In an upstairs room in the Auckland Art Gallery, 18 men stand in a wide circle. The room is black dark, except for the men who are lit up, in front of plush red curtains. As a group there's no obvious connection between this diverse bunch of sexagenarians. One wears a crumpled Batman T-shirt. Another is decked out in a dapper suit. One's wearing what can only be described as "hippie drag chic".
Some sway gently, off in their own world, others stand statue-still and maintain eye contact. Yet they are as oblivious to each other as they are to you.
Suddenly - and with no regard to harmony, timing or melody - they all open their mouths and begin to sing. Not together but not entirely not together either. Some rush in early, some drag behind the note. A rare few hit the trifecta of right note, right time, right words.
"If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to," the group croon, more or less in unison, to break the silence. "And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear a mask for you."
These 18 elderly men, standing in the dark and singing to themselves, are truly without mask. Without inhibition. Without shame.
As the group slip and slide around the lyrics of Leonard Cohen's classic song I'm Your Man, all tripping on his precise poet's phrasing, as opposed to a singer's rhythm, the voices begin to harmonise. Not vocally but conceptually, as something larger than themselves yet something intensely personal. The song may belong to Cohen but the lives living in his words are their own.
This is I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen), an ambitious video installation by Candice Breitz, one of the globe's leading contemporary video artists. Originally commissioned by Cohen's hometown of Montreal to celebrate its 175th birthday, the work consists of 18 life-sized, high-resolution screens, each devoted to a single Cohen devotee.
Each of the participants hail from the city and each has been a Cohen fan for more than five decades. The men were given skin-coloured earphones and then filmed individually singing along to Cohen's 1988 comeback album, I'm Your Man, in its entirety. You do not hear Cohen's voice at all except, of course, through his lyrics.
"It was made while Leonard Cohen was alive but he died before the work had been presented, so he never saw it," Auckland Art Gallery's director Kirsten Lacy explains. "It was created as a living portrait and with his passing it took on a whole new tenor. It becomes about the gift that he gave us through his music and song."
"His portrait, ultimately, of him as a man after his passing, is rendered through his fans. That's his life's work, the impact his music had on people's lives. That's his portrait. F***ing beautiful. It's off-key and it's out of tune but there's that connection of humanity."
Love and death were never far from Cohen's work and especially not on this album, which he recorded at the spritely age of 53. Acknowledging that the clock was ticking, Cohen obsessively worked to strip away all artifice and decoration from his words. He wanted to get real. To get raw. To get to the often dark heart of what it means to live and to love.
These 18 men, now older than Cohen was when he recorded it, have lived with the album, with the songs and the words, for decades.
"They really do sing the lyrics like they are talking about their own lives, their own loved ones and their own politics," Lacy says. "And they're crying. They're completely in the moment. The same way Cohen would sing."
It's fair to say Lacy is passionate about the artwork. After the gallery lost its planned "blockbuster programme" for the year when Covid struck, she made the case for pivoting to a different sort of exhibition.
"They were great exhibitions, perhaps a bit obvious but we really needed to draw audiences back to the gallery," she admits, "When we lost them because of border restrictions we started talking about the works we felt would resonate with the public now and help people in some way. You've got so many people facing change and upheaval. Family transitions, loss of jobs, loss of incomes, loss of identity, loss of freedoms, all of that. This work gives you that poised reflection and a sense of not being alone. Because there is a collective voice in the work and these men are so diverse."
Canada's CBC described the piece as a "touching and stark meditation on masculinity, fragility and communion", For Lacy, that sentiment runs true.
"When I first saw it with my stepfather Frank, who raised me, he was dying," Lacy says. "You go into this space and you can't help but think of the people in your life. Whether it be your partner, son, father, brother, someone you know, and you think, 'What will they be like in the latter part of their years, as men?' Or you think of them as they are or were. You're thinking both to the future, I've got two boys, what will their song be when they're this age? But also equally my stepfather who was passing and looking back at a life lived. The remembrance of that, the regrets and the remorse. I thought about the songs he would sing my mother."
She describes the exhibition as, "art with a heartbeat" and describes it as warm and generous, kind. All things we could do with a little more of in this devil of a year.
"It wants you to be there with it, in those spaces with those people. Then you go home and get on Spotify and listen to some songs. Or maybe you write one. Or maybe you ring someone and go, 'I haven't told you but I really love you.' It's one of those works."
That's not to say it's all glitter and stockings.
"Because Cohen's songs are all about love and death, it becomes impossible not to reflect on people in your life. It's very poignant," she continues. "When I was watching these men sing, 'I love you to the end of love,' it's like, 'F***!' There's this sense of our impending mortality. And that's okay," she smiles. "But use it well."
Then, sounding very much like Cohen himself, she says, "Who will you sing to tomorrow?"
* I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen) is on now and runs until December 6.