In 1997, new media artist George Fok, who was a young kid at the time, immigrated with his family from his birthplace, Hong Kong, to Montreal. It wasn’t until many years later that Fok would realize the serendipity of moving to the same part of Canada where singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was born.
Fok, who is one of four solo artists participating in the Experience Leonard Cohen exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (CJM) this fall, began to discover the power of immersive video arts when he worked at a design agency located right next door to Cohen’s house in Montreal.
The artist first encountered Cohen’s charismatic personality and intimate music in Hong Kong when he noticed that his favorite bands, groups like R.E.M. and the Pixies, were covering songs by the influential songwriter, and was able to pick up a copy of I’m Your Man at one of Hong Kong’s few record stores. “This singer has a very dark, seductive voice and it’s very, very interesting,” he thought. “It’s as if a higher power drives my life and I end up immigrating to Montreal.”
The connection he felt to Cohen deepened when a friend and mentor in the design world, John Zeppetelli, became the artistic director at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) and knew he needed a piece to set the stage for a new touring show that would focus on Leonard Cohen’s life. “They wanted something to open the show that everyone was familiar with, all the archival footage, and I was selected because of my filmmaking and documentary experience,” Fok says. “This is actually the first piece of immersive work that I had done, and it became my seminal work, which I am now known for.”
What lay ahead before the show could begin touring in 2017 was an arduous task — even for a serious Cohen fan. Fok, who had access to much of the singer’s video archive and all of the music tracks from Sony, began to watch what he had and then research on YouTube and Amazon for more, for six months straight. Then he watched it all again with an assistant and started making notes.
“We are looking for common threads. What is an interesting moment? What is he doing and what line is he singing?“ Fok recalls about this process. The exhibit engulfs audiences as they sit surrounded by video screens depicting images from different points in Cohen’s five-decade career. The piece is a continuous hour-long loop and viewers can enter or exit at any time. “It’s very interesting when we found stuff that would make the piece special, but it is not chronologically aligned.”
For example, Fok talks about finding performances of the classic song “Suzanne” from every decade between the ’60s and 2000s. “That song has been interpreted many, many times and why did he choose to perform it that way — it’s probably very meaningful to him,” Fok says. “I tried to identify what the journey is like for an artist who has had a five-decade career: from a young Leonard, to the old, and on his last album, coming to terms with God.”
Fok says the experience of making the piece was a revelation of sorts as he came to understand Cohen better — even identifying some of the lyrics clearly inspired by the corner of Montreal they shared for a brief time. “As an artist, Leonard is brutally honest, up-front about who he is and that’s what the fans love about him,” he says. “You’re witnessing this honesty and frankness and you feel the personality of who he is. Capturing that was a monumental task but I guess in some way, I succeeded.”
Experience Leonard Cohen can be seen at the CJM. The show includes exhibits by George Fok and Judy Chicago (through January 2) and Candice Breitz (also part of MAC’s Cohen tour) and Marshall Trammell (September 18–February 13).