A CRACK IN EVERYTHING
LEONARD COHEN EXHIBITION AT THE JEWISH MUSEUM
In 2019, I was contacted by a curator at the Jewish Museum and given a unique opportunity to participate in an exhibition geared around the vast and incredible works of musician/artist/writer Leonard Cohen.
Specifically, as an artist, I was invited to experience the exhibition and generate a visual response, in whatever that would entail, for the museum to then present on its site. I viewed this as turning the exhibition into a sort of dialogue.
What came out of this was two-fold. First, a short essay documented the sensory evocations of moving through the space, the intimate associations it conjured. This appeared in conjunction with the visual element, which sought to channel those sensations of intimacy and mental battlefields, of melancholic romanticism, and use them to reinterpret 10 songs heard at the exhibit into postcard-stye designs.
In Line for Polish
During my visit to the Jewish Museum’s presentation of Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, I waited in line to enter the artist Ari Folman’s Depression Chamber. I don’t know what the average waiting time for a depression chamber should be, but it seemed just short enough to be a steal.
Once inside the room, I lay on a table that resembled something between an altar and a therapist’s couch as the song “Famous Blue Raincoat” played in full. Written in the form of a letter attempting to catch up with an elusive, long lost figure, it alludes to a love triangle at the center of a parting of ways and perfectly epitomizes Leonard Cohen’s status as the patron saint of odes to doomed romance.
Ari Folman, “Depression Chamber,” 2017. Interactive computer-animated video installation, live camera, Kinect sensor, black-and-white and colour with sound, 5 min., 10 sec., including resting platform. Installation view of the exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, organized by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and presented at the Jewish Museum, New York, from April 12-September 8, 2019. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Frederick Charles.
To accompany Cohen’s soft lamentations and reminiscences, animations projected onto all of the walls carefully formulated each line of lyrics before the letters dissolved into a rich tapestry of iconography that floated to the ceiling like a snowfall in reverse. On the ceiling was my reflected projection, lying in repose, and the symbols collected over my body until they seemed to act as a blanket, tucking me in. There was something oddly comforting in this experience that perhaps speaks to the overall contradiction of Leonard Cohen — a poet who makes melancholy comforting.
It’s easy for me to say that I’ve loved Leonard Cohen long before coming to this exhibition. But why? What is it that’s attractive about his sound paintings that are so focused on despair? Cohen was never the voice of my generation. I was born in 1985. But I found my way to him in high school on the basis of what he represented. He was a revered figure among the misfit outsiders I admired and wanted to emulate. He was an intellectual oddity who seemed too cool for the mainstream and yet also too powerful to be ignored, with his songs becoming personal and cultural touchstones. While love songs make up the vast majority of popular music, Cohen sang of sexual acts and the interiors of complex, imperfect relationships, which was rarely attempted in the pop landscape. He revealed adult realities of love that no one else would tell me. He was a secret that most of the kids my age didn’t know about or care to know about, but if they did, it meant they were someone worth knowing.
Lying in the Depression Chamber, I thought about how, over the years, Cohen has been a source of bonding in some relationships — and a salve when they didn’t work out. I was married to someone once. We both loved Cohen. But our record collections sat next to one another, never fully integrating — a fitting metaphor for our time together. I remember her copy of New Skin for the Old Ceremony, its arrestingly sexual tarot figures are burned in my brain. Though I already knew most of the songs on the album, the cover art was new to me (I came of age listening to digitized music). The one song I hadn’t known contains the shouted line:
“Is this what you wanted… to live in a house that is haunted… by the ghost… of you and me!?”
After she was gone, taking the record with her, the song and its ghosts lingered. But Cohen’s voice provided comfort in its immortalization of private tragedy. It was a necessary meditation on humility, with echoes of a raw anger that was all too familiar. Perhaps Leonard Cohen’s music creates a bubble in which to feel and exorcise those emotions, like a safe space, but maybe more like Folman envisions, a depression chamber.
George Fok, “Passing Through,” 2017. Multichannel video installation, black-and-white and colour with sound, 56 min., 15 sec. Installation view of the exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, organized by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and presented at the Jewish Museum, New York, from April 12- September 8, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and archival images © CBC/Radio-Canada. Photo: Frederick Charles.
Artist George Fok’s multichannel video installation, Passing Through, pieces together interviews from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In one of these clips, Cohen says his words are no more or less functional than instructions found on a canister of shoe polish. When the interviewer then asks why a writer would choose to compose one over the other, with all humility, Cohen responds:
“It depends… If you want people to have shiny shoes, you want to write those kind of very good instructions, and if you want to polish other parts of yourself, you do it with poetry.”
In creating my own artwork in response to this show, I thought about the varieties of polish Cohen has provided audiences over the course of his career, the subtle varieties of shades and, best of all, their contradictions, which layer humor over heartache, explore beauty beside evil, and in doing so, aim to clean out some very hard to reach parts of our being.