Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, December 7, 2022 - April 10, 2023. Art Gallery of Ontario. Artwork: George Fok. Passing Through, 2017. Single-screen film installation, 116.1 m2 requires 3 equal walls of 30-32 feet each. Courtesy of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. © George Fok.
Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows is set to close on April 10, 2023 at the AGO. For Cohen fans and art-goers, it has provided a revealing look into the artist’s multifaceted life through his daily art practice, his photography, his influences and his writing. Among the over 200 artworks and objects, many from Cohen’s personal archive, are two large video works: The Offerings (2017) by Kara Blake and Passing Through (2017) by George Fok. As you walk into the space, Cohen’s voice draws you inside two dark rooms booming with sounds, visuals and music. Both video installations present an audiovisual portrait of Cohen by piecing together years of footage.
The Offerings (2017) by Kara Blake is a five-channel video installation that immerses visitors in an audiovisual experience exploring the creative mind of Cohen in his own words. With excerpts from interviews and recordings, Blake constructs a composite portrait of the artist as he talks about subjects including his personal writing practice, spirituality, and love.
Passing Through (2017) by George Fok is a multi-channel video installation that mimics an immersive concert experience. Celebrating Cohen’s singular voice, music, charismatic persona, and inimitable stage presence, Fok drew on a vast archive of audiovisual material and pays tribute to Cohen’s five-decade-long career as a singer-songwriter and performer. From his early years in bohemian 1960s Montreal to his later life, the video documents Cohen as he transforms into a global cultural icon.
Both Blake and Fok are based in Montreal, Quebec. Blake is a filmmaker whose creative projects include short films, music videos, live performance visuals, and installation pieces. Interested in fusing fact with fiction and past with the present, she works with archival materials to construct new narratives that encourage a re-examination of the world around us. Fok’s primary practice involves installation, digital art and filmmaking. He investigates subjects such as memory, speculative narratives, reconstructed theories and aesthetics.
Blake and Fok shared with us their journey in creating their installations.
AGOinsider: Please briefly describe your approach and process in creating your video work.
Blake: For the creation of The Offerings, I was granted access to a large collection of Cohen-related archives held by CBC, NFB and U of T. I spent months immersing myself in these materials, just listening and trying to formulate a personal relationship with Cohen, separate from existing biographical works about him. From the archives, I sought out moments that seemed to crystallize Cohen's intellect, wit and candour, and the work began to take shape around dominant themes. Cohen once described his songs and writings as “reports from the internal landscape,” and I wanted the installation to be a place where visitors could come inside this contemplative world and spend time with Cohen's words and ideas.
Fok: The intuition to use multi-channel audio-visual for a concert experience was decided from the beginning. I began by researching and sourcing materials from vast broadcasters and film archives platforms throughout the five decades of Cohen's career. I indexed commonalities such as the repertoires in concerts, poetry recitations, jokes and lines repeated on stage, TV interviews, and live performances to find meaningful links to create an all-encompassing, interweaving time-travelling concert experience of Leonard Cohen singing with different versions of himself. I went through extensive concert and interview footage repeatedly while reading Leonard's biography in parallel, studying and listening to all his albums. His curiosity and yearning for spiritual meaning struck me, and I felt compelled to tell a story of this view.
The title Passing Through is a musical story of pilgrimage, from his early wandering days," trilogy albums" to the last song, "Come Healing," I intended to tell the story from existential odyssey to universal faith in a non-linear fashion. The work begins with reminiscing stories on unfulfillment from romance and passion to middle life. It acknowledges defeat, critical views on social politics and human conditions, accept paradoxes and the mysteries of life, embraces his nationalistic Jewish identity, and finally, comes to terms with God at the imminent death as a farewell sermon. I intended to conclude the work with church services like liturgical emotion of hymn and choral quality in an open-to-all museum setting for visitors to bring home.
For the sound design, the different period recording formats and textures from the 1960s to the 21st century from Cohen's music and interviews presented some challenges. The family estate provided us access to stems of many records, especially the full multitrack from the mixing board of "Live in London." With that, our sound engineer surgically reconstructed a seamless, concert-like surround sound experience for visitors to enjoy on-site.
AGOinsider: Did you learn anything new about Leonard Cohen that you didn't know before? What about him did you want to encapsulate in your work?
Blake: I was surprised to learn that the creative process was not always easy for Cohen –the song Anthem took ten years to write– and sometimes the most personally rewarding endeavours were met with disdain, if not outright hostility, as was the case with Beautiful Losers. Hearing Cohen speak about these experiences, his deep humility comes to the fore. Cohen's genuine curiosity about the world and his place in it allowed him to articulate the human experience in a way which feels inclusive and heartening. His unique ability to make listeners feel as if they are not alone in life's successes and defeats is what I wanted to encapsulate in the work.
Fok: On the historical side, the archival materials of Cohen gave me a deeper insight into Montreal before, during and after the "Révolution tranquille." By the time I arrived in the late nineties, the city was already under the leadership of Quebecois and dominated by French languages. The concert and interview footage I reviewed helped me reconnect this city's missing dots. Montreal's historical nuance with the English language is much less visible today. Leonard's work gives me a new appreciation for the cultural influence of the Jewish communities, whose richness and trajectories are still very much present today.
If you pay enough attention and read between the lines, Cohen always delivers a sincere, heartfelt performance and finds the precise moment to sprinkle in a few words of profound wisdom. By assembling all these "Easter eggs" from his interviews and performances, I am here to tell a culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant musical biography of Cohen.
In his private life, the stage is one of the few places Cohen consciously chose to connect with his audiences. Songs, poetry and words are carefully rehearsed and delivered with precision. These are the rare moments he opens himself with brutal honesty and vulnerability.
My works intend to celebrate and honour these moments for us to relive.
Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows is on view at the AGO through April 10, 2023.