Leonard Cohen: A Force of Nature


by Anna Kovler

Une brèche en toute chose/A Crack in Everything is Montréal’s epic tribute to Leonard Cohen. The sprawling exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal shows us a man that is larger than life, loved in an immense measure, deified in all his humanity. One cannot take in the entire show except in a hurry, or with the regret of not having seen it all. It is a retrospective, an obituary, a commentary, a missed engagement, a remix, a projection of loss, and a tribute. It features more than 40 artists from around the world, including a sound-installation by Canada’s Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, projections by Jenny Holzer, and an innovative installation-video by Jon Rafman who exhibited recently at Arsenal Contemporary Montreal in 2016 and Arsenal Contemporary Toronto in 2017. The magnitude of the show equals the excess of who Cohen was, to many people and places. But at its best, it is an invitation to enter Cohen’s life and work, again or for the first time.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The Poetry Machine, 2017. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Koyanagi Gallery, Tokyo. All poetry written and performed by Leonard Cohen from Book of Longing. Commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Sébastien Roy.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The Poetry Machine, 2017. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Koyanagi Gallery, Tokyo.
All poetry written and performed by Leonard Cohen from Book of Longing. Commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Sébastien Roy.

The exhibition produces experiences of Cohen at different scales of intimacy and interaction, and some works manage to take us beyond Cohen himself. There are individual works that isolate viewers, while others reconstruct Cohen in interactive form, like Cardiff and Miller’s The Poetry Machine (2017) which transforms a 1950s organ into key-based generator for Cohen’s poems, played at the whims of the audience.

Rafman’s Legendary Reality (2017) consists of tattered rows of cinema seating with a looping audio-visual work that submerges viewers in a sprawl of digitally processed land and cityscape footage. An existentially displaced voice unfolds over city traffic or through a dark tunnel, pulling together imagery sourced from found photography and video games. While the narrator’s alienation of being displaced in a technological world draws our immediate attention, Rafman’s work multiplies this alienation through a rotoscopic digital processing that gives the work a dizzying, otherworldly effect. The outcome is immersive in color and distortion, and Cohen’s cryptic phrases subtly interject in the slow, uneasy monologue, which unravels like a voice without a place.

Jon Rafman. Legendary Reality, 2017. Single-screen video installation including customized theatre seating. Courtesy the artist, Sprueth Magers, Los Angeles, and Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran, Montréal. Commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Sébastien Roy

Jon Rafman. Legendary Reality, 2017. Single-screen video installation including customized theatre seating. Courtesy the artist, Sprueth Magers, Los Angeles, and Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran, Montréal. Commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Sébastien Roy.

In the end, the curation of Une brèche en toute chose is about the disappearance of Cohen as a figure and his endurance as a voice, a life force, a way of having looked at the world. Cohen is introduced massively and as a focal center, but he begins to noticeably disappear as the exhibition moves toward its end. By the end, he is present only as a mood and a few recognizable phrases in Rafman’s video of a despairing perspective without a world, or as a meditation on death and time in Clara Furry and Marc Quinn’s pairing of choreography and sculpture. There is a certain appropriateness here for someone who continually called us to think deeply about the weight of loss and the meagerness of our human offering to the world

Jenny Hozer. For Leonard Cohen, 2017. Installation View at Silo no. 5, Montréal Photo: George Fok

Jenny Hozer. For Leonard Cohen, 2017. Installation View at Silo no. 5, Montréal
Photo: George Fok.

The location is as important as the show itself. Montréal was the city that raised and formed him, and the home he always returned to. Generations will decide whom he belonged to and what he meant, but this show makes clear that the relation between Montréal and Cohen is consummated. For a short time in November, Jenny Holzer’s projections on Silo No. 5 made Cohen’s words part of the city architecture. Parc du Portugal will remain a spectral landmark of his presence there for so many years. Shows of this scale and in a memorial wake tend to invoke celebration and, in this case, an almost religious admiration. Nowhere is this more evident than in Montréal, where his face is now on a mural at the heart of the downtown corridor. But the truths that made his work powerful should also continue to be hard to hear, humbling and somber.

Leonard Cohen: Une brèche en toute chose/A Crack in Everything is on view at Musée d’Art Contemporain until September 4, 2018. It shows 20 works by 40 artists from 10 countries. It is part of the program for Montréal’s 375th anniversary celebration.