2 Corinthians 5:1–10

The Earthly Tent

Commentaries by Sarah White

Works of art by Alyssa Coffin, Eiko Otake and Ibrahim Mahama

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Eiko Otake

Eiko at St John the Divine, 26 November 2016, No.1374, 2016, Dance Performance (photographed); Made possible by a Dance/Film/Video grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, ©️ Eiko Otake; Photo: William Johnston

Pressed Into the Ground

Commentary by Sarah White

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For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling… (2 Corinthians 5:2 ESV) 

In Paul’s letter, the repeated groaning from within the body is a universal cry on behalf of the many and in response to the burdensomeness of life; but it is also the utterance of his own specific and personalized suffering. 

Eiko Otake’s ongoing performance series A Body in Places has been enacted over many years and at various sites across the world. It began at an abandoned railway viaduct in Philadelphia and subsequently moved back and forth from sites in Japan affected by and vacated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Acts of grief are witnessed through the contortions and contractions of her body and face; moments of stumbling, falling, and lying down; and a slow and defiant concentration on particular gestures of parts of the body. Her performances and their documentation articulate through the body both a personal and collective mourning, for both known and unknown losses.

This photograph shows Otake’s performance in New York, as she ‘takes up space’ in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, moving her body through the cavities and corners of the building. Her fragile frame and her age (she was 64 when the photograph was taken) emphasize the great vulnerability and exposure of a female body alone in a public space. Yet, her presence has also been described as ‘fierce’ and ‘elusive’, deeply conscious of and attuned to her surroundings (Hussie-Taylor 2016: 8).

Groaning builds and emanates from the gut in an inarticulate, unformed, preverbal noise at those moments when we acutely sense how ruptured creation really is. This groaning is primordial, and the expression of something both individual and collective. The syntax of loss seems hard wired into the psyche which structures our encounters with the world, and ‘prior to recognising the specific content of an affective grief, perhaps the human subject is born ready to mourn’ (Phelan 1997: 5).

Paul asks how long he can bear to remain in this tent. His conclusion is a resolved contentment and commitment to the reality of the present whilst still longing to be with God. The audiences who encounter and gather around Otake have a choice to remain or to leave. Many are content to stay with the performance before them; cleaving to the body which has interrupted their own.



Eiko and Koma. 2016. ‘EIko in the Cathedral, 2016’, available at https://vimeo.com/201051963 [accessed 24 October 2023]

Hussie-Taylor, Judy. 2016. A Body In Places: Danspace Project PLATFORM 2016 (New York: Danspace Project)

Phelan, Peggy. 1997. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories (Oxford: Routledge)

Plumtre, Edward Hayes. 1877–79. ‘2 Corinthians’, in A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, vol. 2, ed. by Charles John Ellicott (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin)

Alyssa Coffin

Antechamber, 2023, Mixed media, Collection of the artist; ©️ Alyssa Coffin; Photo courtesy of the artist

Blind Faith

Commentary by Sarah White

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[W]e know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:6–7 ESV) 

Over many months, artist Alyssa Coffin travelled out to Finland’s Rastila forest and built Silence Chamber. Coffin prepared this edifice by weaving together fallen trees and building a tent-like structure into the rocks nearby. The structure was made for visitors to crawl inside, one by one, and lie on the forest floor.

Antechamber, depicted here, was her attempt to manifest something of the remote Silence Chamber to the public in the city, within the walls of a gallery space.  

For St Paul, ‘the new creation, whose central feature is bodily resurrection, is being prepared and kept for us in heaven’ (Wright 2003: 369; cf. John 14:3). We cannot be in two places at once. We are either in the present life with the promise of what is to come, or in the future resurrection with the Lord.

Antechamber became a stand-in for the distant Silence Chamber, not through direct replication, but through igniting the bodily senses of visitors in ways that referred their imaginations onward to the other structure, far off in the depths of the forest.

The pitch-dark room contained ‘loosely translated topographical maps of the forest site, including a miniature model of the chamber made of woven branches’ (Coffin 2023a). Visitors moved through the space tracing their hands across leaves, rocks, branches, and soil, as a dim light faded briefly in and out every two minutes: creating fleeting and faint moments of visual revelation. Coffin’s recorded voice broke into the space with fragmented words and whispers.

Coffin is ‘interested in the darkness of the room dissolving boundaries of the inhabitant’s body and creating another kind of chamber where they were immersed in a different perception of time and space’ (Coffin 2023a).

