Kara Blake, The Offerings, 2017. Five-channel video installation, black-and-white and color with sound, 35 min. Courtesy the artist. Archival images © Leonard Cohen Family Trust, CBC/Radio-Canada, and Pete Purnell. Photo: © Frederick Charles.
New YorkTHE JEWISH MUSEUM
April 12 – September 8, 2019
Well into his twilight years, Leonard Cohen continued to wander when most others might have long since settled. Of his songwriting process, he said that “Every song begins with that old urgency to rescue oneself, to save oneself.” Cohen didn’t feel isolated in these discordant stirrings; rather, for him, this was the nature of our human condition. In his 1992 song “Anthem,” he described it using the Kabbalistic image of the broken vessel longing for divine purification: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” The Jewish Museum’s celebration of Cohen’s life, words, song, and art takes its title from this turn of phrase. As much as the exhibition conveys the story of a life, it is also a portrait of Cohen’s impression on his listeners, and their transformative responses to his work.
Taryn Simon, The New York Times, Friday, November 11, 2016 (front and back view). The New York Times newspaper (dated November 11, 2016) in glass display cabinet, 22 x 12 1/4 x 3/8 inches. Photo: Courtesy the artist.
The exhibition, curated by John Zeppetelli and Victor Shiffman, debuted in 2017 at Montréal’s Musée d'art Contemporain (MAC). In its current iteration it occupies nearly all of the museum’s three floors. Refreshingly, the format departs from the standard museum treatment of pop stars and instead includes original commissions by 11 artists, a video montage of Cohen’s own drawings and self-portraits, and 18 new audio recordings of Cohen’s music presented in an immersive video light environment. Rather than viewing Cohen’s nylon string guitar or some such relic reverentially displayed in a vitrine, we instead encounter pieces like Taryn Simon’s eloquent statement New York Times, Friday, November 11, 2016 (2017), a front page obituary for Cohen encased in a glass box. Above the fold, the paper’s headline announces the beginning of the incoming administration’s transition. In 2010, for the Hammer Museum, Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca commissioned interpretations of Cohen’s music, producing a song-by-song revisitation in video art format of his fifth album New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974). The proposition remains fitting, given the ever-present intimacy and soulfulness in Cohen’s words and song. Through his sonorous whispers and sparse arrangements, it’s easy to feel as though he is speaking directly to you. In turn, we come to know Cohen quite well by way of the exhibition’s many interpretive voices.
Candice Breitz, I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen), 2017. Nineteen-channel video installation, colour with sound, 40 min., 43 sec., on eighteen suspended monitors and one single-screen projection. Collection of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MAC). Photo: Guy L'Heureux.
On the first floor, a group of video installations introduces Cohen as thinker, poet, storyteller, and musician. Kara Blake’s multichannel documentary The Offerings (2017) assembles excerpts from interviews with Cohen and archival footage into a poignant conversational portrait. Next, George Fok’s Passing Through (2017) culls together supercuts of Cohen’s songs from the late ’60s up to his final concerts. As the years roll on, Cohen’s performances take on greater pathos—bordering on liturgical—an emotional transformation accented by Fok’s compressed edits. Christophe Chassol’s video and sound piece Cuba in Cohen (2017) begins ordinarily enough with black and white footage of a young Cohen reading a poem but evolves from spoken word to an eerie dirge awash in digital effects accompanied by a chorus of backing vocalists and the corresponding text on screen. Moving through these installations, the content seems to grow increasingly unconventional, as if to gradually initiate visitors into the exhibition’s more idiosyncratic responses.
Upstairs, Tacita Dean’s film Ear on a Worm (2017) provides one such approach. In it, a bird rests on a phone line chirping before flying off into the blue, rendering literal the motif of Cohen’s 1969 song “Bird on a Wire.” Fifty years earlier, a parallel scene on the sun-drenched island of Hydra would spark Cohen’s imagination to write the song. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller offer up The Poetry Machine (2017), an archaic keyboard connected to an array of antique speakers. Each note summons a separate recording of Cohen reading his poetry. Unlike Cardiff and Miller’s ordinarily fascinating machines—including The Ghost Machine (2005), The Killing Machine (2007), or The Infinity Machine (2015)—The Poetry Machine falls flat, since, if the instrument is played in the manner in which one is predisposed, a cacophony of Cohen’s baritone results. The outcome says little to nothing of the nature of poetry or song writ large, Cohen or his message, or the artists’ relationship to Cohen’s work.
Jon Rafman, Legendary Reality, 2017. Video projection, colour with stereo sound, 15 min. 45 secc, including a sculptural set of theatre seats. Courtesy the artist; Sprueth Magers, Los Angeles; and Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran, Montreal.
Jon Rafman’s video Legendary Reality (2017) takes the most liberty with Cohen’s legacy. A somnambulistic narrator speaks over scenes of saturated, glitching sci-fi vagueries such as spaceship interiors, flickering control rooms, and sleeping pods. Occasionally, the voice-over echoes a phrase or three of Cohen’s. Ghostly song fragments, just barely recognizable, drift over dystopian urban skylines. Calling to mind a dreamy, fragmented Dickian mindscape, Rafman’s juxtapositions imbue his source material with poetic dimensions Cohen himself may not have fathomed.
It would be remiss to overlook Leonard Cohen’s own drawings included in the show, although the presence of actual drawings might have better suited their intimacy than the large digital slideshow on hand. Generally portraying his own likeness accompanied by a few pithy, often humorous words, the drawings reveal a surprisingly competent hand, artful in their economy and not worlds apart from someone like Jean Cocteau. These are the only artifacts of Cohen’s life included in the show, and yet they would be unfamiliar to most visitors who have not seen the illustrations in his poetry collections Book of Longing (2007) or The Flame (2018), some of which he exhibited shortly before his passing. They exemplify the exhibition’s strength in capsule form, namely its ability to memorialize its subject—a celebrity—without resorting to nostalgia. Music has a unique power to lend emotional resonance to any project, to take us through time and space without travel in the grainy films of our memories and the frissons of our skin. Go through A Crack in Everything slowly. It’s an opportunity to bask in those moments at the pace of a simple folk song.