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The Museum of Modern Love


The Museum of Modern Love

Back in the spring of 2010, I was one of the tens of thousands of people who attended the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of the decades-long career of performance artist Marina Abramović. I also observed a tiny portion of her weeks-long installation entitled “The Artist Is Present,” during which she sat, wordless and motionless, all day, every day at a small table while a series of visitors --- from celebrities to ordinary folks --- took turns sitting across from her and engaging in eye contact with the legendary artist for a duration of their choosing. I didn’t elect to participate in that part of the exhibition, but it has continued to stick with me years later. After reading Heather Rose’s new novel that centers on this transformative long-term performance art piece, I sort of wish I had taken the time to be part of it.

In THE MUSEUM OF MODERN LOVE, Rose focuses her attention on Abramović’s landmark piece, utilizing short interconnected chapters to create vivid portraits of those --- creator, onlookers, participants --- who take part in the experience. In doing so, she intimately explores each character’s relationship to art, both this particular piece and art more generally --- and invites readers to meditate on the role of art in their own lives and in the broader culture.

"THE MUSEUM OF MODERN LOVE interrogates what it is that drives artists to create --- and the power of their creations on those who allow themselves to truly look at them."

At the center of the novel (well, besides Abramović herself, who increasingly becomes a central figure near the end) is film composer Arky Levin. He has reluctantly accepted a new commission for a Miyazaki-like Japanese animated film but is not sure how to proceed with the project. He has recently moved into a beautiful but uncomfortably empty apartment overlooking Washington Square, his wife’s dream apartment, but Lydia is not there to see it. Having long lived with a progressive hereditary disease, she recently suffered a stroke --- after issuing a directive prohibiting Arky from visiting her while she was hospitalized. Flummoxed by Lydia’s wishes, and worried that his friends don’t understand his distance from his possibly dying wife, Arky finds himself returning again and again to Abramović’s performance at MoMA.

There he overlaps with a recently widowed art teacher from Georgia, an art student from Amsterdam, and an old friend who also happens to be an art critic (not to mention the former lover of his longtime professional collaborator). Each of these people has his or her own reasons for coming to see Abramović, and in some cases for sitting across from her and opening themselves up to the project. This more intimate circle grows to include glimpses into the lives and voices of Abramović’s late mother, the photographer who chronicles the participants, Abramović herself, and even an omniscient narrator who may be a muse, or a spirit, or even the voice of art itself.

Abramović is, famously, an artist who truly embodies her work, having made her body the subject of much of her creative endeavors, invited strangers to touch and violate her, and even inscribed her art on her body in sometimes violent ways. In many ways, Rose’s novel explores those intersections between the physical and the creative selves, inquiring about how art can transform lives and how life changes can affect the kind of art creators make --- or if they’re able to create at all.

THE MUSEUM OF MODERN LOVE interrogates what it is that drives artists to create --- and the power of their creations on those who allow themselves to truly look at them. For, in the end, that’s also one of the subjects here: the fact that one of the most remarkable things about Abramović’s work in “The Artist Is Present” is the shared gaze, the idea that if we truly look around --- at art, at one another --- we may begin to see things anew.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 30, 2018

The Museum of Modern Love
by Heather Rose

  • Publication Date: November 27, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 161620852X
  • ISBN-13: 9781616208523