Book reviews

I was really looking forward to reading other books by Heather Rose after being transfixed by Bruny when I read it several years ago. The Museum of Modern Love was a very different story but I enjoyed it equally as much.

The story is set around a handful of characters who are connected to each other by having met in New York at the Museum of Modern Art while attending The Artist is Present, a performance piece by Marina Abramovic where the artist sat and looked into the eyes of museum visitors, some of whom had queued overnight for their turn to sit with the artist.

The main character was Arky Levin, a middle-aged composer whose main income was from creating music for films. Levin had recently taken on a job to score the soundtrack for a Japanese animation for adults, but had been unable to begin his work. He had recently moved into a new apartment alone after his wife Lydia had become comatose due to a medical condition. Lydia had taken out legal orders previously forbidding her emotionally selfish husband from visiting her if she ever became institutionalised, with her instructions to their daughter explaining that she wanted Levin to be free to continue composing.

Levin met Jane Miller while they were in the audience of Abramovic’s performance at MoMA. Jane was an art teacher and a recent widow who had visited New York specifically to attend the performance. Jane, Levin and a number of peripheral characters found themselves so drawn to the piece that they attended MoMA day after day to day, watching a succession of people sit with the artist and look into each her eyes.

I didn’t realise until about half way through reading this novel that Marina Abramovic is a real person. A quick check of the internet showed that she is a renowned performance artist and that the performance of The Artist is Present actually took place at MoMA during 2010. Many of Marina Abramovic’s other performance pieces were described in this story too and without exception they were gruelling, occasionally violent and in some cases chilling, such as when the artist laid naked on a table surrounded by 72 items and invited the audience to do what they wanted to her with the items. Abromovic was left with physical scars by the participating audience’s actions.

I have to be honest here and admit that I don’t actually rate performance art. I just don’t ‘get’ it. However, my dislike, or lack of understanding of performance art didn’t take away from my enjoyment of this story. All of the characters in this story were deeply moved by The Artist is Present and the other performances except for a single grumbling man who echoed my opinion about not seeing the point of the performance.

I do accept that one of the purposes of art is to create discussion and argument about what art is, what it might mean (if anything) and to affect people’s emotions and ideas and in fairness, performance art certainly achieves all of those aims.

The Museum of Modern Love was well-written and I found the subject matter to be enormously thought-provoking, confronting and intriguing. I didn’t feel terribly connected to Levin, Jane or the other characters but the setting was so powerful that I don’t think that this mattered a great deal.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Heather Rose thanked Marina Abramovic and various other ‘real’ people for allowing them to be represented in this story. For those who are interested a documentary film was also made about the piece.

My purchase of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2022 (July).

My only grievance with The Museum of Modern Love was that although Heather Rose is an Australian author, the book was not set in Australia and did not reference Australia in any way. My original intention when I started this resolution was that the books I chose would be written by Australian authors. I had also intended that the books I chose for this challenge would also be set in Australia, although I don’t think that I stated this or really even thought about it. I haven’t decided if I will chose books set outside of Australia for my challenge in future.

Comments on: "The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose" (11)

  1. Like you, I don’t really get performance art. The idea of lying naked on a table and allowing people to do what they want sounds a bit insane to me. (And dangerous!) But, hey…. I guess to each their own!

    • Performance art obviously appeals to the artist and to the audience/participants, but no.
      I’m happy to look at pictures, or sculptures or the like.

  2. Interesting review! Might consider reading this. I find performance art quite fascinating, I don’t necessarily get the meaning of it but interested in what motivates artists to do it.

    • I think you might enjoy The Museum of Modern Love if you read it, at any rate I’d be interested to read your review of the story.
      I struggled to guess at the artist’s motivation for any of the performances, except for the ‘look at me’ aspect. It would be interesting to learn more about the ‘whys’ of this.

  3. Did you come across the video where her ex-lover turned up at the eye-staring thing? I don’t enjoy performance art usually either, but that video gets me every time. I must have watched it a million times! Hmm, I have the same issue with Scottish authors – I really only consider their books count as Scottish if they’re set in Scotland or are at least connected to Scotland in some way.

    • Yes, I did watch the video of Abramovic and Ulay. It was obviously very moving for both of them, possibly more so because his appearance appeared to take Abramovic by surprise. I almost felt as if I was intruding by watching them. Extraordinary, but I still didn’t get the point of the performance.

  4. I don’t get performance art either and I am struggling with installation art, video art and a lot of other modern art forms. I do love MoMA though. When I lived in NY, I worked just opposite and went there all the time. Anyway, it does sound like an interesting book, I tend to enjoy books, which revolve around art one way or another.

    • I went to a MoMA exhibition at a Melbourne gallery four or five years ago and it was fabulous! Lucky you being able to visit whenever you wanted while in NY!
      When I worked in the CBD (presently WFH) I very often visited the Ian Potter Centre at lunchtime, which has the National Gallery of Victoria’s Australian collection. It was one of the joys of working in the city.
      Hmm, you might enjoy this book, much of it is set in MoMA and the character’s experience of the art is a large part of the story (even though it is performance art).

  5. I remember reading about this performance piece years ago, probably around the time it was performed. It’s kind of intriguing in what it says about human nature but it also left me with a creepy feeling. A book based around it is an interesting idea though.

    • The reactions to the performance art in the novel and in real life were fascinating. I spent some time reading about and watching clips of the artist’s performances and have forgotten what I learned from the novel and what came from my own research, but either way, I agree with you in summing the piece (and others) as creepy.

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