John Hurrell – 28 October, 2020
Breitz' show is cleverly installed in two rooms, a smaller space that leads into a much larger one. There are videoed musical performances in both, and the sound deliberately bleeds between the two. You are always aware of the other room when you move back and forth during songs. You are expected to do this.
I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen)
Curated by Natasha Conland
31 August 2020 - 6 December 2020
Let’s sort this point out early about the title of the exhibition; this installation is not really a portrait of Leonard Cohen, but more about the preconceptions of the artist. All the bios show Cohen was extremely particular about detail, being very fussy—and it is likely he would have loathed large parts of it. This is even though at times in his early performances he embraced chance and chaos. And a portrait of a large group of fans is not a portrait of the one admired.
Candice Breitz is a much acclaimed South African artist. Her show at AAG on the top floor is cleverly installed in two rooms, a smaller space that leads into a much larger one. There are videoed musical performances in both, and the sound deliberately bleeds between the two. You are always aware of the other room when you move back and forth during songs. You are expected to do this.
The first room has a wide screen, and features the impeccable harmonies of the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, based in Quebec. We see nine singers, including a terrific cantor soloist, carefully conducted by Roi Azoulay the director. They deliberately sing only selected lines from the sequence of songs, and in the silent pauses in-between we can faintly hear time being counted out by Azoulay, off camera.
In the other bigger room are lined up narrow screens featuring eighteen elderly Canadian gentlemen in assorted apparel and hairstyles. They are mostly Caucasian, but include some Chinese and African-Americans. They are deliberately non-professional singers (there’s a whistler) and it is clearly obvious. These guys love Cohen’s music and have fun singing all the songs from the I‘m your Man album—twitching and writhing, each in a state of reverie—going through the verses.
As for me, this part of the installation really made me squirm. I hated it. It was like awful karaoke, but even more pathetic in that it was really sad to watch. The eighteen codgers should have restricted their performances to their private bathroom showers. However I loved the small a capella choir next door, and spent most of my time listening to them.
Look, I’ve been buying Leonard Cohen records since I was eighteen (and Bob Dylan since I was fifteen), and as with Dylan, it is not just Cohen’s words (and Jewish-inflected sensibility) that I love—it is also the backing music and voice. So an ‘art’ scheme with non-professionals is bound to fail if you don’t have good singers. You need contributors who can cut it. At least eighteen of them.
And why men only? That seems so dumb. It is well known that women (e.g. Anjani Thomas; Jennifer Warnes) do a great job of singing Cohen’s material. As do—btw—transgender artists (like Anthony Hegarty). However it is a very shrewd twist on Breitz’ part to focus on the album’s title like this. To make a big thing of masculinity. After all Cohen is holding a phallic banana in the photo on the cover, so Breitz is hitting on the obvious. It’s a nice idea.
One song in particular, I Can’t Forget, is perfect with its self-mocking irony—the singer wryly laughing at his vanity and the cruelty of aging. (I stumbled out of bed, I got ready for the struggle; I smoked a cigarette, and tightened up my gut; I said this can’t be me, it must be my double…) The last number, Tower of Song, contains similar sentiments, but more specifically about failing sexual stamina.
While I’m Your Man may not be Cohen’s best ever album (I think Songs of Love and Hate is; it has extraordinary intensity) it might offer the best range of musical material for a project such as this. There are eight songs, one of which is a loose transcription from the Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca.
Although Cohen has a much more consistent persona (in terms of quality, musical style, subject-matter, emotional mood, coffee-house chic, and vocal timbre) than say the more impulsive, diverse and extremely secretive Dylan, the latter has had far greater historical impact because of his astonishing innovation. Both can be very very funny, yet also very very nasty. They are consummate wordsmiths, especially Cohen who wrote novels as well as unsung poetry.
Breitz‘s concept of using fans to sing a Cohen album seems to have been taken from Florian Habicht and Jarvis Cocker’s brilliant film about Sheffield and the pop band Pulp, where various choirs of local workers sing the band’s songs with real panache. She is obviously fascinated by fandom, and maybe for some, watching a bunch of deluded geezers make dicks of themselves says something interesting. I don’t buy it.
Instead it is really Breitz‘s idea of mixing the sound of the two rooms that is fascinating—a loose chaotic rustling blended with sweet melodic control. For that reason the show is well worth visiting. You can compare the two approaches to singing (and sound production) by moving around and carefully listening. However if you wish to explore Cohen properly as a writer pondering (amongst other things) the fading effects of testosterone, then buy, beg or steal the I’m Your Man album. That way you can hear the words properly and enjoy all the music.