As I neared the end of Heather Rose’s Stella Prize-winning novel The museum of modern love, I slowed down. I wanted, of course, to know how it was going to resolve, but I wanted to savour it too. It doesn’t seem right to rush the end of thoughtful books like this.
But, I have to admit that I was initially hesitant about reading the book, as I am about any book inspired by a person or work I don’t know. I fear missing something important. However, I did want to read it and my reading group scheduled it. The die was cast. Then, as I was about to start reading, Brother Gums sent me a link to the documentary Marina Abramović: The artist is present about her and the performance piece which inspired this novel. I was set! As it turned out, I think Rose’s writing is evocative enough that it wasn’t necessary to have seen the film, but it did add a layer to the experience.
So, what is The museum of modern love about – besides love, that is? Its centre is performance artist Marina Abramović’s 75-day piece, The Artist is Present, which she performed at MoMA in the spring of 2010, to accompany a large retrospective exhibition of her work. The piece involved her sitting, still, quiet, at a table all day, 6 days a week (MoMA is closed Tuesdays), with gallery attendees invited to take turns to sit opposite her and share a gaze. It was an astonishing success, with, by the end, people camping out overnight to get the chance to sit. Many attended for days just to watch, creating, as Rose describes it, quite a community of spectators. In the end, over 850,000 people attended, with 1,545 people sitting (including Rose). (All are recorded at flickr.)
Anyhow, from this premise, Rose weaves an engaging, thoughtful story about art and love. It has two main narrative strands, telling the real Marina Abramović’s story and that of an attendee, the fictional musician Arky Levin, whose life is stalling, partly due to a restraining order made by his now-unresponsive terminally-ill wife that he not visit her. Interspersed with these, enriching the exploration of the themes, are smaller stories of other attendees, and family and/or friends of the protagonists. It’s narrated by a mysterious third person voice, who starts the novel with
He was not my first musician, Arky Levin. Nor my least successful. Mostly by his age potential is squandered or realised. But this is not a story of potential. It is a story of convergence.
This is a very particular omniscient narrator, some sort of artist’s muse who self-describes late in the novel as a “good spirit, whim … House elf to the artists of paint, music, body, voice, form, word”, one whose job is sometimes just “to wake things up”. This could be cutesy or forced, but it isn’t because Rose doesn’t overdo it. Mostly the story progresses without the intrusion of this narrator, so that when s/he appears we pay attention.
The moral conundrum at the novel’s heart is – is art enough or is love more important? It’s explored primarily through Levin, whose friends suggest he should appeal Lydia’s court order.
I know you’re going to say that she wanted you to do this; she wanted you to make music. But is that enough?
Music, it sounded feeble suddenly in the face of the yawning gap between life before Christmas and life these past four months. (p. 158)
So what does Levin do? Continue to live his increasingly lonely life making music, or follow his heart?
Levin’s story is off-set against other stories, notably that of Jane Miller, a friendly, recently widowed art teacher visiting New York from Georgia. She is lonely, like Levin, missing her husband “achingly, gapingly, excruciatingly. Her body hadn’t regulated itself to solitude.” She becomes one of the mesmerised watchers, but she also connects with others in the crowd, including Levin and Brittika, a PhD student from the Netherlands who is writing her thesis on Marina. Jane forms a natural link between the two themes of love and art.
What, then, is art?
The first time Jane attends the performance, she overhears people in the crowd questioning what the show is about, asking what is art, in fact. There are, of course, the naysayers, the ones who say that “art is irrelevant. If everything goes to crap, it won’t be art that saves us”. But Jane thinks differently, and turns to the man next to her who is, you guessed it, Levin, and says
I think art saves people all the time … I know art has saved me on several occasions.
As the novel progresses, various claims are made for art. Our muse, speaking particularly for artists, believes that “pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time” and that “artists run their fingers over the fabric of eternity”. Marina’s art teacher says to her 16-year-old self that “Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart”, which causes Marina to consider that “Art … could be something unimaginable”. At one point Marina is reported as saying “I am only interested in art that can change the ideology of society”.
Jane, the viewer, though, has her own epiphany:
And maybe this was art, she thought, having spent years trying to define it and pin it to the line like a shirt on a windy day. There you are, art! You capture moments at the heart of life.
But, I think it is art critic Healayas who makes the clearest, simplest point when she says during a discussion about Marina’s performance:
She simply invites us to participate … It may be therapeutic and spiritual, but it is also social and political. It is multi-layered. It is why we love art, why we study art, why we invest ourselves in art.
… and what has love got to do with it?
Everything, if art, as all this suggests, is about humanity.
Let’s look specifically at Levin. It would be easy to criticise him, as his friends and daughter gently do, for being passive. But, we do get the sense that Lydia encouraged his passivity in their life together, that she liked to be in control, not in a control-freak way but in that way that super-competent people can do. Moreover, Lydia made her order out of love for him, to let him continue creating his art, rather than look after her which she didn’t believe was in him. So, what’s Levin to do? How does he reconcile his love against hers?
The resolution when it comes is triggered by art, by Marina’s performance. And this, as Jane believes art can do, probably saves him. I say probably because Rose, clever writer that she is, leaves the ending uncertain. As she and Levin realise,
the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know.
This is an inspired and inspiring book that leaves you pondering. I’ve only touched the surface.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked the novel.