Mourning at the Museum: Montreal’s Post-Sincere Send-Off for Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen | © Old Ideas, LLC.

The impulse to grieve publicly is a measure of our turbulent times. We know, lately, the need to share a collective sadness.

However, before visiting Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain (MACM) to see A Crack in Everything, a blockbuster 40-artist tribute to Leonard Cohen, a friend issued his skepticism: Cohen was a conspicuously non-visual artist; and, aside from that, the show’s directing premise felt dubiously contemporain. It would be an odd marriage of ideas. Nevertheless, I (sheepishly) wanted to be a tourist to the tribute. I needed it to perform under the weight it had to bear as a public institution’s eulogy to one of its city’s favorite sons, and one of my favorite musicians. This tumult of desire and ambivalence signaled an odd kind of bad faith – something like a guilty pleasure. Meeting the exhibition on its own terms seemed to mean desiring a truly bizarre thing from a museum of contemporary art; I suppose I wanted the MACM to make me cry.

And lo, the first room of the exhibition did not disappoint, leaning hard into tear-jerking elegy. Against three walls in a mercifully dark room, a multi-channel video piece by George Fok played the hits, in the form of cleverly edited supercuts of various live performances of best-known songs. Everyone laughed at Leonard’s jokes, although the video’s snappy cuts made it clear he told the same rehearsed punchlines to audiences spanning decades. Even this peek behind the curtain seemed endearing, and not phony. And the melancholy music felt good. Celine Dion made a brief appearance. A group of middle-aged women next to me swayed in time and knew (or fudged) all the words. I basked in the corny farewell that I had secretly craved. And I thought it all quite promising: that the show might blow out its sentimentality in the first room, get it out of the way, and become free to wander more speculative, post-memorial territory in the name of contemporary art.

After collecting my due catharsis, however, I moved through an exhibition scarcely inclined towards risk-taking – and I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. For the most part, it oscillated awkwardly between diminishing-return iterations of the first room’s earnest kitsch (or perhaps more precisely, ketain) romanticism, and attempted conceptual gestures that stood in uncomfortable relation to the elegiac takeaway of the whole. In retrospect, the show was bound to struggle at this juncture, given the ungainly collision of expectations for, respectively, a heartfelt tribute show, and a contemporary art institution. It would have been a remarkable work of alchemy to satisfy both.

Candice Breitz, “I’m Your Man, (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen),” 2017 (still). Courtesy Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Kaufmann Repetto, Milan, and KOW, Berlin. Commissioned and produced by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. With the support of the Goethe-Institut Montréal.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, “The Poetry Machine,” 2017. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Koyanagi Gallery, Tokyo. All poetry written and performed by Leonard Cohen from “Book of Longing,” published 2006 by McClelland and Stewart. Commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

Many of the broader gestures felt very much like the flashiest attractions at a mourning-themed amusement park. These are grandiose, expensive immersions, ticking the “interactive” box with obvious relish: a pensive Leonard Cohen hologram in a recreated apartment (the Sanchez Brothers); a modified organ-speaker-assemblage that allows visitors to cut up and reassemble recorded fragments of Cohen’s poetry readings (Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller); A Candice Breitz audio-visual installation which – though slickly impressive – reheated concepts she’s presented elsewhere.

Other, subtler moments attempted to disrupt the inevitable linearity of the exhibition with conceptual riffs on some of Cohen’s favorite themes. The links felt tenuous at times, as with the logic governing the inclusion of Jon Rafman’s lush, filmic exploration of dystopian futures with fuzzed-out videogame backgrounds and cryptic/poetic essay, all set within a burnt-out movie theater. The work authors a dense text, deserving of a more devoted engagement than its odd placement invites. Instead, the apocalyptic cyber-punk set simply felt out of place.

Clara Furey (with a work by Marc Quinn), “When Even The,” 2017. Photo: Kaveh Nabatian. Solo dance performance in the presence of the sculpture “Coaxial Planck Density,” 1999)\, by Marc Quinn, with music and sound design by Tomas Furey and light design by Alexandre Pilon-Guay, including a video installation directed by Kaveh Nabatian.

