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Candice Breitz Looks At Leonard Cohen

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Installation of Candice Breitz's 'I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Gift of the Friends of Auckland Art Gallery, 2020 Installation of Candice Breitz's 'I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Gift of the Friends of Auckland Art Gallery, 2020 Installation of Candice Breitz's 'I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Gift of the Friends of Auckland Art Gallery, 2020 Installation of Candice Breitz's 'I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Gift of the Friends of Auckland Art Gallery, 2020 Installation of Candice Breitz's 'I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Gift of the Friends of Auckland Art Gallery, 2020 Installation of Candice Breitz's 'I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Gift of the Friends of Auckland Art Gallery, 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.

Auckland

 

Candice Breitz
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.

John Hurrell

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This Discussion has 4 comments.

Comment

Studio Breitz, 1:04 a.m. 29 October, 2020

Dear John,

We enjoyed reading your thoughts on Candice Breitz’s work, ‘I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen).’ (http://eyecontactsite.com/2020/10/masculinity-and-portraiture).

We would never ask you to revise your text or your reading of the work. Each visitor is entitled to bring their own experience to the fore. That said (and although we live in an age which many have described as ‘post-factual'), we thought you might be interested in a few facts, as an alternative to random speculation:

- This project had the explicit blessing of Leonard Cohen (who had not yet passed away at the time that the work was in production) and of his manager Robert Kory. Both followed the project closely and granted their unambiguous approval and support. Leonard’s children—both Adam and Lorca—have also supported the project enthusiastically (they both attended the first showing of the work in Montreal in late 2017).

- Contrary to your text, there are Canadians, Americans, Irish, French, Tunisian, Malaysian and South African men in the mix of individuals appearing in ‘I’m Your Man.' There are no African Americans featured (though we did find a gem in Philip Taylor, who happens to be South African by birth, and who sadly passed away a matter of weeks before the work was debuted). There are also no Chinese men in the piece (though we were happy to work with Peter Lau, who grew up in Malaysia). We know that all Asians and People of Colour look the same to some folks, but we always appreciate it when ‘critical' writers avoid arriving at sloppy conclusions.

- Candice has been working with fan communities to make video installations like the one you visited in Auckland since 2005. The first in the series, titled ‘Legend (A Portrait of Bob Marley),’ was shot in Jamaica in 2005 (https://vimeo.com/30383536). Several works in this series have been shot subsequently [working in collaboration with fans of Michael Jackson (2005), John Lennon (2006), Madonna (2005) and, most recently, Leonard Cohen]. A quick google would have yielded this information. To the best of our knowledge, the film by Florian Habicht and Jarvis Cocker (‘Pulp’)—which you casually describe as the likely source for the work that is currently on display in Auckland—was shot in the year 2014. Don’t let that get in the way, though: Facts, schmacts!

- As you correctly point out, Candice is an artist—not a musician. Her interest, in this series of work, lies in thinking about fandom and the way that music shapes the lives of those who value it. Her aim was never to compete with the album covered ('I’m Your Man’) or to make professional music. There is room in the world for more than one experience of a particular body of music; at least we believe this to be true (as did Leonard himself), though we don’t expect or need you to agree. We suspect you’d rather be listening to Bob Dylan, though that is nothing more than a hunch.

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Studio Breitz, 1:04 a.m. 29 October, 2020

Lastly, you seem to be a man who is close in age to those featured in the work. That renders the brutally ageist descriptive language that you apply in your text rather perplexing. But of course it is your right, as a 'deluded old geezer’ and a ‘pathetic codger' (to borrow your choice of words), to deride and lambast those appearing in the work, if that kind of nastiness counts for critical thought in your mental universe. After all: Empathy, schmempathy!

You claim to be interested in ’spirited discussion.’
Feel free to publish this letter on your website.

Sincere regards,

Studio Breitz

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John Hurrell, 12:03 p.m. 29 October, 2020

Thank you Breitz Studio for your speedy and forthright, very considered, letter. I’m thrilled to actually have a conversation with an artist about something I’ve written. Such things are rare on this site. They are rare in this country.

Sure, I’m impolite to the elderly, but as a seventy year old I have the right to be a snot to my peers if I so choose. If I cringe at what I see, I say so. That’s not ageist, it’s just being blunt.

And while I was stupid in my sloppy discussion of the ethnic breakdown, in not using general (vaguer but more accurate) descriptions, it is not of enormous consequence to the argument. What comes through I think is my regard for Cohen as an often ironic commentator on his own masculinity. This is what I assumed was the point of the project. As a portrait.

With the two choirs (especially the larger one) I notice that the comprehension of this achievement gets muddied, for the use of fandom changes the meaning of the title. ‘I’m Your Man’ now refers to Cohen’s gyrating male audience, not himself.

I guess the question is whether masculinity (in the traditional hormonal and perhaps also in the more elastic multi-gender sense) is involved in this scenario. Personally I doubt it--but others may disagree.

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Tyson Schmidt, 10:50 a.m. 7 November, 2020

I remember seeing the Thriller version at Wgtn City Gallery back in 2017 (I think it was about then). Very similar approach, and I had a similar cringe to the lack of skilled singing. My cringe reaction was not one of criticism of the participant, since the whole premise was that they were fans and they were undertaking some type of tribute by participating (or an expression of their fandom).

While I am a fan of Thriller, I would not go as far as those fans by participating in such a performance (or artwork, or whatever it is). Perhaps that is because I am too ashamed of my singing voice, and that my fandom does not override that shame. I also thought that my lack of professionalism would never add anything to Thriller, but I really enjoyed watching the other fans do their takes on the songs (mostly confidently if not professionally) as each contributed something slightly different to it.

On the theme of professionalism or the lack of it, I was not impressed with the response by Studio Breitz. While it is difficult to read tone in written form etc, and while I liked reading the additional background provided, I thought there were a number of comments that were simply rude. And to hide behind the name of the Studio rather than use their actual name adds to the rudeness in my view. To be charitable, perhaps this was all part of showing that the participants in Candice Breitz's work - while not trained singers or performers - are still more professional than employees in artist studios?

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