Co-Curator of New Leonard Cohen Exhibit Explains Its Novel Approach to a Legend's Mind

The Leonard-Cohen exhibition
Christina Horsten/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Leonard-Cohen exhibition 'Obituary as an Exhibition: New York Museum Reminds of Leonard Cohen' during press day at the Jewish Museum on April 9, 2019 in New York.

Leonard Cohen may have won the world over with his poetry, songwriting and visual art, but a new exhibition aims to plumb even deeper -- into his intellect, his thinking and even his clinical depression.

When Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything opens at New York’s The Jewish Museum on Friday (April 12), don't expect typical hagiography. Instead of displaying typical period instruments, outfits or gold records, co-curators John Zeppetelli and Victor Shiffman keep it conceptual, tastefully leading viewers into Cohen’s complicated psychological waters.

The more conventional first floor contains a series of audiovisual installations of Cohen onstage and on TV; the second contains an appointment-only Depression Chamber, an installation by Ari Folman in which the viewer lies in a bed in a darkened room while eerie images manifest on the ceiling.

When A Crack in Everything (named after a lyric from his 1992 song “Anthem”) directly addresses Cohen’s music and poetry, it does so from fresh, unconventional angles. The ubiquitous “Hallelujah” is represented; viewers are invited into a room of swinging microphones to hum the melody along with an ethereal, piped-in chorus of online participants. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Poetry Machine consists of a playable Wurlitzer organ -- with each key set to a recording of Cohen reading from his 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing.

Cohen’s death is evoked on a stark note; the final exhibit on the second floor is simply Cohen’s New York Times obit from 2016, under the grim news of Donald Trump’s election. But head up to the third, and A Crack in Everything strikes a different tone -- just a room with Cohen covers by Feist, Moby, the National and others.

It’s the most important point A Crack in Everything makes. With this loving nod to a new generation of Cohen fanatics, Zeppetelli and Shiffman prove that Cohen isn’t just a melancholic curio from folk music’s past -- but a funny, carnal and complex artist who still shapes the future.

Here, Zeppetelli talks about the origins of A Crack in Everything and why he chose a route less traveled to honor the legacy of a songwriting hero.

Leonard Cohen left us a wide-ranging multimedia legacy -- songs, poems, drawings. What inspired you to tell his story through visual artists?

It was a little odd and unorthodox for us to be celebrating what was principally a poet and a songwriter. We wanted to participate in a Montréal event to celebrate the 375th anniversary of the city. There was some extra money going around. We wanted to be part of the celebration that year, and we knew we could increase our exhibitions budget if we came up with a good idea.

One evening, I was out with a friend of mine, Victor Shiffman, who ended up being the co-curator of the exhibition. We had been talking about Leonard Cohen for years. I told him I needed a really good subject to convince the powers that be to fund this project. It had to be really unusual. It had to be something we usually wouldn’t do in a museum. It had to be locally important, but also have a global reach.

Of course, Leonard is the perfect person for that kind of thing. He’s profoundly identified with Montréal and also a complete global icon. I knew our audiences would absolutely love anything around Leonard, but I also wanted to stay within our mandate as a contemporary art institution.

First of all, we needed Leonard’s approval. He guarded his privacy incredibly ferociously, and we didn’t want to infringe on him in any way. So we wrote very tentatively to his lawyer and manager, and a few days later, we heard back. They said, “Well, Leonard will not get in your way,” which felt like kind of a Cohenesque thing to say.

I had no idea he was ill at the time. The exhibition took three years of work, and it opened on the first anniversary of his death. We initially set out to celebrate a living artist, not commemorate a dead artist. But sadly, two-thirds of the way in, word got out one evening that he had been secretly buried.

It was a real shock and a wound to the city. The spontaneous gatherings of people outside his house in Montréal went on and on for months. We knew that this would have an impact. Leonard very graciously made all of his life’s work available to us under the best possible conditions, and really made it possible for us to explore him as best we could.

What themes did you want to draw the most attention to?

He’s a writer, he’s a novelist, he’s a poet, he’s a little bit of a philosopher, he’s a Buddhist, he’s Jewish, he has a reputation as a ladies’ man. We had all these categories and identified a series of contemporary artists we really wanted to work with.

We wanted to celebrate Leonard’s beautiful mind and his thinking. I challenge you to look up any interview with Leonard. He is never, ever banal. He seems to be incapable of being banal. There’s always some fantastically interesting, humorous, ironic or deeply felt thought.

There’s a room in the exhibition that celebrates Leonard, on multiple screens, as a thinker. His ideas around spirituality and creation and being an author and what songwriting and religion meant to him.

His Judaism was rich, multifaceted and often tinted with Buddhism and Christianity. Were you trying to highlight this by bringing the exhibit to The Jewish Museum?

No, actually. I don’t think Leonard would have necessarily approved of that. Although he was profoundly Jewish and proud of it, he was much more universal than that. He respected all kinds of religious traditions.

We didn’t set out at all to go to The Jewish Museum, specifically. But they responded. One of their trustees came up to Montréal and saw the show, then recommended it to the director, who then made a visit. The negotiations basically occurred that way.

But we’re delighted that it’s at The Jewish Museum. We love the museum and the people there. We’re really happy that the first stop of the tour is in New York and at The Jewish Museum, but there was no particular targeted effort to go there.

What does the lyric “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in” mean to you?

Leonard did suffer from depression. A lot of people roll their eyes at his name because they think of him as this incredibly morose guy. In many ways, he was! Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for Leonard. I happen to love him.

“A crack in everything” seems to encapsulate so much of what Leonard was about. For him, it was demonstrably true that the world is flawed, life is difficult, but the end of that line offers such a beautiful counterweight. Yes, this is an imperfect life that we’re doomed to live in, and yet it’s this crack that allows life to flourish.

It’s such a beautiful image, that in this imperfection there is the possibility of light, and light is, of course, a fantastic life source. It was another encapsulation of the beautiful paradoxes at work in Leonard’s work. That’s why he’s so interesting. Because he was at once almost liturgical in his devotion to certain traditions, but he was also very carnal. These contradictory things give the work such bite and such power.

Thankfully, there was a redemptive end to that line. This was a man who had reflected deeply on the human condition, and this was his assessment. For him, it was demonstrably so.


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