Popular Leonard Cohen Contemporary Art Exhibition Returns Virtually

Leonard Cohen
Credit Jens Cederskjold, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

MONTREAL— The exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything was the most popular in the history of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC), recording 315,000 visits over its year-long run.

The massive multidisciplinary show, produced by MAC, opened in November 2017 on the first anniversary of the Montreal-born singer/songwriter’s death. A scaled-down version then went on an international tour planned through to 2022, first at The Jewish Museum in New York in 2019 and then Copenhagen’s GL Strand art centre where it ran until the COVID pandemic.

This month, the MAC launched a virtual exhibition of the same name that will be up for three years and available free of charge, but within Canada only.

As was the case with the original, visitors can easily spend hours, if not days, trolling through this Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, which blends much of its real-world components with hundreds of related images and music, audio and visual extracts, texts, and background information.

About 50 artworks from MAC’s permanent collection are also imaginatively linked to Cohen’s poetry, songs, interviews, and sometimes drawings of himself.

For the original show, MAC director John Zeppetelli and guest curator Victor Schiffman commissioned some 40 Canadian and international artists to find inspiration in Cohen’s life and work. Given a free hand, they produced visual and performance art that drew heavily on multimedia, using technology that often allowed the audience to interact.

These unconventional tributes drew mixed critical reaction, but an adoring public, still mourning his loss, was just happy to immerse themselves in all things Cohen.

Cohen’s children Adam and Lorca co-operated with the MAC project, and the man himself is said to have given his go-ahead for the concept the year before he died. With the virtual exhibition, visitors control how much they sample as they meander through the different portals. The site’s main page has an otherworldly feel as links drift in a black cosmos and (optional) ethereal soundscape. They can explore the four main themes about Cohen: Poetic Thought, Spirituality & Humility, Love, and Loss & Longing, or they can head to the Gallery to search by the contributing artists.

For example, if one wants want to delve into the source of the title, which comes from Cohen’s 1992 masterwork Anthem (There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in), a link under Spirituality & Humility leads to the Montreal electronic band Dear Criminals’ interpretation of the song.

Related to that recording is a video of Cohen performing the song in London in 2008, a transcript excerpt of a radio interview he gave for Sony Music in 1992 explaining what the lyrics mean, and a video clip of his rendition of it that year on television in France.

The exhibition stresses how influential Judaism was to Cohen, who was born into a prominent Jewish family in 1934. “A strong spiritual presence inhabits much of Leonard Cohen’s work,” visitors can read. “Raised in the ancestral tradition of Judaism, Cohen discovered and developed an interest in poetry as a child while listening to the Hebrew Bible reading cycles and the sung prayers of the Jewish liturgy.”

Although he left Montreal in the 1960s, Cohen maintained a lifelong membership in Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, where he grew up. He turned to its cantor Gideon Zelermyer and men’s choir for traditional backup to the title cut from his final album, the haunting You Want it Darker, released just weeks before his passing.

The choir had a small part in the original exhibition, which has been carried over to the virtual. It appears in South African-born Candice Breitz’s panoramic video installation in which 18 elderly men, fans of Cohen but lacking his talent, were recorded covering I’m Your Man.

The two other sections are “Echo”, audio and transcribed impressions offered by visitors to the original exhibition, and “Context”, a biographical sketch of Cohen.

The MAC invites the visitors to continue the conversation via social media at #cohenetmoi.The virtual exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything is accessible at https://expocohen.macm.org until Feb. 12, 2024.

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