But the figurative approach also yielded the exhibition’s genuine highlights. Among these is an arresting performance cycle from dance artist Clara Furey, titled When Even The, which coalesces around a poem by Cohen. Her movement resounds against Marc Quinn’s Coaxial Planck Density (1999), a deflated lead cast of a human form, laid out like a shed skin. Crucial to its success, Furey’s piece isn’t about Cohen – rather it translates him, his work, viscerally across media. It’s billed as “an existential reflection on memory, the passage of time and death,” but in declining to take its viewer by the arm, it leaves the space unclosed, like grief.

The show’s finest moments are its quietest and least didactic. Tacita Dean’s 2016 video Ear on a Worm is a gorgeously wounding last touch, exploding the small drama of a literal bird on a wire to lingering effect. Thomas Demand ‘s Ampel/Stoplight (2016), looped over Tyondai Braxton’s eerie scoring of a bracing a capella version of Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” offers a meditation in urban alienation, but because of an awkward placement in a hall between louder works, struggles to meet its potential.

Tacita Dean’s “Ear on a Worm,” 2016. Courtesy MAC Montréal.

Another highlight was a deeply strange reworking of a grainy film of Cohen reading one of his poems, “ultrascored” by French artist Christophe Chassol. In the video, Cohen’s own voice cuts in and out, is sometimes replaced, sometimes reinforced, by a chorus of harmonizing singers – the film loops, repeats lines unevenly: sings and re-sings. The voices are at once droning and beautiful. They ring like a ritual chant. In an unexpectedly searing denouement, Chassol’s chorus boldly holds us in a cringe. His host of black voices press hard on an off-key phrase about “the dark races,” which sounds uncomfortable enough in Cohen’s tenor, but the effect is then infinitely amplified when chanted ventriloquistically in merciless refrain. The film stutters, repeats the line twice, thrice, four times. Time stretches. Even fond memory has no duty of respect to tidiness. This was a deliberate, strategic misremembering, as can be the counterintuitive task of memorial. It’s a tactical exaggeration that sharply reminds us of the flaws even among those born with the gift of a golden voice.

The strongest showings still felt buried beneath a nagging sense of polished inevitability. What was the best we could have hoped for, with this? Why does it feel anathema to desire emotional deliverance from a contemporary art museum? When can a museum be sincere, and how?

Jenny Holzer, “For Leonard Cohen,” 2017. Installation view at Silo no. 5, Montréal. Photo: George Fok.

For one thing, the present moment simply isn’t a great one for earnestness in contemporary art. The artworld’s increasingly conspicuous adjacency to staggering inequalities of wealth, voice, and privilege mean that it can neither wear sentimentality without seeming slick and overproduced, nor detachment without seeming sneering and aloof. And, as viewers, our allegiances become caught in an uncomfortable shuttling between the performed gravity in gestures like this one – cloying and partly insincere, perhaps, but also somehow necessary; and a hangover from the irony and cynicism of the ‘90s, a reluctance to embrace overtly manipulative sappiness.

Much has been written about the millennial erosion of sincerity and its impacts on cultural production. But it’s especially interesting to find this problem at the MACM, a public institution saddled with a kind of duty (and enormous financial incentive) to host an exhibition like this one. Most generously put, this was perhaps the weirdest this particular blockbuster could have gotten away with being. It responded to a dense set of extra-institutional social requirements that didn’t leave much room for creative enterprise beyond expensive A/V and installation design. The boldest, brightest statements were thoroughly legible, generally affecting, and undeniably successful as communicative acts.

Of course, what all this has to do with contemporary art remains a question. However we want to categorize it, post-modern, post-romantic art has no truck with entertainment, eulogy, or even catharsis. It should shun the cop-out of easy affect, and rather have us pause in unresolved ambivalence, to tarry with uncertainty and irresolution. This, however, was almost certainly too much to ask from a spectacle like this. And perhaps, to quote the man himself, that’s no way to say goodbye.

Then again, perhaps uncertainty and confusion is the only honest form for a farewell. And if so, then A Crack in Everything is a missed opportunity, albeit one constrained by institutional circumstance to be exactly what it was. Here’s a lost chance to say a truthful, messy, and un-reassuring thing about loss.

This show, as a flawed memorial, foregrounded something interesting: the museum vision of contemporary art that invites the best work is sometimes at odds with the kinds of things we also require a museum to do. Perhaps, at times, we need to share sadness with strangers, and as part of our civic life the museum must play a role in that. But the question contemporary art ought to answer differently than a blockbuster spectacle is whether we are entitled to resolution, and whether we ought to be made whole again.

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