Leonard Cohen (image courtesy Old Ideas, LLC)
Leonard Cohen died on November 7, 2016. The next day, Donald Trump was elected president. Nearly exactly a year later, the exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything opened at the Musee d’Art Contemporain in the musician’s hometown of Montreal. A pop star who was skilled and deliberate at controlling his public interactions (is there any other kind?), Cohen had preemptively refused to attend the exhibition opening when his manager gave the museum tacit access to his archive of songs, poems, prose, drawings and video clips.
Like many enraged voters, when news broke that Cohen had died, I could not help but read into its timing. The near simultaneity of Cohen’s death and Trump’s election felt tragic and enormous in scope, a generational passing of the torch from the earnest artist to a world whose corruption and brokenness had been laid bare. Cohen was prone to making grandiose statements in — and about — his art, and his death was a pop gesture so brimming with cosmic coincidence that it could only be compared with David Bowie’s. A stake had been placed in the 20th century and the dilemmas of the 21st century were left for living artists to work out.
Walking around Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, which opened in April at New York’s Jewish Museum after a year-long run in Montreal that broke attendance records, I was hounded by the question of making art in the 21st century — if only because the show fails so spectacularly at even acknowledging that this question exists. Unlike the massively successful exhibition David Bowie Is, Cohen’s museum tribute does not consist of memorabilia, stage sets, costumes, fan mail, chord charts, lyrics, or other visual appendages of modern musical stardom. Rather, A Crack in Everything consists of commissioned works, mostly by Canadian artists, many of who use Cohen’s music, words, and images as their materials.
An archival show has to be judged, in part, by the depth to which it mines the archive, and the issue with many of the works in A Crack in Everything is that the delving seems willfully shallow. Two of the commissions use a widely available documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Ladies and Gentleman…Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), as the basis for new pieces of video art. Another, George Fok’s “Passing Through,” presents clips of Cohen concerts on multiple screens. Fans of Leonard might have seen some of these clips before. Many can be found on YouTube.
Kara Blake’s “The Offerings” is the most interesting documentary work in the show, partially because Blake culls footage from sources deeper than the internet. She edits talk-show appearances, studio footage, audio interviews, and photographs into a moving and inspiring biographical narrative splayed across a five-channel video installation. We hear about a nine-year-old Cohen, after his father died, cutting open his dad’s tie, stuffing the first poem he ever wrote inside, and burying it. We see him tell a censorious sound engineer at a radio station, “There are no dirty words.” Blake is clearly immersed in her subject, ignoring the crowd-pleasing anthems of his pop phase for a less visible Leonard, one who was flamboyant in his thoughtfulness.
When works rely on his music, they too often debase their own artistic motives and achieve something kitschy. Across the hall from Blake’s piece is a by-appointment-only installation called “Depression Chamber” by filmmaker Ari Folman, which, according to the wall text, addresses “the debilitating nature of loss, suffering, and depression.” The museumgoer walks into the chamber and lies down in its center, a live video feed projecting the visitor’s image onto the ceiling. In the darkened space, there is a moment of solitude within the otherwise crowded confines of a Manhattan museum, the emptiness of the room offering a real opportunity for self-reckoning. Then Cohen’s 1971 song “Famous Blue Raincoat” begins to play and animated figures start floating up the walls. The work renders the “debilitating” set of conditions mentioned in the wall text into something cute, harmless and interactive.
The second floor centers around an installation by the design studio Daily Tous Les Jours. Microphones hang over an octagonal arrangement of benches. Museumgoers are invited to hum Cohen’s much-beloved song “Hallelujah,” a digital display above counting the number of participants, which include people who visit the website asecretchord.com and contribute their own voices to the chorus……………….