A year after Leonard Cohen's death, Montreal's MAC takes critical look at cultural icon

After almost three years of preparation, Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything opens at Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain (MAC) on Nov. 9.

MAC's John Zeppetelli says Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything may be museum's most ambitious exhibition yet

Leonard Cohen was initially hesitant when the MAC approached about an exhibition — he didn't know why a museum was interested in him. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

After almost three years of preparation, Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything opens at Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain (MAC) on Nov. 9.

The long wait for what MAC director and chief curator John Zeppetelli said may be the MAC's most ambitious exhibition ever has proved both nerve-wracking and tragic: Cohen died before it was complete.

We can't screw it up, for Leonard.- MAC director and chief curator John Zeppetelli

The exhibition began as a critical look at Cohen's legacy, but when the team learned of his death last November, Zeppetelli debated scrapping it entirely, wondering if it would be disrespectful to go ahead.

The team finally decided that mounting the show had become even more important — and the stakes were higher.

"We can't screw it up, for Leonard," said Zeppetelli.

A more solemn and commemorative tone emerged from the MAC's original plan.

Why would a museum be interested in Cohen?

Work on the exhibition started years ago, when Zeppetelli was imagining what would be a good fit for the MAC during Montreal's 375th anniversary.

The idea of a Cohen-themed exhibition had been on his mind for a while, and Montreal's anniversary proved the perfect excuse to tackle how a poet, writer and singer-songwriter might become a museum exhibition.

"He bridges all the cultural divides of the city, every community seems to adore him," Zeppetelli said.

The MAC started reworking its space in October to suit the Cohen exhibition. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

While everyone agreed the exhibition would be a coup, the obvious question hung in the air — would the fiercely private Cohen agree to it?

Zeppetelli said he was riddled with anxiety as he crafted his appeal to Cohen in a letter.

He explained the plan wasn't to exhibit worn fedoras, old suits and other artifacts.

The works would be reflections on Cohen's legacy, and they would revisit his output in the cultural conversation.

Cohen was hesitant — he wasn't sure why a museum was interested in him, but he warmed to the idea, saying he was touched and wouldn't stand in the MAC's way.

MAC director and chief curator John Zeppetelli decided a Cohen exhibition was the perfect fit for Montreal's 375th. (Elysha Enos/CBC)
His blanket approval meant the MAC would be able to work towards getting rights to the hundreds of pieces of Cohen content that the artists needed.

Forty artists from 10 countries were brought on board to produce works, drawing inspiration from Cohen's life and art.

Many hoped to meet him, even if only for 30 seconds on the phone.

That wouldn't happen. Cohen's involvement never went beyond his carte-blanche approval.

Still, some artists hoped they would get their chance at the exhibition.

Zeppetelli also dreamed of seeing Cohen at the MAC so he could show him how profoundly important he's been to everyone involved.

"But now we have this other opportunity to help write his legacy in a way. In a very public space, in his hometown," Zeppetelli said.

Critical look at an icon

Visitors will walk through a series of rooms and experience unique facets of Cohen's legacy.

The first is The Depression Chamber by Israeli artist Ari Folman — best known for his 2008 film Waltz with Bashir.

Cohen famously struggled with depression for most of his life, so the exhibition appropriately opens with visitors immersing themselves in the affliction before engaging with other works.

Artist Michael Rakowitz captures a revisionist history of Cohen in the Middle East with the work: I’m good at love, I’m good at hate, it’s in between I freeze, filmed in Ramallah, Palestine. (submitted by Michael Rakowitz)

Following it is Michael Rakowitz's I'm good at love, I'm good at hate, it's in between I freeze.

The multimedia work uses videos, projection, artifacts and objects to offer a revisionist history of a Palestinian concert which, in real life, never happened.

"We discuss the possible staging of a concert, that is not the concert that was supposed to happen, not a fig leaf concert, but a restoration of Leonard Cohen's heritage — to restore what Palestinians feel is the humanism that was emptied out of his work," Rakowitz said.
Artist Kota Ezawa, known for computer animated films, sourced Cohen 21 from a NFB documentary. (Courtesy Kota Ezawa)

He said it shows how art is always somehow political.

Some of the material the artists drew from include scenes from the National Film Board's 1965 documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen and the New York Times.

A number of works also feature Cohen's music via new interpretations.

Exhibition co-curator Victor Shiffman handled the musical components of the experience.

Stranger music

Co-ordinating the exhibition's music included connecting Cohen's family synagogue in Westmount with artist Candice Breitz who needed a professional choir to accompany her piece I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen).

Breitz's work will occupy the largest space in the museum and serves as an anthropology of Cohen fandom.

In it, 18 men sing the 1988 album I'm Your Man.

Congregation Shaar Hashomayim was filmed as their backup choir.

The choir worked on Cohen's last album, You Want it Darker, and is acclimated to being involved in all things Cohen.

Cantor Gideon Zelermyer went through the album with Breitz to decide which words needed backup vocals.

Westmount synagogue, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, takes part in MAC exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything

5 years ago
Duration 0:48
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and music director Roï Azoulay talk about the piece I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen).

The choir then went into the studio to be filmed performing the album in its entirety. The sound and visual projection supports the amateur singers delivering their renditions of the comeback classic.

Music director Roï Azoulay said the choir members were told to dance if they wanted and be as natural as possible during filming.

"She wants people to see how the music impacts them in the moment," Azoulay said.

Shiffman also commissioned 18 exclusive covers of Cohen songs which play in a listening room at the end of the exhibition.

The artists he chose to contribute covers are linked in some significant way to Cohen's legacy.

Norwegian artist Aurora is one of the musicians contributing a Cohen cover to the MAC. (auroramusic/Instagram)
Among them is Canadian artist Feist, who delivered a cover of Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye at the 2017 Juno Awards where Cohen's You Want It Darker won Album of the Year and Cohen was awarded Artist of the Year.

International acts include Norwegian artist Aurora, who wouldn't disclose which "very dark" song she covered but said she aimed to preserve its simple beauty.

"It felt heavy in the studio as we were recording it," she said.

Cohen's work was always well-received in Norway, even when he struggled to find an audience in North America, and his eponymous muse of So long, Marianne-fame was Norwegian.

'Going to move you to tears'

With the approach of opening day, Zeppetelli said he hadn't slept in months and joked he was "freaking out on a daily basis."

Since the works are commissions, Zeppetelli will only see them in person right before the opening.

But he's been in close communication with the artists throughout the process and has seen the rough cuts.

"They're going to move you to tears," he said.

The highly anticipated Cohen-themed exhibition opens Nov. 9 and runs until April 9, 2018. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Some of the works in the exhibition are taking place off site. For five days starting Nov. 7, the iconic Silo No. 5 will be lit up in Cohen's honour with projections by visual artist Jenny Holzer.

A monthly concert series in collaboration with POP Montreal will present one Cohen album each month of the exhibition.

The first show is Nov. 30 at the Salle Gesù and will feature Martha Wainwright, Little Scream and Thus Owls performing I'm Your Man.

Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything opens at the MAC on Thursday and runs until April 9, 2018.

The exhibition is presented by CBC/Radio-Canada, which means special access for its audience.

CBC Montreal will be releasing exclusive images from inside the MAC Monday on its website and Facebook page.


Elysha Enos


Elysha Enos is a journalist with CBC Montreal.