“There is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen : Une brèche en toute chose/A Crack in Everything (at Montréal’s Museum of Contemporary art) features art and multimedia installations celebrating the life and work of Montréal’s late troubadour.
The exhibit opens with “the Depression Chamber” an installation, by Israeli artist, Ari Folman, where you lay on a bed in a small “sarcophagus like” room listening to “Famous Blue Raincoat” while drawings are projected on the walls and ceiling. Since the Chamber had to be experienced alone and the song is five minutes long, the queue to enter–separate from the entrance to the rest of the exhibit–was over an hour long. The people in line talked the things you’d expect a bunch of Cohen fans to talk about:
A teenage girl tells her parents about her newfound meditation practice.
A tourist visiting from Australia says she’s never heard Cohen’s music, and when someone else in line hums “Hallelujah” she realizes she has.
The woman behind me remembers seeing Cohen around Montréal and serving him while he wrote in the coffee shop where she worked in high school. I asked her, “Have you always been a fan?”
“Oh yeah,” she says, “My boyfriend and I used to put him on in the morning when I slept over–back in the 60s.” She recommends that I check out the illustrated guide to Cohen’s Montréal accompanied by a narration by Martha Wainwright.
Visitors weave through a maze of Cohen-themed installations. There’s an esoteric 16mm film remixing his poetry readings on the CBC into a sort of spoken word Canadian hip hop thing, a 3 minute video of a bird on a wire (not the song but a bird perched on a wire,) and, for those who don’t know Cohen’s story, there’s a 35 minute supercut of a lifetime of interviews and documentary footage.
If the Depression Chamber is the weirdest first date imaginable, the interviews and concert footage have a different effect. The videos play on wall-sized screens and the viewers sit on low stools, not unlike the audience of a folk concert. The visitors were mostly women, bookish-looking with nice scarves. More than a few of them carry cameras of the artsy sort. The guys seemed to all be with dates. Silhouettes get close to one another in front of the screen while “Suzanne” plays.
Like Cohen’s opus, the archival footage always returned to the subject of love and women. Cohen quotes his Zen teacher to one interviewer,
“The older you get, the lonelier you become and the deeper love you need.”
Of love he says,
“It’s the only game in town.. that’s what we’re here for.”
The confluence of love, sex, death, and longing in his lyrics is depicted in an interpretive dance by Montréal artist Clara Furey. She performs on the floor–topless in blue jeans–for 90 minutes.
My fanboy moment came when I found his Olivetti 22 on display with a letter to Cohen and a book of his matches from the Hotel Chelsea. This is a big deal for a typewriter nerd.
Down the hall, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller‘s Poetry Machine uses an electric organ to play an unabridged reading of The Book of Longing. Each key plays a page. The words come out of old tweed speakers around the visitor/organist’s chair.
In a separate wing of the exhibit, dedicated just to his music, there is a huge, unfinished-looking wooden box with a doorway. It’s an echo chamber that plays a recording of a hundred Montréal-based singers humming his best known song: “Hallelujah.”
Microphones, hanging from the ceiling inside the box, invite visitors to hum along, which makes the floor vibrate as their voices are added to the chorus. Meanwhile, an LED counter on the ceiling displays how many people are currently streaming the song on Spotify.
This piece manages to cut right through the over-played-ness of the song by making that its subject. To be alone with this particular song is to feel your own part in something greater. If you’re anything like me, this isn’t your favorite Leonard Cohen song, but it’s hard to imagine “Last Year’s Man” or “Chelsea Hotel no. 2” having the same effect.
You enter the box and it’s like an emotional sauna. You feel acutely whatever heartbreak or longing you might be carrying. The others in the box seem distant, and looking at their faces feels invasive. If you do look, their expressions will challenge your cynicism. Like a sauna, it all feels good at first and becomes overwhelming.
November 7th, 2017 was the one year anniversary of Cohen’s death. His hometown marked the occasion with a bunch of events, culminating in the MAC exhibit that will be open through April.
Biere Vagabond released Leonard, a Kölsch style beer, in his honor. My friends drank it while trying to explain Celine Dion to me.
The city unveiled an 11,000 square foot mural, by artists El Mac, Gene Pendon and the MU collective, on a building downtown.
On November 6th, there was a tribute concert featuring Cohen’s music performed by Sting, Elvis Costello, Lana Del Rey, Feist, Adam Cohen (his son,) and others. Comedian Seth Rogan read a poem on stage. He said, “As a Canadian Jewish person, there is no greater honour than reading a Leonard Cohen poem in the middle of a hockey arena.” Prime Minister Trudeau was there and shared his memories of the singer.