gloom, doom, & george at the cohen exhibit

“George is dead,” David said when I answered the phone. I was speechless. How and why? He sounded distraught but I tried to hold it together for both of us. “Dead?” I said.

“He’s covered in white stuff and he’s floating upside down in the tank,” David groaned.

So passed Tyaela’s goldfish George, the bulging-eyed swimmer who had been her pride and joy in the years since her mother had died. The goldfish with an astoundingly large tank, with the timed lights and the big complicated water renewal device that gave their apartment a baseline bubbling silence each night when the a/c was turned off and the windows were opened. The goldfish that Tyaela would watch from the couch with a look of unadulterated happiness as he bobbed along oblivious, as she told us about how she had once brought him up and down the Tristate area on a bus. It was the trip that had elevated George from some dimestore pet in a plastic baggie to something sacred and serendipitous and worthy of care. For years and years. For the sake of George.

Ill-omened now, but some summer nights we would sit around in the living room listening to the bubbling and Tyaela would let us know just how sad she would be if George died. She told us about going to a friend’s house and sobbing at the sight of a betta fish forgotten on the back corner of the refrigerator. Forcing them to buy it a bigger tank. She had only been out of town for three days now and George had apparently just died on my boyfriend’s watch.

I came over and David and his mom opened the door with the same long look of dread on their identical faces. I dropped my bag and shuffled up to the tank. Same diagnosis. Dead. Yet! Still breathing, gills flapping mercilessly even as his body floated, contorted-arched upside down, giving a final show of suffering. The three of us looked on and winced.

We sat there drinking grapefruit juice sweating in oppressive late morning heat. Tyaela didn’t answer her phone. Eventually we left to see the city with his mother on her last day in town. David sat on the train staring off into tunnel through the black window. “I can’t believe George is dead,” he would repeat at each stop in disbelief. I tried to comfort him with the fact that George wasn’t quite dead yet, that Tyaela would be home soon possibly to revive his heaving little body, but we both knew that the story would end in David bringing home a very large bouquet of funeral orchids. I tried not to picture Tyaela doing George the indignity of flushing him down the toilet after all these years.

We were travelling haltingly (for snack after snack) towards the Guggenheim but the Jewish Museum seduced us along the way. Yulia, David’s mother, is a Russian Jew from the Soviet Union whose final verdict, given as we waited on the elevator after seeing the last floor, was a shrug. She liked it well enough, but it wasn’t a real Jewish museum without memorialization of the Holocaust, was it? “Just for fun,” she said, frowning.

In fact, the only memorial at the Jewish Museum was for Leonard Cohen.

At the Russ & Daughters located in the basement where we started the tour, David whispered, “Ok, so when we saw a Cohen thing in Montreal the other day I pretended to know who he is but do you know what his deal is? I really don’t.” And I gasped amazed at his ignorance—such a fixture, such a name—but when I began to offer an explanation I realized I could only give cautious comparisons.

He was a writer, poet, artist-musician, I said, a real Bob Dylan type, though Cohen feels a bit darker. I told him that Cohen was a member of The Velvet Underground, (David: who?) confusing him with Lou Reed. Our conversation was scandalously millennial, and I’m sure some older folks in the basement were listening with disdain.

Maybe this was why I was somewhat unimpressed by the exhibit as a whole, and much more taken with my role as shiksa watching Yulia and David and everyone else in the museum space. Leonard Cohen means so much to so many; several people milling about seemed teary, or had the dreamy look that Boomers get when thinking about the good old days, or whatever. So I’ll tread lightly here when I admit that he seems to me to be near interchangeable with his poet-artist contemporaries, and that I much prefer Bob Dylan’s smiling isolated neuroticism and reclusiveness to what I perceived as Cohen’s elevation of the Suffering Artist to a level just above his own head, which resonated with me as thick with condescension.

(Elsewhere in the world, people are probably having conversations that could be titled what’s the difference between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones anyway? Or maybe, who really cares about J.R.R. Tolkien? Perhaps they’re eating instant gravy over canned biscuits at a frilly southern brunch restaurant in SoHo talking about how good the food is. Who knows. The one thing I’m sure of is that art just sort of hits different depending on how you are, different strokes for different folks, etc., so forgive my untrained indifference.)

It could have also been that the exhibit itself didn’t lend well to my first Cohen encounter. While the museum’s permanent collection was provocative and beautiful and an eclectic representation of Jewish realities, the Cohen exhibit relied mostly on video footage of the artist. Or of his fans.

