative expressions and medias, picked up on the bizarre notion of the custom of the last supper when reading a note in the newspaper one day about what exactly constituted the last supper of an executed person – in detail. In fact, along with the name of the executed person, what time he was killed, the information of what he had for dinner and dessert was all the note would inform the reader about. The absurdity in this custom, phrased as if it were a total normality, was, and still is, indeed puzzling. The Last Supper (2005) is a 58 minute long film signed Bigert & Bergström in which the viewer is taken along quite a ride through some of the intriguing facets of the phenomenon. The ride goes through not only the history and cultural expressions of the last supper, but also through the countries of: Thailand, South Africa, the Philippines, Japan and USA. Complexity and depth in the documentary style that dominates through the film is enhanced by the artistic clips and imagery that adds up to the typical “Bigert & Bergström”-touch together with a captivating soundtrack.
Throughout the film we get to see interviews with people who used to be in the executioner’s squad, individuals who are/used to be on death row, people who became freed men after formerly being on death row, prison wardens, a judge, a priest who follow the prisoner through the execution, a monk, a researcher in food studies and other people with a variety of angles and perspectives to the last supper. The documentary investigation is indeed thorough, and the main subject who leads us through the bumps and turns of the subject, while at the same time reconstructing the preparations of a last meal is the musician and chef Brian Price.
Price, an ex convict, who has prepared over 200 last meals for Huntsville State Prison, Texas, USA since 1991 tells us that during a busy year he will prepare approximately 40 last meals. Most of the meals Price prepares will not be eaten since not many are able to keep up appetite during the last hours before they know they will die.
The tradition of the last supper is traced to the belief in an eternal human soul, a soul that will be able to continue life in one way or another after the body is being dispersed. In ancient times food was buried with the dead to ensure their last travels into the land of the death. The last supper has now been detached of the original purposes and has become quite a quirky way of society to show a gentle and human face towards the convicted; that the execution is not a personal thing: it is simply just something that has to be done. It boils down to the “social contract” that we all submit to when we are being born into the society. The contract is signed by all, where submission to authority of a general will of the people as a whole guarantees the individuals of a society against being subordinated to the wills of others, and also ensures that they obey because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. This is also something Price takes duly note of: “The execution is listed as ‘homicide by stated ordered lethal injection’ – that’s murder in the name of the people”.
Paradoxical mind-jumps and absurdity aside, Price and his great cooking skills are the practical and necessary chores for society at large to punish an individual with the harshest penalty there is – death penalty. Every cooked potato, every slice of bread, every cut and every onion ring Price make is one step further towards the final second of someone’s life. Death is a peculiar and abstract thing that eludes any living creature until it evidently happen. Nevertheless, death remains as something very abstract to most living creatures although it is inevitable to us all. Food and the preparation of the food – something with an air of everyday-life to it – make in this case death more and more comprehensible and concrete.
Like any other contract the social contract needs to be renegotiated and at times be re-written. In fact, the thoughts of the philosophers of the Enlightenment lead to a very harsh restructure 300 years ago with the French Revolution and the invention of the guillotine. If the philosophers of that time were right, the human is by nature noble and good – and if so, people are also able to renegotiate the social contract with a completely different turnout. Art, which is philosophy become flesh, is also a meta-structure of the reality we live in, the only one we have. The film The Last Supper confronts man’s paradoxical and double relationship with death, and also with food. And to confront this paradoxical ritual is to be drawn into a debate about how human mercy and cruelty can share the same dinner table.