By Heather Rose
“…in truth, pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time.”
Marina Abramović is a living woman whose life and work have been skilfully interwoven into the narrative of Heather Rose’s 2017 Stella prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love – a book the writer describes as “a strange hybrid of fact and fiction”.
A Serbian-born performance artist, Abramović is renowned for her endurance pieces, often exploring physical limits and mental possibilities. Rose’s story orbits her 2010 exhibition, The Artist is Present, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in which she sat perfectly still at a table, in silence, for 75 days while members of the public took turns to sit opposite and gaze into her eyes.
The fictional characters in this story are those who come to participate in (or merely watch) the performance, some of whom are facing emotional challenges in their lives. Arky Levin, for instance, is a film composer separated from his sick wife, who has asked him to keep a troubling promise. Unable to settle to his work he one day wanders into The Atrium at MoMA and is mesmerised by Marina Abramovic’s bizarrely powerful installation. He begins to attend every day, simply to watch the artist and the people with whom she interacts. He meets others drawn to the exhibit, and gradually makes decisions about what he must do to move on with his life.
Others include the recently widowed Jane Miller, a middle school art history teacher from Georgia; Brittica van der Sar, a Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic; and Healayas Breen, a stunningly beautiful art critic and singer raised as a Muslim in Paris – every one of them, for a variety of reasons, susceptible to Abramovic’s unfathomable aura.
Narrated by an unknown but benevolent storyteller, Rose’s extraordinary novel raises questions about humanity, intimacy and the creative imagination. It’s a cerebral work that resonates with intense but concealed emotion and challenges the reader’s perceptions of the boundaries between art and life.
This is the Australian author’s seventh novel – her first being White Heart published in 1999. The Museum of Modern Love took 11 years to write, and in that time, she met Abramović only once, although she took part in the original performance on four occasions. She sought and was given permission by the artist to include her as a character in the book. Abramović was reportedly “pleased” with the finished novel.
“Every song, every painting, every book, every idea that changed the world – all these things came from the unknowable and beautiful void.”
Many thanks to Orion Publishing Group for providing an advance review copy of this title.
I read this title for 20 Books of Summer 2019