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Montreal
Tammer El-Sheikh
Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything at the Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal
January 17, 2018

I kept an eye out for Leonard Cohen near his Plateau-Mont-Royal home when I first moved to the neighborhood over ten years ago. At first, I just saw traces. A little brunch spot called Bagel Etc. proudly displays photos of the staff arm-in-arm with Cohen behind the counter, and his deep-lined face floated around the city on t-shirts, in murals, and on posters. Then, one blessed day, I saw him strolling, a little hunched and pensive, down St. Laurent Street near his Montreal home. Others had better stories – about spotting Cohen on his doorstep composing poems and songs, or being wooed by him near the gazebo at Parc de Portugal.



Kota Ezawa, Cohen 21, 2017

A little over a year after the iconic poet/musician’s death, sightings are no longer possible but commemorations abound. CBC offers “a mobile, location-aware audio walking tour of Leonard Cohen’s Montreal” and the Musée d’art contemporain has organized what curator John Zeppetelli calls one of the museum’s “most ambitious” exhibitions ever. The blockbuster show includes commissioned works by over forty artists, musicians, filmmakers, and performers across six galleries. In keeping with a curatorial trend for big museums these days, the exhibition is chock full of immersive and virtual experiences to capture Cohen’s music, his times, and the various public, private and institutional spaces he moved through. The ambulatory concept for this show is introduced in its first pieces. After a psychedelic listen to Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” in Ari Folman’s Depression Chamber, visitors gather in a large room for a documentary film montage by George Fok called Passing Through. Fok projects concert clips from Cohen’s decades-long career onto three walls for an enveloping, if conventional, second-hand experience of the artist’s greatest performances.

Kota Ezawa’s Cohen 21, a short, looped 16mm film re-animation of a 1965 NFB documentary, moves the exhibition into more challenging territory. In it, Cohen tells a story about getting lost while visiting a friend at a psychiatric hospital. En route to the hospital’s cafeteria Cohen takes a wrong turn and finds himself in a large room with doors on all sides, confronted by a couple of bullies in white jumpsuits who take him for an escaped patient. His negotiation with the guards is comical, and a little dark too, as a futile argument with institutional authority. This work sets up the higher critical aims of the exhibition. Outside the viewing room for Ezawa’s animation, visitors are faced with something that looks a lot like the hospital labyrinth Cohen describes. A pedestrian crossing sign by Thomas Demand titled Stoplight hangs in the middle of an open room; its flashing red-hand and green walker directing viewers cryptically to small galleries behind closed doors. Behind the doors, religion and politics, the subjects we’re told should never be brought up in polite conversation, are the focus of the most arresting works in the exhibition.



Candice Breitz, I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen), 2017

Candice Breitz’s 19-channel video installation I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen) shows die-hard male fans singing songs from the 1988 comeback album of the same name. The performers’ identification with Cohen is total. Cohen is very much ‘their man.” A group portrait of what the curators call Cohen’s “late-masculinity and style” emerges in an oddball chorus of shaky voices and awkward dance moves. To hold the centre, backing vocals are provided by an all-male choir from the Westmount synagogue to which Cohen belonged – a note on Cohen’s enduring religious commitments that is repeated in Kara Blake’s multichannel video The Offerings in the next room.

The most challenging work in the exhibition might be Michael Rakowitz’s multimedia installation titled I’m Good at Love, I’m Good at Hate, It’s in Between I Freeze. It tells a story about the artist’s conflicted feelings after discovering details of Cohen’s brushes with Middle-East politics. The work includes a vitrine displaying old photos and a letter Rakowitz wrote to Cohen on the poet’s own Olivetti typewriter. In an accompanying video, Rakowitz reads the letter while a Cohen-doppelganger is shown wandering through the narrow streets of Ramallah. The narrative in the video circles around an archival photograph of Cohen playing for Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur War, a complicity that for Rakowitz undermines the “humanism” of Cohen’s work. The piece is poignant, brave, and silly by turns. A choppy animated bit halfway through the video adds some levity to what is intended as a serious protest. Rakowitz imagines a cheery congress of Arabs and Israelis under the banner of music in a short sequence showing cut-out photos of Cohen and the iconic Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum floating in halved watermelons whose red flesh, green skin, and black seeds echo the design of the Palestinian flag.

Zeppetelli calls the exhibition a “critical celebration” and a “loving tribute” to Cohen. It’s more of a love-fest than a critique of Cohen’s career for sure. At its worst, the show is a predictable celebration of one of Montreal’s greatest cultural treasures – which is not at all a bad low point. But at its best, the show leads viewers into little-known corners of the artist’s biography that reflect his complexity and contradictions, and our own as well.


Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything continues until April 9.
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal: https://macm.org/en/
The gallery is accessible.


Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.

 

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