Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything
November 11, 2017-April 9, 2018
Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal
185 Saint-Catherine St W, Montreal, QC H2X 3X5, Canada
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, JAN. 2018
Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything is a fitting part of the official program for Montréal’s 375th anniversary celebration as well as a fine tribute to the life and work of a musical genius – and an extraordinary Montrealer. Borrowing its title from Cohen’s song Anthem, which contains the famous line “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” this multidisciplinary exhibition offered a fully adult dose of his music and a host of commissioned work by local and international artists inspired by his songbook, persona, and maverick style.
Just past the reception desk, where it can’t be missed, and en route to the exhibition halls, hung a photographic portrait of Cohen dated 1966. This luminous portrait was taken by one of Canada’s great photographers, Gabor Szilasi, and sounded an eloquent grace note for the proceedings from the outset. Cohen was my neighbour for several years, and this candid 50-year old photograph that catches the artist in his first flowering is still remarkably close to his likeness just before his death, the ravages of time notwithstanding. Such is the enduring talisman--the witchcraft, if you will--of unfettered charisma.
Another high point was Jenny Holzer’s massive light projections at Silo no 5, one of Montréal’s most iconic architectural edifices, located some distance south of the Museum proper. Entitled For Leonard Cohen, it highlighted sundry phrases from Cohen’s poems and songs and lent them new and unexpected meanings on that scale, in that place. Here was a lovely outsize counterpoint and apt bracketing to the small-scale Szilasi portrait that hung in the museum foyer.
At the museum, George Fok’s Passing Through (2017, multi-channel video installation), is an engrossing and all-enveloping celebration of Cohen’s singular voice and charismatic stage presence culled from different periods of his career. To see and hear him sing First We Take Manhattan (1986) still generated a palpable frisson: “I don't like your fashion business, mister/And I don't like these drugs that keep you thin/I don't like what happened to my sister/First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” The singer/songwriter’s very personal take on terrorism, with its prophetic End Times theme, seems especially relevant now, as contemporary culture enters its late stage decadence and perhaps imminent collapse.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Poetry Machine (2017) offered visitors the opportunity to call forth Cohen’s spoken voice by pressing a key on a vintage Wurlitzer organ from the 1950s, triggering the recital of excerpts from Cohen’s Book of Longing (2006) from old speakers and gramophone horns. It was a lovely tribute to Cohen’s uncanny ability to stealthily infiltrate our heads with the magical resonance of his words. Christophe Chassol's Cuba in Cohen (2017), a video installation, remixed and melodized to telling effect an excerpt of Cohen reciting his poem “The only tourist in Havana turns his thoughts homeward” (from Flowers for Hitler, 1964).
Tacita Dean, in Ear on a Worm (2017, 16-mm colour film), showed a bird, projected life-size, sitting on a wire for 3 minutes and 28 seconds—the exact duration of Cohen’s beloved song “Bird on a Wire,” composed in 1968. Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz's “I'm good at love, I'm good at hate, it's in between I freeze.” was a multimedia installation centering on a video projection filmed at the Alhambra Palace Hotel in Ramallah, Palestine. This revisionist take on Cohen's presence in the Middle East drew us in and through those ancient quarters with alacrity, as we followed in his footsteps.
Kara Blake’s piece for the show, an installation called The Offerings, also took its cue from the singer’s Anthem. The laudatory result of sifting through decades of archival material, including TV and film appearances, photographs and texts, the work offered an immersive and captivating portrait of the artist at work and play. Thomas Demand’s Ampel / Stoplight, (2016, multimedia video installation), offered a close-up view of a stoplight accompanied by a special a cappella recording of Cohen’s song “Everybody Knows,” which Demand loves. The song’s recurring refrains and stanzas mirrors the life of the inner city hand-in-glove. Kota Ezawa’s Cohen 21 (2017, 16-mm animated film installation) brought back back within the horizon of the present tense the opening two and a half minutes of the National Film Board of Canada’s 1965 short film, Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen. Taking its inspiration from Hans Richter’s 1921 silent abstract Rhythm 21, the installation was, however, more about the future than the past, more about what he birthed than where he began.
Ari Folman’s Depression Chamber (2017, immersive multimedia installation) was an unflinching look at depression and mental upset, with Famous Blue Raincoat, perhaps Cohen’s saddest song, playing for visitors, as they entered that filmmaker’s sensory “depression chamber” one-by-one and were catapulted into a sort of limit-experience in and beyond the music. As you laid yourself down on the daybed, you saw yourself, with the help of capture technology, on the ceiling with the haunting lines from Famous Blue Raincoat falling like a morphing, tear-stained cloak, and with all the sheer torpor of melancholy, and draping over one’s body.
