THE MUSEUM OF MODERN LOVE, by Heather Rose. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 286 pp., $15.95 paper.
In her 2010 piece, "The Artist is Present," Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, then 63, sat at a table in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art for 75 days, inviting visitors to join her, to gaze into her eyes as she gazed back. Abramović had imagined that the guest chair would often be empty, but by the end 850,000 people visited and more than 1,500 sat down.
At the time the show was announced, award-winning Australian author Heather Rose had already become fascinated with Abramović and drafted a novel inspired by her art. After Rose flew to New York to experience the performance, sitting with Abramović four times, she completely revised the concept she'd been working on. She asked for and received permission from the artist to represent her in a work of fiction; her photographer and her assistant also agreed to appear. Around them, Rose has woven a rich tapestry of plot and characters, among them a composer, a tourist, an art critic, a grad student and two incorporeals: a muse, who acts as omniscient narrator, and the ghost of Abramović's mother. The result is an unusual and lively work of fiction.
The fundamental achievement of "The Museum of Modern Love" is to convey what was so riveting about "The Artist is Present," which for this reader — not a devotee of performance art — was far from obvious. Rose accomplishes this both through direct discussion of the work and by showing its effect on the lives of the characters. Rose also dramatizes Abramović's childhood and previous pieces, one of which involved her and her partner walking the length of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle and break up.
At the center of the invented plot is composer Arky Levin. Arky encounters the exhibition at a miserable moment. He and his wife, Lydia, a world-famous architect, were about to move into a lovely new apartment on Washington Square Park, where he planned to continue "eating well, drinking good wine, watching good movies, having good doctors, being loved by a good woman…and generally living a benign and blameless life." But suddenly, the rare hereditary disease Lydia has been fighting for years overtakes her; she retreats to a nursing home in the Hamptons, signs papers preventing him from visiting her, then falls into a coma.
Arky goes to the museum planning to sit in the sculpture garden, but is drawn by the buzz to the atrium. He watches as several visitors sit at the table. The third is "a young man with the face of angel sent to visit dying children." Within a few minutes the man is weeping, and Abramović is weeping too. Meanwhile the onlookers continue their discussions of whether or not this is art, how she can sit all day without going to the bathroom and where to have lunch.
The second fictional character to arrive at the museum is recent widow Jane Miller, visiting New York in hope of finding respite from her grief and from all the copies of "The Year of Magical Thinking" people have given her. She ends up watching Abramović every day. To her, the performance is "a thing of inexplicable beauty among humans…the reflection of a great mystery. What are we? How should we live?"
In addition to evoking that mystery, "The Museum of Modern Love" tells a story about Arky Levin and Jane Miller. Not a love story, as the chatty muse informs us after they meet — at least not between them. Rose's idea of "modern love" is more soulful than sexual; her lonely characters are more likely to be connected by "moments of wonder and convergence" than by romance. By using storytelling to explore how Abramović's piece created those moments, Rose opens the experience to a different audience. Performance art naysayers: You may like this book more than you would think.