Leonard Cohen’s relationship with Montreal—a city he fled as a young man and one he found refuge in his later years—was often fraught. “I feel at home when I’m in Montreal—in a way that I don’t feel anywhere else,” he told an interviewer in 2006. “I don’t know what it is, but the feeling gets stronger as I get older.”
It’s been more than a year since Cohen passed away, but in his hometown, the enormous spirit of the Canadian rock star, poet and legendary ladies’ man still burns bright. It burns in the makeshift shrine outside his modest home in the city’s Plateau neighborhood, the same home where a crowd of Montrealers gathered for a spontaneous vigil on the night of his death; in the grand murals depicting a fedora-wearing Cohen that sweep across the sides of two prominent buildings and in old hangouts like Moishes, the stately Jewish steakhouse on the city’s historic Boulevard St.-Laurent, where Cohen could often be found cutting into a rib eye.
Locals proudly recite anecdotes about the time they bumped into Cohen and exchanged pleasantries, which happened more often than you’d think, considering his reclusive reputation. During my ten years there, first as a student and then as an aimless post-grad, I never had the pleasure of crossing paths with Montreal’s notoriously private native son. But on the one-year anniversary of his death and a whole decade after I left my adopted home, finally ready to give adulthood a whirl, I found myself back in Montreal, face-to-face with Cohen for the first time.
The encounter began on the second floor of the Musée d'art contemporain (MAC), where I was confronted by a majestic 10-foot tall Cohen, standing on the beach, clad in a smoke-black trench coat. The image was shot in 1985, on the set of Cohen’s music video for the song “First We Take Manhattan,” and it’s the first thing that greets you when you enter Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, an exhibition devoted to Cohen’s legacy that runs at the MAC through April.
Walking through the show, two things struck me: It’s both very big and incredibly diverse. There are more than a dozen multi-disciplinary works spread across six rooms, created by artists from France, Germany, Israel, Hong Kong, the US and of course, Cohen’s native Canada—a testament to just how vast Cohen’s cultural footprint has become.
Among the more straightforward tributes to Cohen’s actual music is Candice Breitz’s affecting recreation of Cohen’s landmark album I’m Your Man. The South African artist—whose piece occupies the most real estate in the museum—recruited 18 men who have been Cohen acolytes for over 50 years to sing all the songs from his 1988 opus a capella. The recordings are projected individually onto towering screens and come together to form a kind of makeshift choir, which the show’s curator, John Zeppetelli calls “an anthropology of fandom.”
Another work that reimagines Cohen’s songbook comes from the Los Angeles-based filmmaker Zach Richter, who shrewdly uses what is arguably Cohen’s most iconic song, “Halleluljah,” in an eponymous VR piece that first premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The installation is an immersive experience that surrounds the viewer with five screens projecting performer Bobby Halvorson as he sings five arrangements of “Hallelujah” in a different vocal range. With all the iterations that we’ve heard of Cohen’s moody masterpiece, it’s hard to imagine anyone bringing something new to the table. Richter’s piece was thrilling, like I was hearing the song for the first time.
While it’s easy to read these works as posthumous tributes to Cohen, Zeppetelli reminds us that the show was conceived before his death. “We were excited to be celebrating a living legend, an active musician, poet and cultural figure who had been active for five decades,” he says. “We were so looking forward to taking him around the exhibition hall and showing him how relevant and powerful he has been to so many people.”
One of those people is Jon Rafman, the Montreal-based digital artist who rose to prominence with his Google Street View project, a collection of strange and beautiful images captured by the nine lenses on Google Street View camera cars. Here, Rafman offers one of the show’s more abstract readings of Cohen’s work. Initially, Rafman’s film Legendary Reality felt out of place. It’s a sci-fi saga pieced together using footage culled from Second Life. But Rafman, who grew up in Montreal’s Jewish community, sees a lot of himself in Cohen. “We’re both dark romantics who explore to find the Other and to find ourselves,” he tells me. “We both approach the city with double identities, which is typical in Jewish history, expression and experience. Melancholy and loss are also core features in Cohen’s poetry. Recognizing these in my own work helped me recognize how Cohen has helped me find my voice as a Montreal Jew.”
A more straightforward—but equally effective—attempt at bringing Cohen to life comes courtesy of Canadian artist Kara Blake’s immersive multi-channel video installation The Offerings. Blake combed through the endless wealth of archival footage, photographs and written documents at her disposal, using them as a kind of road map to Cohen’s beating center. It sets the tone for a show that straddles the line between admiration and interpretation of Cohen as both man and artist.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Cohen would have thought of the show had he lived to see it. As Zeppetelli told me, that thought also consumed him in the weeks leading up to the opening. He explained that Cohen was hesitant about having a museum show devoted to his life and work, but that he eventually warmed to the idea. Some of the artists told me that they had hoped to meet him and show him their work. More than a year later, his death still hangs over the city of Montreal, but in the walls of the MAC, Cohen feels more alive than ever.
Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything runs until April 1, 2018.