Clara Furey’s When Even The (2017, recurrent dance performances in the presence of Marc Quinn’s sculpture Coaxial Planck Density (1999)) was simply mesmerizing. This cycle of performances choreographed and performed by Furey – who knew Cohen through her parents when she was young -- was inspired by the Cohen poem of the same title. In this ninety-minute work, performed for ninety days in the presence of the Quinn sculpture, Furey explored the full range of salient themes in Cohen’s work with what can only be described as existential fervour. Indeed, the performance was marked by stunning authenticity, were deeply felt, and a perfect offering to Cohen’s memory.
Montreal’s own subversive cybermind Jon Rafman offered Legendary Reality (2017). This signature video installation was at least as inviting as his now-legendary Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (2009). The sundry spoken and incantatory thoughts of a solitary narrator drew on everything from lines of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets to Cohen’s song fragments. This stream-of-consciousness romp through digitally processed found photos and 3D landscapes sourced from video games seemed to document a solitary descent into one man’s interior aka hell.
That consummately disruptive creative duo, the Sanchez Brothers, were inspired by a photograph of Cohen taken by his long-time friend Dominique Issermann, in what is certainly one of their finest works to this date. The brothers, whose psychological thriller A Worthy Companion starring Evan Rachel Wood was recently released, captured Cohen holographically -- through the window of his room, full of mementoes and working utensils -- on the veranda of his Los Angeles home, overlooking the view beyond at twilight. At once melancholy and exalting, and drawing inspiration from “Pepper’s ghost,” a fairground illusion technique popularized by John Henry Pepper (1821-1900), this installation demonstrated the remarkable cinematographic clarity of the brothers’ work, and brought Cohen back to life, if only virtually and for a bare moment.
Taryn Simon essayed a spare and moving tribute to Cohen with her mixed-media installation showcasing The New York Times, Friday, November 11, 2016, which ran the headline "Writer of 'Hallelujah' dies." Leonard Cohen died on Monday, November 7, 2016, just one day before Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth President of the United States. Cohen once called the USA the “cradle of the best and of the worst” (in Democracy, 1999), and in the picture that accompanies his obituary, Cohen lifts his hat as if in a gesture of farewell.
The other two thematic facets of the show were listening rooms for works commissioned by the museum from musicians and a selection from the museum’s collection of work that dwelt thoughtfully on Cohen’s redeeming vision of the "crack in everything" as the aperture through which light enters and enables, ennobles life.
That’s how the light gets in: Pictures for an Exhibition took a cue from the famous Cohen song in interrogating the issue of light as both subject and object and includes work by artists Marie-Claire Blais, Jérôme Bouchard, Olivia Boudreau, Michel Daigneault, Pierre Dorion, Nicolas Lachance, Stéphane La Rue, Rita Letendre, Elizabeth McIntosh, Yann Pocreau, Leopold Plotek, Monique Régimbald-Zeiber, Marc Séguin, Claude Tousignant and Janet Werner. It was a nicely curated group of works by artists across the spectrum of artistic production, and those by Pierre Dorion, Marie-Claire Blais and a huge, drop-dead gorgeous portrait by Janet Werner all shone particularly brightly.
Finally, and more than aptly, a number of sympathetic musicians were invited to record an exclusive cover of a Cohen song, playing at the Museum in an installation titled Listening to Leonard. They include Ariane Moffatt, with l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Aurora, Brad Barr, Basia Bulat, Chilly Gonzales and Jarvis Cocker with The Kaiser Quartett, Dear Criminals, Douglas Dare, Feist, Half Moon Run, Julia Holter, Leif Vollebekk, Li’l Andy & Joe Grass, Little Scream, Lou Doillon, Mélanie De Biasio, Moby, The National with Sufjan Stevens, Richard Reed Parry and Ragnar Kjartansson, Socalled.
Museum director and curator John Zeppetelli and co-curator Victor Shiffman deserve real credit for an exhibition that is “not sycophantic or hagiographic” (in Zeppetelli’s own words), but rather a loving and commemorative exercise from the getgo. Conceived well before Cohen’s death at 82, and magnified in scope thereafter, they have crafted an exhibition that is a fitting memorial for the man’s spirit and creative genius.
The last time I met Cohen on the street in Montreal, he seemed smaller and frailer. But neither his charisma nor his energy had dimmed one iota. Leaving the exhibition, and passing once again through the room in which Fok’s engulfing 360-degree video of a lifetime collage of footage of Cohen performing on stage, we were reminded why we loved the man so much, why seeing him on the streets of Montreal always made us so proud to be Montrealers, and why we still cannot accept or assimilate his passing. As this exhibition so powerfully demonstrates, his music lives on. WM
view all articles from this author
James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.