Theologian John Hull, who experienced loss of sight from a young age, describes how the darkness in scripture is redeemed and made holy (Hull 2001: 3). The disorientating experience of darkness is foundational to Coffin’s Antechamber, and its sister work Silence Chamber. As we live by faith not by sight, we sense our way through the world, feeling in the dark. Faith implies trust, as we look to promises which have not yet been fully revealed, and hope for a reality which we cannot see.



Coffin, Alyssa. 2023a. ‘Post Thesis Exhibition Greetings, Artist Newsletter, 7 October 2023’, available at https://us16.campaign-archive.com/?u=f9d1ab8a5827081235a609032&id=aab3f95ba7 [accessed 20 October 2023]

______. 2023b. ‘Antechamber Documentation’, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZyXgNndA0w [accessed 24 October 2023]

______. 2023c. ‘Silence Chamber’, available at https://noba.ac/et/kunst/silence-chamber/ [accessed 24 October 2023]

Hull, John. 2001. In The Beginning There Was Darkness (London: SCM Press)

Wright, N. T. 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)

Ibrahim Mahama

Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030. 2016–2017, 2016–17, Charcoal sacks, scrap metal, tarpaulins, metal tags, and leather from Henschel train interior, 1729 sqm, Torwache, Kassel; ©️ Ibrahim Mahama, Courtesy White Cube

Producing the Body

Commentary by Sarah White

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For while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed. (2 Corinthians 5:4 ESV) 

A multitude of jute sacks from Ghana are bound together into a continuous piece of fabric to form the hand-sewn sculpture Check Point Sekondi Loco. This covering is then draped over buildings, enveloping and clothing them in a disruptive skin. The buildings Ibrahim Mahama uses include industrial, political, and artistic spaces. Through the act of covering, they are joined together across time and geography. 

Before Mahama acquires them, the sacks are used first, and only once, as carriers of cocoa. They then enter into circulation to carry other commodities ending with their final function as transporters of charcoal. At this point, the corroded material finally fails. 

Central to Mahama’s work is a concern with political systems and conditions of labour, production, and trade and the inequalities within them. He intentionally works in negotiation with people who are experiencing migration (particularly from rural areas to the city). The works created from these collaborations demonstrate how the body is implicated in both the materials and spaces of production. The bags are a kind of skin. More than that, the impressions on them often come directly from the bodies of individuals who have inscribed their names on their own skin as they travel from rural areas to the city. These markings then transfer onto the jute sacks. Thus, the woven threads of these sacks contain and transfer the memories and histories and movements of a multitude of peoples. 

Mahama speaks of the mundaneness of these bags which ‘should allow us to find some kind of commonality in our condition’ (Mahama 2020). For Paul, there is a similar intention in his use of familiar metaphors like tent, building, and body. However, the use of ordinary metaphors also paradoxically serves to highlight the reality of very dissimilar human experiences of both body and of home across time and geography.

Paul’s metaphor functions principally within a Jewish theology of the tabernacle, but today (as then) this analogy is sharply pertinent to anyone whose home has been destroyed or dismantled. The vision of, and longing for, the permanence of the eternal is not an indictment to neglect corporeal needs now but instead highlights why the lack of these things in the immediate matters so much to our existence.



Mahama, Ibrahim. 2016. Ibrahim Mahama: Fracture at Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrmr6JNxkR0 [Accessed 24 October 2023]

______. 2020. ‘NIRIN Artist Interview | Ibrahim Mahama’, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Awio9SKZlwA [Accessed 24 October 2023]

______. 2015. ‘Biennale Arte 2015—Ibrahim Mahama’, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAc3vx0YXVA, [Accessed 24 October 2023]

Ndikung, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng. 2017. ‘Ibrahim Mahama’, from Documenta14: Daybook, ed. by Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk (New York: Prestel)

University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities. 2019. ‘Ibrahim Mahama: Failures Promises, Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series’: 22:35–1:03:02, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYiZzTz4Xls&t=675s [Accessed 24 October 2023]

Eiko Otake :

Eiko at St John the Divine, 26 November 2016, No.1374, 2016 , Dance Performance (photographed)

Alyssa Coffin :

Antechamber, 2023 , Mixed media

Ibrahim Mahama :

Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030. 2016–2017, 2016–17 , Charcoal sacks, scrap metal, tarpaulins, metal tags, and leather from Henschel train interior

Maintaining Distance

Comparative commentary by Sarah White

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Internal to this section of 2 Corinthians is a series of accumulating metaphors of architecture, clothing, geography, and time. The dynamics of these allusions are accentuated and shifted as we consider the performance of materials, bodies, and spaces in all three of these artworks. 

