Celebrating a citizen of the world

The late singer-songwriter, poet and author Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) was a global icon. A museum in his hometown of Montreal mounted a tribute exhibition to this citizen of the world that’s now on an international tour – with its first stop the Jewish Museum in Manhattan.

From the evocative black-and-white portrait that fills a wall at the entrance of the exhibition to his trademark voice filling the air, the spirit of Leonard Cohen is palpable throughout “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything.”

The multimedia exhibition dedicated to the life, legacy and enduring influence of the late Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and author continues through Sept. 8 at the Jewish Museum.

The elaborate exhibition’s Manhattan incarnation — it fills galleries on three of the museum’s floors — marks the first stop of the international touring show that originated at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC). Organized by the art institution in Cohen’s hometown, “A Crack in Everything” has been curated by John Zeppetelli, director and chief curator at the MAC, and Victor Shiffman, co-curator.

When WAG was invited to walk the exhibition before the doors opened in Manhattan, it was easy to become quickly drawn in by the captivating approach, one that integrates performances and interview segments featuring Cohen (1934-2016) with commissioned works by international artists who have been inspired by the icon.

Claudia Gould, the Jewish Museum’s Helen Goldsmith Menschel director, began her remarks during the preview program by noting she toured the exhibition in Montreal, entering as a “very cheerful, passionate” Cohen fan emerging some five hours later still a “very passionate Leonard Cohen fan — but crying.”

It was, she said, a “beautiful, extraordinary, moving experience.”

To bring the exhibition to New York and share it means a lot, she added: “Mr. Cohen is not about a generation. It’s about a life. There is no beginning and no end.”

That sentiment was echoed by Zeppetelli, the co-curator, who said the initial plan was simply to mount a major exhibition at MAC as part of the celebration of the city of Montreal’s 375th anniversary — and the focus soon revealed itself.

“We couldn’t think of anybody more powerful than Leonard Cohen,” he said.

They began the project with word of Cohen’s tacit approval — Cohen’s representatives, Zeppetelli said, “conveyed Leonard would not get in our way” — and were galvanized to continue following his death.

“We felt it was even more important… that the show must absolutely go on.”

And go on it did, debuting in Montreal in November of 2017 to continue into April of 2018.

Of course, with someone like Cohen — a worldwide figure with a multifaceted career spanning decades — the scope would be broad. Instead of a biographical tribute filled with memorabilia, though, “A Crack in Everything” looks at Cohen through the eyes of contemporary artists.

There are immersive experiences, such as Israeli artist Ari Folman’s thought-provoking “Depression Chamber” video installation — a solo experience in which you enter a darkened room, lie on a bed of sorts and get swept away by Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” its lyrics projected onto the walls before they turn into animated symbols and create a memorable finale. Then, there is “The Poetry Machine,” Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s interactive mixed-media in- stallation featuring a Wurlitzer organ that offers up Cohen’s voice reading one of his works when a key is played.

Museum-goers can hum along to what has become the ubiquitous cover song, Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in “Heard There Was a Secret Chord” by the art and design studio Daily tous les jours or simply plop down in the top-floor “Listening to Leonard” gallery, where interpretations of Cohen songs by everyone from Moby to Lou Doillon to The National with Sufjan Stevens, Ragnar Kjartansson and Richard Reed Parry play.

Throughout the show, there are also additional video installations, projections of some 220 Cohen self-portraits, theater installations and, drawing plenty of attention, a glass-enclosed copy of The New York Times featuring Cohen’s obituary.

There are the more expected, perhaps, explorations, such as “The Offerings,” a 35-minute looped video installation by Kara Blake that’s drawn from decades of archival Cohen interviews — sometimes humorous, sometimes deep.

In assorted clips, he speaks on subjects ranging from his start and his beliefs to his reputation and his goals.

As the curators Zeppetelli and Shiffman write in the accompanying exhibition book: “Leonard Cohen’s thinking, writing and music are a thing of beauty and despair. For decades, the novelist, poet and singer/songwriter tenaciously supplied the world with melancholy but urgent observations on the state of the human heart. With equal parts gravitas and grace, he teased out a startingly inventive and singular language, depicting both a rapturous, or sometimes liturgical, spirituality and an earthly sexuality. Yet, with characteristic humility, he has said he never really aimed for anything more exalted than to simply be able to sing someone a song.”

And that singing is most artfully celebrated in what might be considered the exhibition showpiece, George Fok’s 2017 “Passing Through,” a multi-channel video installation that lasts nearly an hour. We find Fok, a Hong Kong-born, Montreal-based artist, standing just outside the entrance — and he shares that his work indeed serves as counterpoint to Blake’s exploration of Cohen, the person, in the adjacent gallery.

“Passing Through,” he tells us, “is about Leonard as a performer on stage. It’s the Leonard he wanted you to know.”

It’s a bit of time travel reflecting a broader theme, as Fok says, “Life is very transient… at the same time, it’s a celebration of life, the duality.” The tour-de- force compilation of Cohen performances through the decades (sometimes switching eras within the same song) takes over a dimmed room filled with seating platforms and beanbag chairs strewn across the floor. It draws an immediate and constant crowd.

And, Fok noted, it’s a testament to Cohen’s continuing effect: “You look at the piece. You feel like he’s still around, his aura.”

Back within the installation, a man and woman next to us, having savored quite a few songs, seem to be delving into their own impressions of Cohen.

The woman turns to her companion, simply saying, “He connected to people. He just connected.”

And “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” seems to be doing the same thing. You could easily spend an entire day experiencing the exhibition in all its facets. As with “David Bowie is,” the blockbuster at the Brooklyn Museum last year, it’s clear that this ode to yet another compelling cultural icon gone too soon will resonate with visitors throughout its run.

Oh, and the exhibition’s title? It’s drawn from lyrics to a Cohen song, “Anthem:”

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” continues, with related programming, through Sept. 8 at the Jewish Museum, at 1109 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan. For more, visit TheJewishMuseum.org.

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