I was late to this party. I’d heard about this novel, and when I finally found time for fiction this year, I lost myself in it immediately. Heather Rose has written a masterpiece of introspection. The reader pauses to look up from the page and reflect, to remember a passage over the course of the day and stop for a moment, or longer, to ask us why? What would I do?
Wrapping her stories around the work of a living artist—Rose sought, and was granted approval—is a gift. To read is to learn, and the book is set around the life and work of the performance artist Marina Abramović, specifically her performance ‘The Artist is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. Over 75 days, she sat in a simple wooden chair. When a visitor took the seat opposite, she would lift her head, open her eyes as a veil lifting, and sit in that stance for as long as her counterpart stayed. ‘Is it a staring competition?’ ask visitors to the Museum.
What is art? A question surely as old as art itself. Abramović suggests that art is life. And just as the artists invited those who sat with her to participatein the art, Heather Rose asks us to turn inwards. We are not observers. We are participants who need to reconcile with life. The Museum of Modern Loveasks us, How do we learn to see what is before us?
Rose invites the reader into the life of Arky Levin, a famous NY composer. Arky’s perspective guides us though the exhibition and he forms a companionable, though disinterested bond with Jane Miller, a tourist and fellow gallery visitor. They are both distracted, lost andcontemplating uncertainty. Jane’s husband has died, too young; her grief, one year on, still palpable. Jane ‘has always liked certainty. It was one of the pleasure of being a teacher…’ She wants more time: time with her husband, time for her own life.
Levin is flailing. His wife, suffering an inherited degenerative condition has removed herself from his life, admitting herself to fulltime care in an institution. ‘She had been certainty. When everything fell apart, she would be there. It was partly why he always felt so angry when she got sick. He didn’t like that the whole world wobbled when that happened, and he felt small. Small and alone.’
There were questions that terrified his sense of order. His deepest sense of how life should be lived. Ought to be lived. But should and ought were words for certainty. What words belonged to uncertainty?
Abramović, their mirror, faces uncertainty each time she takes up her position in the performance, opening the door to new knowledge. The intensity of their Museum experience forces both Jane and Levin to focus their gaze, to see what cannot be avoided. And finally, Levin understands, ‘with vivid clarity that the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know…’
In a further twist on the role of observer and the observed, occasionally Rose draws back and follows the participants going about their day through different narrators, hovering on the edges. One is perhaps the muse, or a higher consciousness. ‘I drew Levin’s attention to the day outside … For all he wasn’t listening to my musical suggestions, he was amendable to an interruption…I watched him. There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work….’ Yet another is from Marina’s past who shows us how a childhood of physical and emotional deprivation in times of war shaped her performance art. We are reminded of the power that the dead have over us.
Other characters, students and commentators seamlessly integrate the artist’s background and body of work into the story taking the reader on a journey through her life. And Rose has held a mirror to us, the reader, through the very ordinariness of those who sit opposite. A young man slumping, ‘[Jane] wanted to tell him to sit up straight’, ‘a young woman with a tiny pair of shoulders and long lank hair…she appeared to be bowed under the weight of a short and exhausting life….’, those frail, and others defiant.
This is also a New York story. For those who love the city, from the residents’ style and beauty —‘three-day growth on his perfect jawline’—to the food—onion bagels get more than one mention, to the buildings, streets and avenues, every page is a delight. Levin knows that New York’s light obliterates a darkness, a void that is both the universe and his own sense of aloneness. For Jane, the visitor, it is a temporary haven.
Rose has written a powerful story of lives interrupted and of seeking, and finding and learning. The Museum of Modern Love is about both understanding our choices and finding the strength to make them.
First published in The Newtown Review of Books.
The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin 2016 RRP $27.99)