2 Corinthians is imbued with a dialogue between distance and presence. Paul’s itinerant ministry informs these themes of relocation in his writing and a linguistic flux occurs within his language of being ‘absent’ and ‘present’; ‘at home’ and ‘away’. In 2 Corinthians 5:6 ‘at home’ or ‘present’ (Greek: endēméō) indicates the inhabitation of our mortal body, and ‘away’ or ‘absent’ (Greek: ekdēméō) refers to being with God. In 2 Corinthians 5:8, these meanings are reversed. ‘Away’ paradoxically becomes the state of remaining in the present time. This ‘away’ is an experience of dislocation, uprootedness, and impermanence as inherent to our mortal being. 

The temporary occupation of space by particular people and materials in Eiko Otake’s and Ibrahim Mahama’s work respectively is both a political and an aesthetic action. Each time the jute sacks are relocated, and Otake moves to a new space, memories from the previous place are transferred and carried with them across borders of space and time. Realities interconnect and reverberate with one another exposing our interdependence upon, our inter-connectedness with, and our responsibility towards those whom we do not necessarily see in front of us now—whether because of distance, ignorance, or a refusal to acknowledge them.

For Paul, there is a similar oscillation of experience and responsibility. He recognizes his accountability in the future for his current actions and his vision of what is to come profoundly impacts upon his perception of the present. The ‘tent’ (Greek: skēnos) we inhabit in the present may be acknowledged as impermanent, but in the imagery of the resurrection we see a continuity between the present and the future (eternal) body. This continuity between now and eternity opens up an imperative ‘to ethical endeavour in the present time’ (Wright 2003: 484).

Interpretations differ as to where in time Paul’s ideas are located: in the present or in the future, and in the context of whether Paul will die before or after Christ returns. If Paul was hoping for the resurrection transformation within his own lifetime, this would circumvent being unbodied at death. Instead of a state of ‘nakedness’ where the spirit is separated from the flesh, there would occur an immediate clothing with the physical resurrection body at the moment of the parousia. Such an act of covering, for Paul, would concurrently be an act of revelation as the body is encompassed by its heavenly dwelling. (In Mahama’s work we also see an act of revelation through the performance of covering, though in this case revelation is of the contradictions of inequality and exploitation. His swathes of jute sacks draw attention to the failure of the institutions housed within the buildings they are draped over.)

We experience an incongruity between our deep desire for the stability and endurance of the body, and the reality of the perishable structure we inhabit. Paul’s imagery of the tent is clearly rooted in Jewish theology and eschatology, and the primacy of the tabernacle as the portable, collapsible dwelling place of God carried amongst His people.

Both of Alyssa Coffin’s structures, Antechamber and Silence Chamber, are temporary and changeable edifices, existing for many people only in their imagination or memory. In Antechamber, Coffin reduces people’s capacity to see, removing the reliance on the visual for knowledge. Coffin encourages understanding to penetrate deeper into the body and through the nervous system, stimulating the senses of touch, smell, sound, balance, and proprioception. This heightening of the senses facilitates the play of the imagination, which is capable of transporting us through time and space.

We generally conflate the concepts of knowledge and sight, but as John Hull says,

in the state of being beyond light and darkness, one is brought into a strange intimacy with the divine…Faith has to do with what is not seen. Since a blind person can see nothing, the whole of the blind person’s life is immediately oriented towards the life of faith. (Hull 2001: 141)

In all three of these art works, there is a concentration on materials and bodies traversing time and space; their interactions with the land as they do so; and what is reimagined through these processes. Paul asks a similar question of how that which is departed and scattered can become alive, through a re-narration and re-configuration of reality. Paul points towards a material resurrection in the new creation: a putting on of the new resurrection body, rather than the destruction of the body. This re-weaving of reality is not a gesture or achievement of human hands but is a miraculous work of God, which we hope for by faith, not by sight.



Farrar, F. W. (ed.). 1880. 2 Corinthians, The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 45 (New York: Funk & Wagnalls)

Hull, John. 2001. In The Beginning There Was Darkness (London: SCM Press)

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press)

Plumtre, Edward Hayes. 1877–79. ‘2 Corinthians’, in A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, vol. 2, ed. by Charles John Ellicott (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin)

Wright, N. T. 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)

Next exhibition: Galatians 2:15–21

2 Corinthians 5:1–10

Revised Standard Version

5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.