The Museum of Modern Love: A unique and wonderful novel

Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity you must be fearless. From The Museum of Modern Love

When Australian author Heather Rose encountered the work of Bosnian performance artist Marina Abramović in the National Gallery of Victoria in 2005, the seed was sown to fly to New York to observe  Marina’s work in The Artist is present at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art). The result is this stunning novel The Museum of Modern Love – an almost mystical hybrid between fact and fiction.

The narrative is  from the point of view of film composer Arky Levin who is coming to terms with the loss of his chronically ill wife Lydia to a nursing home (and the virtual estrangement from his grown daughter) and a semi-retired and recently widowed art teacher Rose Miller who has traveled to New York to seek diversion from her husband’s recent death.

Museum of Modern Love

Other characters intersperse the pages of this book as Marina Abramović performs her ‘performance art’ for 75 days in total. We encounter pink haired partly Japanese Brittaka van der Sar, a PHD student from Amsterdam who is captivated by the performance; stunningly beautiful Afro-American singer and journalist Healayas Breen, who is also drawn to the performance. Both are seeking something to bring some sort of emotional solace from sitting with Marina – but will they find it in this museum of modern love?

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What threads the characters together is the effect that the silent but visually eloquent Marina Abromović has upon her ever-changing audience. Her power and presence is almost tactile, as both Arky and Rose become regulars at the performance as if the artist herself is helping them to find their own personal redemption. This style of performance art involves members of the audience sitting opposite Marina for periods of time with no words spoken. The communication relies on facial expression and eye contact. The ‘sitters’ seem to be visibly moved by the interaction, and so day by day the line increases for chances to ‘sit’ opposite the artist.

What makes this novel special is the way in which Heather Rose has also given us an unseen narrator who intersperses the pages with an informative commentary on the artist Marina herself, who throughout the novel does not speak a word out loud. This unseen narrator is possibly Marina’s now deceased mother Danica who brings insight into the unique childhood of the artist and the relationships she had with her Bosnian war General father and heroic patriot mother. Her past relationship with her lover Ulay is also spoken of, and so the reader is able to understand to a small degree the passionate devotion the artist Marina Abramović has to her own style of art.  

We hear of past gruelling performances and the effects that they have had on the artist herself. Although the artist is ‘present’ in this particular performance, every ‘sitter’ must find their own personal response. Some seem to have a moment of spiritual enlightenment while others seem virtually untouched.

This book has an edgy, upbeat New York kind of vibe. It is winter, there is snow on the ground, yet the city never sleeps.  There is an energy in the mix of visitors who are watching Marina perform. The observers themselves have their own style of inner dialogue going on, and as Arky finds himself drawn into a now daily pilgrimage to the gallery, he looks to Marina for emotional clarity or the inspiration he needs so that he can continue  work on a film score for a new project, whilst he also comes to terms with the wishes of his wife for him to not be allowed near her whilst she is dying. But will he sit opposite her, or will his fear hold him back?

This is a unique and wonderful novel. I found it utterly captivating as it drew me into a completely different word. It is beautifully written, Heather Rose has written such skilful prose that the book is like an artwork itself. It is not a book with a linear plot but is more a powerfully astute piece of writing that closely examines the dilemmas of the human heart and reveals how fragile we really are. Indeed, we could all be exhibits in the museum of modern love.

Performance art is probably not for the faint hearted, but I was grateful to discover how it is performed in this wonderfully perceptive and brilliantly written novel. Australia has some outstanding writers, and Heather Rose has to be up there amongst the best. The Museum of Modern Love is a beautiful book and highly recommended by this reviewer.