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Thanks to my book group I read this interesting book this month; The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. At the centre of this book is a performance art exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Artist is Present by Marina Abramović was a 75 day long endurance testing exercise. Abramović sat still on a wooden chair during the museum opening hours 6 days per week for 3 months. Visitors to the museum queued to sit opposite Abramović and gaze into her eyes.
Rose includes a few chapters that have Abramović at the centre, based on interviews and records from her career. The central protagonist is a regular spectator of Abramović’s exhibit. Arky Levin is a self-centered film composer who devotes his entire being to his compositions. In his married life he only occasionally noticed his wife, mostly when he needed something, and even less often their daughter. Levin is totally dependent on his wife but is not self aware enough to acknowledge that. When his wife imposes a separation upon their relationship his world is turned upside down.
There is nothing likeable about Levin. His selfishness is breath-taking. I suppose that Rose presents him this way to show the reader the level of commitment that is required for a musician to produce good quality compositions. It also allows Rose to take Levin on a journey of increasing honesty and self awareness in conjunction with the Abramović exhibit.
Rose presents some interesting characters, most notably the recently widowed tourist from southern USA who provides some interesting reflections throughout the book and the conflicted Chinese-Dutch PhD student who is studying Abramović and is inspired to her own act of bravery in response to the exhibit.
I was disappointed that Rose allowed two of her male characters to objectify the art critic Healayas Breen. Even worse, that Rose allows both of those characters access to Breen’s body. I’m sick of reading about the desires of lecherous men and I feel let down when a female author gives valuable space on the page to voice those desires. Natural – yes; interesting to read – no.
I haven’t experienced much pleasure from modern art (with the notable exception of some street art and pieces that please me aesthetically) and I have wondered what defines art. That question is at the heart of this novel. I had never heard of Abramović. I’m glad that I did not attend any of her early performances because I don’t have the stomach to watch somebody carve a communist star into their own skin. She sounds like a formidable and conflicted person.
I enjoyed reading this book and I’m glad that my notion of modern art was challenged. What did you think of this book? This is a very positive review of the book in the Sydney Morning Herald.