Heather Rose has produced a work of considerable finesse. The Museum of Modern Love sets a high bar for Australian literary fiction.
“Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovíc in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.”
It is always a delight to read an intelligent book. In The Museum of Modern Love, it is as though the author caresses the intellect through exquisite prose; coaxing, inviting engagement. Rose has produced a deeply introspective, slow-paced book, one that will appeal to lovers of literature, rather than those seeking page-turning entertainment.
The primary setting is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the main characters observe a piece of performance art by the renowned Marina Abramovíc, in which the artist sits unflinchingly still, all day for seventy-five days. The object of Rose’ pen is therefore a real life and contemporary figure, Serbian-born Abramovíc, who has loose and controversial associations with Australia. The Museum of Modern Love is faction, a considered rendering of biography in fiction.
What commences as the audience observes ‘The Artist is Present’ is the delicate unfolding of backstory, petal by petal, first here, then there, until the essence of the narrative, a poignant and bruised heart, is revealed.
“It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration.”
Rose is a masterful writer, her depictions of incidental characters sharply observant, yet her prose is always gentle, haunting. The Museum of Modern Love is a meditation, on art and creativity to a large extent, but above that on pain, physical and emotional pain, the anguish of loss and grief. Can themes of art and creativity rescue a narrative that strolls along in the doldrums of lingering despair? The answer is immediate: Yes. ‘The Artist is Present’ installation represents trauma on a grand and complex scale, the artwork a culmination of a lifetime of suffering, depicted in a retrospective piece on display in the museum upstairs. Abramovíc’s artistic and personal pain is juxtaposed with the ordinary pain of ordinary people, yet each time another sits on the vacant chair and locks gaze with the artist, whatever they are feeling is transformed, subtly perhaps, to become a part of this ever changing, yet remarkably unmoving, work of art.
The narrator of The Museum of Modern Love is deft, light, observant, forgiving. If there could be a point of criticism it would be the use of self consciousness, at times the narrator identifying as a disembodied entity, an angel, a muse, naturally omniscient, one given to addressing the reader directly. Some may deem the exploitation of this device unnecessary and intrusive. When it first appears, the reader may be forgiven for worrying that this voice may overpower the narrative, but thankfully it does not.
All fiction is contrivance, a pasting together of characters, settings, themes. When drawing on real people and real events, such pasting can appear awkward and stilted. The Museum of Modern Love is not one of those works. Evident in abundance is Heather Rose’ passion for her subject and deep empathy for her themes. It comes as no surprise that the work won The Stella Prize, 2017.