Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 296 pages; 2016.
What is art, and what is its purpose? These are the questions posed in The Museum of Modern Love, a fascinating book that blends fact with fiction, by Heather Rose.
In this highly original novel, Rose takes a real life event and peoples it with interesting fictional characters who interact with a particular work of art, are changed by it and come away from it having learned something of themselves and of others.
New York art world
The story is largely set in Manhattan in 2010. Arky is a composer who is lost, lonely and struggling to write his next film score. He has a strained relationship with his 22-year-old daughter, Alice, while his wife, with whom he is separated, is languishing in a health facility thanks to a devastating condition known as Thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura.
My wife is in a nursing home, he imagined saying. She’s been in a coma but now she’s not. She’ll never walk again. Or talk again. She was the most energetic person when she was well. We knew it was coming. It’s genetic. No, I don’t see her regularly. I don’t see her at all. She wants it that way. She took out a court order. We were happily married. I think so.
But when he visits the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to see Marina Abramović in The Artist is Present, his life takes a more interesting turn. In the queue to see the performance he meets a varied cast of characters who take him out of himself, teach him the importance of “connection” and the beauty of art to sustain us through good times and bad.
Art as therapy
The Artist is Present was a real-life performance art exhibition staged at MOMA in 2010. It involved the artist Marina Abramović, who sat immobile in MOMA’s atrium while spectators queued up to take turns sitting opposite her. They could sit opposite her for as little or as long as they liked, but they had to make eye contact. The performance lasted 75 days, between March and May, and more than 1,500 people took part. (You can read about it on Wikipedia.)
This performance art is not merely a backdrop to The Museum of Modern Love; it forms a central element of the story.
The author was granted permission by the artist to include her in the book. “I have drawn extensively from interviews and performances given in the years leading up to her 2010 performance at MoMA,” Rose writes in her Author’s Note. “This does not mean that the thoughts I have attributed to the character of Marina Abramović at any time in this book are a true reflection of any event in history, nor how the real Marina Abramović thinks or feels. That is the risk the novelist takes, bringing to life what we can only imagine.”
The purpose of art
When I first heard about this novel I must admit it sounded pretentious. But somehow, in Rose’s very capable hands, it works. It’s a brilliant examination of how we interact with art and what we get from it.
As well as telling the story from Arky’s point of view, we also hear about Abramović and her varied and intriguing past.
And there are subsidiary characters — an art teacher from the mid-West, an art critic for NPR, a PhD candidate from Amsterdam — that help bring the performance alive from different perspectives — educational, spiritual, academic — as they all try to interpret Abramović’s work.
It’s a hugely engaging novel, written in an effortless, free-flowing style. It’s filled with a seemingly never-ending amount of highly quotable sentences, such as those I’ve highlighted below:
‘Still, what is she trying to say?’ Jane asked again. ‘What she’s been saying since the start, I think. That everything is about connection. Until you understand what connects you, you have no freedom.’
‘She simply invites us to participate,’ Healayas said. ‘It may be therapeutic and spiritual, but it is also social and political. It is multi-layered. It reminds us why we love art, why we study art, why we invest ourselves in art.’
All the great art makes us feel something quite indescribable. Perhaps it’s not the best word—but there doesn’t seem to be a better one to capture how art can be . . . transformative. A kind of access to a universal wisdom.’ ‘I’m going to use that,’ said Brittika, tapping away. ‘I mean, she’s using the audience to create this effect, but the audience has also created this experience by how seriously everyone has taken it.’
Longlisted for the 2017 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize, The Museum of Modern Love is currently only available in eBook format in the UK and North America.
This is my fifth book for #AWW2017.