“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramović. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them.”
– Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love
Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.
This dazzlingly original novel asks beguiling questions about the nature of art, life and love and finds a way to answer them.
When I finished reading The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, I was really unsure how to go about reviewing it. You see, it is brilliant. It is exhausting, empowering, beautiful, sad, confronting and inspiring. It evokes so many emotions and feelings that I didn’t really know where to start. It is a book that spoke to me on so many levels and in a really, really personal way. I wasn’t sure I could write a review for this book without pouring my heart and soul into it… with a few tears as well. But that’s what you are going to get because I can’t talk about art (and therefore this book) without it coming from the heart.
Art is one of my most favourite things in this world. I have had so many profound moments, standing in front of a painting on the other side of the world, or seeing a small piece of street art tucked away in a graffiti-filled Melbourne laneway. Art comes in so many different shapes and sizes and is one of the most powerful forms of expression we have available to us. I have had moments of awe, anger and fear. I have had moments of love, sorrow and passion. I have felt humbled and inspired and thoroughly confused. Not all art is straight forward; there have been many times where I have felt quite bewildered by what I have been looking at. Other times, I have nodded so fiercely in agreement I feared my head would fall off. Art can bring people together but it can also draw them apart. It can be a form of competition, an abuse of power, and evoke extreme and contrasting opinions and actions. The Museum of Modern Love is a story about Marina Abramović and though it is a work of fiction, it is based on true events and an artist that polarises the art world.
In 2010, Abramović sat on a chair at a table on the second floor of the MoMA – the Museum of Modern Art in New York – and invited members of the public to sit with her. The performance – called The Artist is Present – attracted far more attention than anyone thought it would and in this book, through Abramović’s performance, Rose has captured and observed a most profound meditation on art, life and death.
Arky Levin is a middle-aged composer who brings life to music but cannot seem to grasp his own life nor find the motivation to actually live it. His wife Lydia who is very sick, has made one final, devastating request of him and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. He is embarrassingly self-absorbed and by complying with her wishes – only because he doesn’t know what the right thing to do is – he is finally pushed to work out what matters to him and what gives his life meaning. While trying to compose a piece for his latest project, he finds himself procrastinating at the MoMA amongst the thousands of people visiting Abramović. An unnamed narrator introduces and brings together the stories of Abramović, her support team, and some of those who have come to see the performance. As her performance continues, the reader is able to follow the effect it has on the characters in the story. Will Arky find the connection to his own art and his family? Will Abramović make it through the seventy-five days and how many lives will she touch?
As much as I loved this book, I found it to be a tough and confronting read. Rose demands a level of bravery from her characters and forces them to face their reality and in a way, she encourages the reader to do the same. Rose appears to be quite attuned to the way art affects people and the way it can change people’s lives if they’re open to it. Having been to the performance herself, Rose was able to ask Abramović if she could use her as the main character and was able to meet and talk to those supporting Abramović and members of the public who watched or sat with her. “Any art I could think of was always going to be surpassed by her real story,” said Rose. As intimidating as the subject is, Rose writes with enormous respect, clarity and honesty. As I read this book, I was aware of how uncomfortable I felt at times, as Rose’s writing is so moving, I could have sworn I was in the room with them all as well. I felt an incredible sense of what it must have been like at the time – electric and emotional.
Abramović’s career has been a constant search to find the meaning of art. She has pushed the boundaries in many ways, and has often used pain as a focal point to bring herself and her observers into the present. Her awareness of arts power of self-transcendence encourages her to make art accessible and allow people the chance to feel vulnerable. Her silence during The Artist is Present – she did not speak a word for those seventy-five days – offered a chance for those around her to truly connect. Through Rose’s writing, I really feel that she has offered the reader the same opportunity. As each character explores themselves, I felt myself doing the same. Rose asks some pretty tough questions and there were times when the philosophy went over my head a bit; there were definitely moments I didn’t understand. But that’s art!
I feel as though I have painted a rather intense version of this book… but that’s exactly what it was for me. You may not connect with it in the same way; you may not have the same emotions that I do when it comes to art. There is so much to love about this book if art isn’t your thing. Rose is a fantastic writer and her characters really come to life. I really hope this book makes it on to the tops of many reading piles. I think The Museum of Modern Love is extraordinary!
AUTHOR: Heather Rose
PUBLISHER: Allen and Unwin
PUB DATE: 24 August 2016
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for sending me a reading copy in exchange for an honest review!