A year has passed since Leonard Cohen died. Montreal’s beloved son, the iconic poet and singer is being feted extensively. Giant murals have been painted in two different districts of the city, Cohen’s face looking down like some kind of patron saint.
Probably the greatest feat of commemorative fervour is displayed by the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, which has staged—for lack of a better word, a massive exhibition honouring the bard titled A Crack in Everything. An overwhelming collaboration involving 40 artists from 10 countries and 20 works of varying mediums, drawing inspiration from the bard’s poetry and music, this is one enormous love fest, an exuberant, disjointed carnival, with plenty of flaws, but all is forgiven for we are talking Cohen here.
And it is his deep, instantly recognizable voice that leads the viewer into the Museum, like a vocal Ariadne’s thread, and very soon one is most grateful for this guidance, for the exhibition demands as much as it offers. Rooms upon rooms, doors open and close, a veritable labyrinth of exhibition spaces, with small arrows for guidance. Time and more time is required to appreciate all that is on offer. Some of the presentations go on for up to an hour, and many can be viewed only by one person, creating unavoidable line-ups. A seven hours commitment is probably not an exaggeration, and many visitors are returning several times in order to take it all in.
It is impossible to encapsulate this exhibition- cum-happening. What remains with the viewer is ultimately a personal thing. Cohen meant so much to so many, we all have memories tied in with his songs and poetry. And so we all resonate differently, and often, profoundly. That feeling is palpable in one of the first presentation, with people sitting on the floor hippie-style enraptured by the grand vista of Passing Through by George Fok, a multi-channel video installation that had Cohen projected on three walls, with clips from concerts, tours, interviews and award ceremonies. Lasting almost an hour, it would suffice in itself with the abundance of images and music it offered.
Another fascinating and equally time- consuming work is Clara Furey’s When Even The, inspired by Cohen’s eponymous poem. It is a ninety-minute piece, performed around a sculpture by Marc Quinn, Coaxial Planck Density. The theme of passage of time and death is evoked in a moving, and stunningly contemporary manner, accompanied by a deeply tonal soundtrack.
One of the most unusual riffings on Cohen is by the artist Jon Rafman; an oddly nostalgic science fiction film with three-dimensional landscapes and digitally altered photographs in a “string of consciousness” reflection on the poet’s oeuvre. It was hard, however, to find Cohen in this curious, fascinating visual odyssey.
From a virtual reality rendition of Hallelujah to a cinematic set by the Sanchez Brothers, with a holographic presence of Cohen himself, A Crack in Everything is as imperfect as it is wonderful. Take for example an installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, titled The Poetry Machine. Consisting of a vintage Wurlitzer organ from the 1950s, surrounded by old speakers and gramophone horns, it is, in the words of the curator, “a unique, interactive portal” to Cohen’s Book of Longings. And how does it do that? By pressing a key, the poet’s voice is activated, reading a passage from one of his verses. Thus, by pressing different, random keys, the visitor is re-assembling Cohen’s poetry, creating their own version as it were. This is a one-on-one experience with Cohen’s disembodied spirit and extremely compelling. If you can ignore the shuffle of people impatiently waiting for you to finish, that is.
Perhaps the most profound experience awaits the visitor at the very beginning of the exhibition, where one is ushered alone into a tiny darkened room with a bed, and left there for the duration of Cohen’s melancholic Famous Blue Raincoat. Titled aptly The Depression Chamber, it is the work of Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, of the Waltz with Bashir fame. As the song begins your reflection appears on the ceiling above the bed, while lyrics are projected in white letters all around. Letter by letter, they slowly morph into spiritual and esoteric symbols. They float and settle gently, delicately on the visitor’s reflected image, until it is entirely obliterated. There is something unbearably moving in this unexpectedly sensory experience, and when the song ends, a kind of heartbreak follows. All the hours of waiting are suddenly worth every second.
Leonard Cohen A Crack in Everything
Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art
November 9, 2017—April 8, 2018