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Come face to face with Leonard Cohen in ‘I’m Your Man’

From The Upsider, 8 January 2018
by Emma Froggatt

Video artist Candice Breitz’s work is incredibly intimate.

Walk into Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz gallery from January 30, 2018 and you’ll enter a space that resembles more of a cinema than a gallery. But what you hear will be 1988 Leonard Cohen album I’m Your Man, sung by his most beloved fans.

For the first time in the gallery’s 25-year history, the iconic space is being transformed into a completely black box ‘cinematic experience’ as curatorial director Anais Lellouche puts it.

Huge state-of-the-art screens have been installed for the presentation of Candice Breitz’ multi-channel video work I’m Your Man: A Portrait of Leonard Cohen.

The South African-born Berlin-based artist presented her last iteration in the series on the anthropology of the fan in 2015 at Anna Schwartz’ Sydney gallery. That time, she exhibited Working Class Hero: A Portrait of John Lennon.

Leonard Cohen I'm your man Anna Schwartz Gallery

Still from I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen), 2017. Commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Courtesy: Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

 

I’m Your Man: A Portrait of Leonard Cohen is her most recent in a series that has covered Madonna, Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. But Breitz’ portrait of Leonard Cohen is different – and not only because it centres on fans of Cohen’s own generation, men over the age of 65 from Montreal, the city he grew up in.

In this iteration, viewers stand face to face with Leonard Cohen’s fans – 18 of them to be precise – who deliver his comeback album on screens that are almost one-to-human in scale, just a little smaller than the height of the average male. “It’s a very personal engagement” Lellouche says, like most engagements are with Cohen.

As Breitz opened auditions for the portrait piece – for the recording of fans’ own amateur versions of Cohen’s comeback album – to third age residents of Montreal, this portrait feels even more so a searing personal engagement.

These men walked the streets, visited the same parks, galleries, schools as Cohen. With their versions of Cohen’s album recorded in a studio in Old Montreal, their interpretations of his songs are wide-ranging, running the gamut of how each fan came to know and love the late poet in their own way.

“It’s a portrait of a generation,” Lellouche says, “a social portrait of time and place… The responses are very individualistic, exuberant, quiet, reflective… the individuality comes in a lot.”

Leonard Cohen I'm your man Anna Schwartz Gallery

Still from I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen), 2017. Commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Courtesy: Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

 

The multi-channel portraits, like many of Breitz’ portraits of fans, mimic the flow and duration of the original albums they take as their template. Together, their voices create a tapestry of how a city and people embraced him. The performances are candid, earnest and generous.

Adding another layer to the intimacy of the work is the fact Breitz paired the singular portraits of fans with backing vocals performed by the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, the all-male choir Cohen belonged to his entire life.

There’s a communal element to the work, which seems to echo Breitz’ long-running fascination with how individuals become themselves, grow, actualise, in relation to a larger community.

Lellouche agrees you can feel people are bonding over their love for one person. “That” she says, “has been a consistent point of reflection for the artist.”

Candice Breitz Photo: Till Cremer.

 

Breitz has weaved the stories of celebrities and their fans delicately through her various portraits, and this exhibition provides another prism through which to view the artist, whose work is also on display at the National Gallery of Victoria.

That installation, Wilson Must Go, formerly known as Love Story, is on show as part of the NGV’s inaugural Triennial. Centred around one of the Triennial’s key themes, Movement, the work considers the global scale of the refugee crisis.

In the video installation, actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore and other figures retell the testimonies of people who have been forced to flee their home countries.

“There’s an interesting connection between the stars in one work and the people who are looking at them,” Lellouche says, commenting on the way Breitz’ uses celebrities to provoke new interpretations. “They are different, but they reiterate something about Candice,” she says.

I’m Your Man: A Portrait of Leonard Cohen is a heartfelt work – one that connects one of the 21st century’s most beloved artist’s with the residents of his hometown and community in a way that reverberates globally.

Commissioned by the Musee d’Art Contemporain for their 2017 homage to the late poet and musician, the work was originally envisaged for the Montreal museum’s exhibition, Une breche en toute chose (a crack in everything).

It also provides a unique insight to the artist who told an interviewer in 2006: “I feel at home when I’m in Montreal – in a way that I don’t feel anywhere else.”

(Lead image: Still from I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen), 2017. Commissioned by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Courtesy: Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne / Portrait image: Candice Breitz Photo: Till Cremer) 

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