When I first opened the pages of this book at bedtime, I saw that I had to make a decision. The author explains that the novel is a hybrid of fact and fiction and some of the characters are, by permission, based on real living people. One of these, and central to the story, is performance artist Marina Abramović, but although her name was vaguely familiar I could not remember why. To be honest, although I look at and often enjoy contemporary art, I would be hard pressed to name any living contemporary artist apart from Anish Kapoor (and that’s only because we have dined out on our impressions of his
bizarre incomprehensible red wax installations at the Guggenheim in Bilbao). I have only ever once seen any performance art: at the Melbourne Festival some years ago where the audience was invited to ‘visit’ and make conversation with silent and immobile patients decked out in ghostly white. It was quite unnerving, and obviously memorable, but I have no idea whose work it was.
Well, I decided not to explore online to find out about Abramović. I wanted to see whether the book worked for people like me, interested in but not knowledgeable about contemporary art, with a dash of scepticism thrown in for good measure. *chuckle* Would the book work without the aid of Google?
Well, it does, The Museum of Modern Love works for me.
There is a lot to think about in this novel, which explores the nature of art by reference to Abramović’s performance of ‘The Artist is Present’ in New York. This performance involved Abramović sitting immobile and silent in a gallery at MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) each day for 75 days, while members of the public queued up to sit in silence and gaze into her eyes. They made a movie about this in 2012, and the trailer features Abramović saying that she is most often asked ‘why is this art?’ Heather Rose answers this question by showing how her characters, observing or participating in this performance, project onto Abramović their thoughts, memories, quandaries and so on. It is a different way of thinking about art and what it’s ‘for’.
But The Museum of Modern Love is not just cerebral pondering about the nature of art.
SPOILER (not a very big one since you’ll guess most of this, as I assume you are meant to, before it’s revealed by the author)
There’s a major character called Arky Levin, whose wife Lydia has taken out a restraining order to prevent him visiting her in the last stages of a terminal disease. She has done this because he is a film composer, and she loves him, and she wants to spare him a burden that would curtail his creativity. He loves her too, but in interrogating himself about the pain her decision has cost him, he reveals his disgust about the physical effects of her decline, and his selfish desire to be spared it so that he can do his best work ever. (He thinks he’s at the peak of his career).
I found this very confronting. Most of us like to believe that our loved ones, flawed though they may be, would be there for us if we needed them, and we also like to believe that we, flawed though we may be, would be up to the challenge of providing that support if our loved ones needed it. Lydia has judged Arky beforehand and found him wanting. She has made a unilateral decision (for which their friends have judged him harshly) so that she isn’t distressed by his failure to be there for her. (She has BTW enlisted her daughter’s support, which is an interesting authorial choice, eh?) Rather than put up with him being inadequate and to allow him to continue work which, yes, does demand congenial surroundings rather than a horde of in-house nurses and medical equipment, she has denied him part of the process of coming to terms with impending death and the opportunity to say goodbye. Readers will find themselves unsure if this is generous, or cruel, on Lydia’s part.
But what if Arky is a genius? Abramović makes incredible demands on herself and any relationship she has had. Is creative genius different and does it absolve one from ordinary human obligations? Leaving aside the issue of whether Lydia’s absence and the manner of imposing it would inhibit Arky’s creativity anyway, what would we think about Beethoven or Shakespeare putting their work on hold to nurse a loved one at home for as long as it takes? And is there a gender issue underlying this? Would a man take himself away to die quietly without interfering with his wife’s art?? What kind of relationship underlies this sort of decision?
Anyway, the narrative drive, such as it is in a novel intended to be more of a meditation on life and love, focusses on how Arky is going to behave. Will he eventually go to see Abramović so that the semi-mystic experience of communing with her in this artifice will clarify what he should do? Will he go to see his wife anyway? Will he be too late if he tries? The reader has to buy into the whole premise that Abramović’s art is a sort of spiritual experience in order to sustain belief in the power of the Abramović phenomenon, and I admit to faltering a bit towards the end.
Still, The Museum of Modern Love is a very interesting novel, offering an empathetic view of provocative contemporary art that I haven’t come across before. I enjoyed the insights into the composer’s creative processes, and I liked the way Rose wove her characters together to bring their insights to bear on Arky’s dilemma. All of them are memorable in some way, especially the recently bereaved Jane who spends all of her brief holiday in New York absorbed by Abramović’s performance. What more convincing device could Rose have used to demonstrate just how compelling The Artist is Present may have been for those willing to submit to it!
PS If you’d like to suss out Marina Abramović beforehand, this article by Emma Brockes at The Guardian is an intelligent overview. I don’t recommend the Wikipedia article: much of Abramović’s work sounds a lot like self-harm and it made me feel quite sick to read about it.
Author: Heather Rose
Title: The Museum of Modern Love
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Available from Fishpond: The Museum of Modern Love