In an age when museums increasingly cater to a sweeping craze for Instagrammable pop-ups, the response of the more culturally conservative Jewish Museum (with an audience of mostly older New Yorkers and tourists) seemed to be an exhibit that memorializes a Boomer genius in terms of the adoration of his fans. Most pieces in the collection could be interpreted as indulgent responses to the (rather indulgent) question: “What does Leonard Cohen mean to you?” Videos of choirs covering his songs, a room where museum-goers could sing “Hallelujah” into microphones. It struck a similar chord to the fun house I walked through this summer at the New Museum, or to what I’ve read about the Museum of Selfies in Los Angeles. There’s something to be said for allowing everyone to have a deeply personal experience in a museum—to feel apart of it—it’s also making it a bit too easy. Isn’t the point of art, in some ways, to find yourself in it after traveling along through a labyrinth of experiences?

Maybe I was just irritated by the sheer number of videos in the exhibit. An analogy to magazine interviews may suffice here: a good video in a museum can transport you somewhere, the same way a good interview in a magazine can materialize the subject in front of you. But an exhibit filled with videos—mostly of Cohen singing, or reading poetry—feels like leafing through a magazine that leans too lazily on interviews when a great feature would do the trick much better. And here’s the eternal postmodern eye-roll, that I could easily have watched interviews of Cohen on YouTube for free, but there it is. I stand by that.

Video interviews dominated the Cohen floor. It was a wedding cake white chapel gallery with sparkling black foam hallway walls to muffle the noise from room to room. Streams of people sat watching simple productions dominated by close ups of Cohen’s face as he spoke. In one, Cohen was paired with an airy, breathy interviewer who was chosen, it seemed, for her ability to be the keen backdrop for Cohen’s gloom. A coiffed flat stark white woman paid to look like this, sexually enticed, innocent, wrong, made to be trampled over. “I don’t think it’s like that at all,” he seems to answer to all of her questions. She asks what it’s like for Cohen’s anguish to be public, bought and sold. “If you can sell your anguish it’s one of the best things you can do with it,” Cohen says, and a lady sitting in the front row gives a yelp of a laugh.

One good sculpture rests quiet in a darkened room. Leonard Cohen up close. He’s handsome, like Bob Dylan, Al Pacino, and David’s dad, David asks, do I look like Cary? Your sister does, Yulia answers. They laugh about Cary fleeing his Jewishness, it seems. “My first husband—” Yulia says. Cary follows us like George, David frowns deep at least once per hour.

We pass by one of the few non-video immersions, one of the only things that might be an actual experience not replicable of YouTube. It’s called a Depression Chamber. People enter through the darkened doorway one at a time, and when a guard allows the next visitor in I can see a textured wall you’re supposed to maybe stare at and size up to be made to feel the anguish of the tortured artist. This is the depression chamber, and it has a long line. Yulia declines, so I agree politely that we move on so as to not hold us up. I have to wonder after she shakes her head why I wanted to go in for in the first place. She says in her trilling Russian accent, “That is Jewish people, you have to stand in line to get depressed.”

I don’t need to go in anyway. I would rather hear Yulia’s commentary. We don’t need the depression chamber when George’s death hangs so freshly over our heads. After the museum we go to Zabar’s, where David receives a text notifying us of George’s now confirmed death. Yulia is taking this more seriously than my own mother would, which I like and appreciate. By now my own mom would have long ago—midmorning, even—said what I, too, am guilty of at 5 o’clock: “It’s just a fish.”

Yulia and I are alone. I tell her now how I killed David’s goldfish when he visited New York earlier this year. A wholly separate deal, David’s fish. “It’s terrible,” I say, “Tyaela was just saying a couple of weeks ago how sad she’d be if he died,” maybe testing Yulia’s stoic ability to grasp the sacredness of this fish based on secondhand rumors alone.

But she just shakes her head. “That’s life,” she says. “You can’t help it.” I think to myself that she means, “that’s death,” but there in Zabars it all feels so fast and slow that I’m realizing that they’re one and the same. Elementary, I know. But when it’s phrased so succinctly and the situation is boiled down to the scale of one ancestrally old goldfish it hits harder. Anguish is anguish. Then David comes barrelling down the stairs talking about pastrami and the depression chamber disappears. Yulia’s smile says she knows. She rubs his head with a watery smile and says this is her favorite son.