It was an occasion of celebration, not mourning, that inspired the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal’s exhibition entitled Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything. The city was preparing for its 375th birthday, and the contemporary art museum’s director and chief curator, John Zeppetelli, thought, Who better to feature than Montreal’s own Leonard Cohen?
“Cohen is loved by both the French community and the Anglo community,” Zeppetelli explains. “He’s from the Jewish community of Montreal, he [was] also a Buddhist, a poet, a novelist.” For two years, Zeppetelli and co-curator, Victor Shiffman, planned the exhibit, sharing their concept with an approving Cohen: rather than it consisting of display cases of memorabilia, visual artists would create their own works in response to the singer-songwriter’s cultural contributions. But all did not go as planned when Cohen passed away in November of last year. Thus, the exhibition will take on a new significance when it opens on November 9.
“We fantasized about taking Leonard around the museum,” Zeppetelli says. “I think it would’ve been a beautiful, touching moment for him to see how relevant he was.”
The commissioned projects will investigate Cohen’s poetry and music in order to envelop visitors in all things Cohen. The Depression Box, from Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, tackles the cliché of Cohen’s songs as anthems of despair, seating visitors in a solitary chamber where they watch Folman’s reality-bending animated film set to “Famous Blue Raincoat”, Cohen’s anthem of longing, depression, and loss. British Columbia–based duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller dissect Cohen’s writing with The Poetry Machine, an installation featuring a vintage Wurlitzer organ that elicits Cohen’s gravelly voice from surrounding speakers, reciting poems from his Book of Longing. Visitors can play one key at a time or a chord, which, says Zeppetelli, “will trigger a cacophony of Leonard voices.”
There will also, of course, be music. While the likes of the National and Sufjan Stevens have recorded exclusive covers for the exhibit, video artist Candice Breitz has instead turned to the everyman. She presents 18 Montreal citizens onscreen singing Cohen’s work a cappella, backed up by the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir. “It was a very specific call,” Zeppetelli says of the amateur performers. “We were after men, 65 years of age and over, who could sing the entire I’m Your Man album to camera.” The performers were encouraged to dress and sing however they wished—one man stands in a Cohen-esque fedora and suit; another sits in a pea green hoodie. Within the gallery, these individually filmed singers are brought together as a chorus of sorts in their ode to Cohen.
The number of contributing artists and the multitude of media speaks volumes about the scope of Cohen’s influence. “We fantasized about taking Leonard around the museum,” Zeppetelli says. “I think it would’ve been a beautiful, touching moment for him to see how relevant he was.”
Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything is on at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal from November 9, 2017 until April 9, 2018.
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