To be honest this was another one of those books that I picked up at the library because the cover was appealing to me. Upon then seeing the logline that it was inspired by the art of Marina Abramovic, I felt compelled to check it out: you see, I did a big project about her back in art school (as a part of our history of performance art unit), and at the time didn’t really get what it was about her work that drew so many people in, but there was definitely still something resonating with me. And from time to time still I find myself thinking about her and her work, even though I did all that research and work almost 10 years ago now.
So that brings us to The Museum of Modern Love: although a fictional work about mostly fictional characters, the story is centered around Abramovic’s very real piece, The Artist is Present, which she performed in 2010 at MoMA. This is the one where she sat at a table for seventy-five days, inviting strangers to sit across from her and share a moment of silence for as long as they wished, while she stared into their eyes. Our story, thereby, features various characters who come to see Abramovic’s work and often end up returning multiple times thereafter, or perhaps even sit with her themselves, and have some sort of profound experience with the whole thing. The main character, however, is Arky Levin, a composer who is facing a separation from his wife on strange circumstances: she has a difficult illness and is moving into a care facility, but has obtained legal orders to not allow her husband to come visit her. Arky therefore is at a bit of a crossroads in his life, and after seeing Abramovic’s piece, finds himself returning day after day, meeting others there, exploring his connection to art and those around him.
Overall, this book isn’t one with a ton of action: it is mostly a dialogue with the self, and an exploration of our relationship with art. In some ways, it’s a bit heavy-handed in its portrayals of the questions that inevitably arise about art (ie, that ever popular flexing of intellectuals asking: what even is art?), and even in detailing some of Abramovic’s history which comes across as a wiki-lesson 101. There is also a bit of a heavy mythologizing of some aspects; or perhaps, a romanticizing of what it is to be an artist in the soul. Being an artist myself and having a background in art therapy, I how hard it is for people to really interact with art and understand it’s place inside of a person. And so some of the romanticizing did work for me, but some of it also seemed like it came from an almost stereotypical place that doesn’t necessarily apply. No, I don’t need to bleed and suffer for my craft. But then, some do suffer or feel the need to bleed, and who am I to take away from their unique experiences.
In a way I think having the knowledge and experience with art that I have made this book better for me to read, though still not perfect. There is a lot of name-dropping of artists and pieces, and while I was able to identify most of them with my knowledge of art history, there were still some that I had to look up because my brain couldn’t pinpoint them on its own. I also think that a lot of people may not be interested in hearing an author/characters wax philosophical about art and their personal experiences with it, but sometimes it’s surprising the reactions people have to the things they experience. I remember a co-worker of mine in the kitchens of a senior’s home when I was 16, who once told me that she saw one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings at a museum, and that she was so completely transfixed by the texture and image that she stood there for so long that the security started hovering to keep an eye on her. There was also admin of a university program I was in telling me that immediately upon seeing one particular carving at an exhibit, she burst into tears and couldn’t even explain why. So you know, I think given that this novel is grounded in such human emotions and experiences might not be so hard for people to transverse, should the subject of art be one that interests them.
However, there is always the question of taking liberties with the stories of real people. In the acknowledgements, Heather Rose makes it clear that a few people (including Ambramovic herself) gave permission for them to be depicted in this story that she is telling, so they are aware of the work being done. And I think having the other fictional characters talk about Abramovic’s work and what they might hypothesize as her motivations and feelings works well. But then, at the end we go into Abramovic’s mind herself and there is a recreation of might be some of her thoughts: I didn’t think this worked well because, well, we have no idea what her experience and true feelings were, do we? We can only try and guess, or know what we ourselves have experienced in relation to her work. As well, the spirit of Abramovic’s mother makes an appearance which, like I said, the author had permission to create this story, but that definitely feels like some liberties being taken, no? I don’t know, but those sections with her dead mother’s thoughts and feelings floating around didn’t really work for me.
In any case, The Museum of Modern Art is a contemplative, gentle read. Yeah, maybe not a lot “happens” but it’s more of an exploration of the characters, their feelings, and how we relate to our work (and in particular, the art that people put into it). While not perfect and maybe a bit pretentions at times, it’s also not bad, and there were some very beautiful parts within it.