In April, Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, opened at the The Jewish Museum. My plan was to see it during a summer Friday before it closed in September. I finally had my chance last Friday. This is the exhibition that rtb saw in Montreal last year, so I was excited to see it. It will be in Copenhagen in fall 2019 through spring 2020 and then San Francisco in fall 2020 through winter 2021. You should definitely make sure you see it. From the exhibition book, it looks like not everything from Montreal made it to NYC. The book also includes exhibits that were running at the same time (fall 2017 through spring 2018) in Montreal.
The Jewish Museum has three floors for exhibits. The museum is in one of the mansions that used to line Fifth Avenue across from Central Park, so it’s not a huge space. The Leonard Cohen exhibit takes up the first two floors and one room on the third floor. When you enter the first floor, the first thing you see is a large room with screens surrounding you on three sides. George Fok’s Passing Through was the perfect opening for the afternoon. It is a compilation of videos from the beginning to the end of Cohen’s career and runs for almost an hour. The best touch would be when Fok would have young man Cohen, middle-aged Cohen, and old man Cohen singing the same song – sometimes together and sometimes one would pick up the next verse from the other. While being immersed in Cohen’s life in this room, I already knew this was one of my favorites without having seen anything else. What I liked about it is that it did not try to tell us who Cohen was – the videos laid out the facts of his life and we got to enjoy him singing and telling stories. All the exhibits were similar in that we got to experience Cohen the poet, the singer, the storyteller. We did not look at his tools or his famous fedora. We got to sit with his art.
On either side were other exhibits. Christophe Chassol’s Cuba in Cohen is an old video of Cohen reciting his poem, The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward. First Chassol has Cohen repeating lines. Then just the lines are on the screen in Spanish and in French with someone else reciting it. It runs about 15 minutes. Chassol’s version of the poem is on exhibit in a case. There is an animated Cohen in Kota Ezwa’s Cohen 21, which is in black and white and recreates the first two minutes of the 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen. I remember a short video with Cohen talking about religion but I cannot find mention of it in the exhibit book or on the museum website.
Kara Blake’s The Offerings at first felt similar to Fok’s piece but her piece was more about the process. We listen to Cohen tell personal stories and see how these incidents lead to a song or a poem or a novel. My absolute least favorite exhibit was Jon Rafman’s Legendary Reality, a science fiction video with Cohen’s poetry and music. The seats are old torn up theater seats, in keeping in line with the apocalyptic theme. I could not get out of there fast enough. At the end of the hall on the first floor was Taryn Simon’s The New York Times, Friday, November 16, 2016, which is the front page of the The New York Times with his obituary. The top of the fold has Trump meeting Obama after the 2016 election with Cohen relegated to a small spot below the fold. The last exhibit on the first floor was another favorite. Ari Folman’s Depression Chamber in which people went in one or two at a time into a dark room. You lie down on bench and your image is projected on the ceiling. Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” plays and the lyrics run up along the walls and each letter turns into a cartoon version of religious symbols or marine life or one weird thing that looked like the torso of a woman with legs that swam like an octopus. The cartoons would gather on the ceiling piling on top of each other until they eventually cover your image. I let myself be in the moment and realized that I felt like I was being lifted by the lyrics/images on the wall up towards the ceiling. It was freaky and calming at the same time.
When you get to the second floor, the first thing you hear is the singing bird. Tacita Dean’s Ear on a Worm is a looped video of a bird on a wire singing. Daily Tous Les Jours’ I Heard There was a Secret Chord is several hollow wooden benches with microphones above them. Out of the speakers is a chorus of people humming “Hallejujah.” In real time you are humming along with others and a display tells you how many people are listening online. It was about 116 people when I was humming. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Poetry Machine was another favorite. A big room held an organ, a chair, and tons of speakers of all different shapes and sizes. On the bench was Cohen’s poetry book, Book of Longing. I was alone in the room and the guard told me to try it. I sat in the chair and I asked if it was okay to touch the organ and he insisted. Pressing down a key would send Cohen’s voice through one of the speakers reciting one of his poems. I did two together and it was not as dissonant as you would think. Then I made a chord of three notes and, again, it was more mellifluous than dissonant. Then two chords together and the sound of six poems being recited at the same time made me gleeful.
Self-Portraits was just that. A video edited by Alexandre Perrault of 220 of Cohen’s self-portraits with lyrics, thoughts, poems scribbled around the portrait. Another favorite was Candice Breitz’ I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen). The first room is a video of the men’s chorus from the Shar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir singing just the backup vocals to all the songs from I’m Your Man. This is the synagogue that Cohen belonged to. Everyone is wearing ear buds, so we do not hear the lead vocals or the music. Go behind the screen, walk through a curtain, and in a very long room are individual videos of eighteen men – all longtime (like 50 years) fans of Cohen, singing the lead vocals of all the songs on I’m Your Man. Again, no music and now no backing vocals. All the videos are sync’d, so they are all singing together. These men love this music and it shows in their attitude and enthusiasm.
The last exhibit was Listening to Leonard, 18 covers of Cohen songs sung by artists like Moby and Feist. I did not stay in there long. The museum was closing soon, I wanted to get on line for Depression Chamber, and I would rather hear Cohen himself. The list of artists is in the press release below. The room was filled with pillows and there were rectangular lights on the walls that changed color.
Whether you are a Leonard Cohen fan or not, this is a fascinating exhibit because it is immersive but also because through other artists’ interpretations of Cohen’s art, we get to experience the artist and his art in new and fun ways.
By Carene Lydia Lopez