Photography by Lorca Cohen.

A New Exhibit in Montreal Looks at Leonard Cohen’s Legacy

The Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal began work on A Crack in Everything before Cohen's death in 2016.

The night the news of Leonard Cohen’s death broke, I walked the few blocks from my apartment to join a crowd of Montrealers gathered at his doorstep, a vigil for the man we were all so proud to call one of us. Candles, letters, artworks, photos and faces encircled his home, the indelible mark he left on the city in full view.

This month, a year after his death, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal will pay tribute to the poet, artist, writer and musician with A Crack in Everything, which explores Cohen’s legacy through the eyes of contemporary filmmakers, photographers, dancers, musicians and conceptual artists. Co-curators John Zeppetelli and Victor Shiffman set out to honour Montreal’s native son by letting his influence speak for itself. “Leonard was touched that an exhibition around his work and his contribution as an artist to other artists was under way,” says Zeppetelli. “He was really pleased that he, as an 80-year-old man, was able to inspire younger artists.”

At the time, Cohen had been focusing on his final album, You Want It Darker—released less than three weeks before his passing—but Zeppetelli and Shiffman had his full support. “We had Leonard’s and his manager’s approval to use any material the artists deemed necessary,” says Zeppetelli. “They made available to us all of his music rights, all of the literary rights.” The idea for the show had been simmering for at least a year prior to Cohen’s passing; it was originally slated as part of Montreal’s 375th anniversary. “That was really the idea: to celebrate a Montrealer who became a global icon and who, for 50 years, was continuing to make important contributions to the culture, not just as a musician but as a writer and a thinker,” explains Zeppetelli.

Cohen’s own self-portraits will adorn the entrances to the gallery, giving way to the multidisciplinary exhibition that features an impressive roster of artists from within the art world—Jenny Holzer, Jon Rafman, Ari Folman, George Fok—and beyond. Moby, Ariane Moffatt, The National and Jean Leloup, along with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, will lend their voices in a dedicated space called “Listening to Leonard,” with covers recorded exclusively for the show.

Installations range from virtual reality (VR)—visitors will experience Zach Richter’s VR experience, Hallelujah, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival back in April—to dance, with a live performance from local choreographer Clara Furey, to found objects and film.

South African artist Candice Breitz—who recently unveiled a project featuring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin at the Venice Biennale—will represent the latter category with what Zeppetelli calls “an anthropology of fandom.” A wall of 18 screens will display individual recordings of male fans over the age of 65 singing the entirety of I’m Your Man in a professional recording, following along to the album with earbuds. The individual videos will come together to form a chorus, joined by a single screen displaying earbud-sporting singers from the Shaar Hashomayim choir (Cohen’s family synagogue), who will chime in with oohs and aahs and lalalas.

An installation by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller will feature an organ that, instead of delivering music, will play poems from the Book of Longing, recited in Cohen’s own voice. Place a finger on one key and you’ll hear a single recitation; press down on several simultaneously and the instrument will produce a cacophony of Cohen’s words.

Zeppetelli hopes the exhibition will attract a new audience to the museum, which sits at the centre of Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles, the officially designated festival hub. It’s joined at the hip to Place des Arts, which is worth a stop-in for the architecture alone, whether or not you’ve secured tickets to one of the many performances taking place on any given night.

“I want viewers to come away having learned something, having felt a powerful emotion, having been moved and stirred by not only Cohen’s great life and achievements but also all these people he inspired,” says Zeppetelli. “If I can transmit even a fraction of the respect and admiration and devotion that we have for these artists, then I think we’ve done our job.”

The Leonard Cohen exhibit, A Crack in Everything, opens Thursday, November 9, and runs until April 9, 2018, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

While you’re there, see Leonard Cohen’s Montreal with our guide to all his favourite stops

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