Leonard Cohen was many things in his lifetime: a singer, a poet, a philosopher, a father, and a Buddhist. But he disregarded fixed labels, slogans in his lyrics, and the idea that anything — including a performance — could ever be orchestrated or preordained. As Cohen said in a 2009 interview, seven years before he died at age 82, “You never know what’s going to happen when you step on the stage. You never know whether you’ll be able to be the person that you want to be or that the audience is going to be hospitable to the person that they perceive.”
So Cohen would have loved The Poetry Machine, an old organ that the artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller rigged to play Cohen reading his own poetry. Anyone who visits San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery can sit down at it and play the keys. Each key plays a different reading from Cohen’s Book of Longing — and each reading lasts only as long as the key is held down.
Quickly pressing one key produces the first three words of a fluid thought: “She fell asleep.” Press another key a little longer, and you hear Cohen saying, “Don’t ask me how. I know it’s true.” Press still another key, and Cohen asserts, “There’s no one who has told us yet what Boogie Street is for.”
You can hear Cohen read page numbers, as in “Page 106. How could I have doubted…” You hear Cohen rustle pages, or even simply breathing. Press multiple keys at once, as an organ is normally played, and you’re surrounded by a cacophony of Cohen voices, all emanating from the scores of speakers set up around the organ and nearby walls, emanating simultaneously at different sound levels. Cohen’s spoken voice — especially his older voice — had a timbre that exuded calm, clarity, suffering, street smarts, and much, much more. Hearing a chorus of these older voices from The Poetry Machine is to hear Cohen as you’ve never imagined. And everyone who sits down at The Poetry Machine gets a unique take on Cohen since no one plays The Poetry Machine the exact same way.
“The voice of God,” is how Cardiff describes Cohen reading his works. “You can sit and listen to his voice all day. I just love his voice — the older voice.”
“He’s definitely the voice of God, sometimes,” Bures Miller says, sitting with Cardiff as they talked with SF Weekly on the opening night of “Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: THE POETRY MACHINE & Other Works.”
“It became a real portrait of him, he adds. “It’s all his words … but it’s like you’re having a conversation with him.”
The Poetry Machine debuted last year at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, as part of its museum-wide tribute to Cohen’s legacy and influence. Cardiff and Bures Miller are a longtime couple and longtime artistic collaborators whose works are frequently interactive, sound-based, and experiential. Miller has adored Cohen’s poetry for decades. With the other invited museum artists, they got Cohen’s approval to use his works, but he died a year before the exhibit opened — and Cardiff and Bures Miller didn’t quite know what to do until Cohen’s agent, Robert Kory, gave them Cohen’s Book of Longing recordings, which featured 183 poems. The recordings have still not been published, so the Fraenkel exhibit is one of the few ways to hear them.
“We originally thought we’d record some of Cohen’s early works and use his books before he was famous,” Bures Miller says. “We wanted to use the early poems, but we couldn’t find any recordings of him. And we thought, ‘Oh well, we’ll try and record it ourselves.’ And we tried that — but it just didn’t seem right. We’re not poets and we’re not performers. At one point, we were fantasizing about approaching him to record them, but then he died, unfortunately. And six months later, his agent sent us a bunch of recordings that we didn’t know existed. They’re the perfect recordings for the piece.”
“His agent told us, ‘Leonard said, “There’s nothing more boring than a poetry reading,” ’ Bures Miller adds. “But when you have it on the keyboard, it’s not boring. You can stay as long as you want.”
Like Cohen, Cardiff and Bures Miller are from Canada. Their bona fides include the Benesse Prize at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001, which recognizes artists who “break new artistic ground with an experimental and pioneering spirit.” They won for a project, The Paradise Institute, that puts art-goers into a smallish cinema where the on-screen movie intersects with intimate, odd voices that the art-goers hear on headphones.
At Fraenkel Gallery, Cardiff and Bures Miller are also exhibiting Sad Waltz and the Dancer who couldn’t dance, a mechanized work with two marionettes: A tuxedoed pianist who — with moving hands and other life-like mannerisms — performs a beautifully haunting work, Sad Waltz, by Armenian composer Edvard Mirzoyan (the recording is of pianist Arjen Seinen); and a long-haired dancer whose wild movements swing her to and fro and also immobile.
Also at Fraenkel is a 15-minute slide show, Road Trip, of images that Bures Miller’s grandfather took on a drive from Vancouver to New York in the 1950s, including lots of mountain ranges and nature. The slides, made when the grandfather was fighting cancer, run on a carousel accompanied by a sound recording of Cardiff and Bures Miller narrating their thoughts (and occasionally arguing) about everything from the slide show’s order to the slides’ subjects. Like The Paradise Institute, Road Trip puts the art-goer into a scene of unintended engagement — hanging out in an environment that illuminates but gets awkward, where Cardiff’s voice originates from one speaker and Bures Miller’s from another.
Each Fraenkel artwork is in its own room, but there’s sonic overlap, so people in the main gallery space for The Poetry Machine can hear the adjoining Sad Waltz and the Dancer who couldn’t dance if both pieces are in operation – which ratchets up the aural experience of both works. “THE POETRY MACHINE & Other Works” is multisensory, multidimensional, and multitudinous. “I was there for you,” Cohen says in one of the poems echoing through the air at Fraenkel. Yes, he was. But the Fraenkel Gallery exhibit makes it seem that Cohen is still there. Still offering words that express what it means to be human. Hit a key. Any key. And what comes out is anyone’s guess.
For “Betweenscapes” at SOMArts, which opens the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center‘s United States of Asian America Festival, curators Kathy Zarur and Roula Seikaly picked 14 artists to address a deliberately provocative question. What’s the space that exists between a series of polar opposites: “Colonial power and indigenous resistance; diaspora and homeland; us and them; here and there”? The short answer is that those spaces are extremely complicated. Lots of gray areas exist.
Rea Lynn de Guzman mixes photos of the Tenderloin with other materials to produce silhouettes that hint at the physical and emotional difficulty of migrating from the Philippines to the United States. Photographer Henry Francisco juxtaposes images of basketball courts in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Manhattan with courts in the Middle East, including one by a mosque in Jericho, to show that sports brings commonalities to people whose country’s politics are divisive. And Azin Seraj painstakingly makes her own money bills (“Concurrency”) that honors activists who’ve risked their lives to enact change across the Middle East.
The potential for reconciliation underlies many of the 14 artists’ works. But the space in between is a work in progress, they suggest. And history is a powerful weight that is constantly pulling people in one direction, whether they want to go there or not.
“Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: THE POETRY MACHINE & Other Works,” through July 5 at Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St. Free; 415-981-2661 or fraenkelgallery.com
“Betweenscapes,” through May 24 at SOMArts, 934 Brannan St. Free; 415-863-1414 or somarts.org