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The Museum of Modern Love

51vG9TBXECL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_   I read the first paragraph of Australian writer Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love:

“…But this is not a story of potential.   It is a story of convergence. Such things are rarer than you might think. Coincidence, I’ve heard, is God’s way of being discreet. But convergence is more than that.  It is something that, once set in motion, will have an unknown effect.  It is a human condition to admire hindsight. I always thought foresight was so much more useful.”

and before reading more, I decided to find out more about the performance artist, Marina Abramovic, who inspired the book.

In her review for the New York Times, Tacey Rychter summarizes the author’s experience with Abramovic’s 2010 art show – The Artist is Present:

“…Rose was one of 850,000 people who attended Abramovic’s 75-day performance, “The Artist Is Present,” in which visitors {to the Museum of Modern Art – MOMA} waited for hours to take a chair opposite the then 63-year-old artist and share a meditative gaze with her for any length of time. People described transformative experiences. Many wept through their mute encounters. ‘It was as if they were seen in a way they’re not normally seen,’ Rose said. She returned every day for three weeks. She watched the crowds and saw others came back, too.

The books mixes fiction with the real life of the Serbian performance artist, Marina Abramovic, whose career has included knife slashing, self-flagellation, razor blades, and walking the Great Wall of China.  Using the 2010 performance art at the New York City Museum of Modern Art, Rose not only plays biographer to the artist’s life but also connects to a small cast of characters she creates, representing the more than 1000 people who took turns sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic and meeting her gaze and the thousands more who came to observe from the sidelines.

Not knowing about Abramovic, I used youtube to find the live performances Rose vividly describes in her story.  I was sorry I did; some of those images are hard to see and to forget.  At times, the controversial performance art seemed more of a stunt than art,  but Rose’s characters and their stories make the book compelling, and Rose gives the artist a higher level of intention through her characters’ participation.

The central character is Arky Levin, a composer of movie soundtracks; the others who converge with Arky as they each experience Abramovic’s art show include: Jane Miller, a recently widowed middle school art teacher from Georgia; Brittica, a pink-haired Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic; Healayas Breen, a black art critic and singer and a former girlfriend of Arky’s former musical partner; and Marina’s dead mother, who hovers over the museum watching and commenting.  Abramovic’s performance helps each face and resolve an inner conflict.

The most poignant story revolves around Arky Levin and his wife, Lydia, a brilliant  architect.  Her congenital disease has recently deteriorated to a semi-comatose state, and she is in a nursing home. Arky has learned that Lydia had previously created a court order to keep him from visiting, having long doubted his ability to care for her and wanting to free him from being her caregiver.  Their daughter and friends question Arky’s willingness to abide by the legal document since Lydia is no longer capable of changing it. Unable to write music and not able to decide how to show his love for his wife, Arky finds himself drawn repeatedly to Abramovic’s MoMA performance.  His struggle ultimately has him taking the seat across from Abramovic for his epiphany moment.

Although the focus is on the power of redemption through art, the book is difficult to read.  The background information on the artist reveals not only her grueling performances but also the horrible life in a war-torn area forcing her into creating her own style of salvation.  And Arky’s experience facing his wife’s debilitation has a note of incredulity – what spouse would exonerate the other’s commitment from the vow to be there in “sickness as in health” – maybe that’s a question for a book discussion?  

A key element of Abramovic’s performance art is the eye contact she makes and holds with each one who sits across from her, whether the person sits for five minutes or five hours.  In the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of the book, the author suggests trying this stare or “gaze” with a friend or loved one to see what happens.  Arky practices by staring at a pillow before he attempts trying it with the artist.  It’s not easy to sit perfectly still, staring at someone.  Even in meditation, you get to close your eyes.

Not for everyone, but a book with staying power and inspiration to anyone trying to deal with grief, suffering and recurring illness.

“Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”