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THE MUSEUM OF MODERN LOVE


“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity you must be fearless.”

Arky Levin has reached a dead end. Unexpectedly separated from his wife, he suddenly has the space he needs to work composing film scores—but none of the peace of mind he needs to create. As he wanders the city, guilty and restless, it’s almost by chance that he stumbles upon an exhibition that will change his life.

The installation the fictional Arky discovers—which is based on a real piece of performance art that took place in 2010—is inexplicably powerful.

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“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity you must be fearless.”

Arky Levin has reached a dead end. Unexpectedly separated from his wife, he suddenly has the space he needs to work composing film scores—but none of the peace of mind he needs to create. As he wanders the city, guilty and restless, it’s almost by chance that he stumbles upon an exhibition that will change his life.

The installation the fictional Arky discovers—which is based on a real piece of performance art that took place in 2010—is inexplicably powerful. Visitors to the Museum of Modern Art sit across a table from the performance artist Marina Abramović, for as short or long a period as they choose. Although some go in skeptical, almost all leave moved. And the participants are not the only ones to find themselves changed by this unusual experience: Arky finds himself drawn to the exhibit. He returns day after day to watch other people sit with Abramović—and as he does, he begins to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.

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  • Workman
  • Paperback
  • November 2018
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781616208523

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$15.95

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About Heather Rose

Rose, Heather (c) Jack Robert-Tissot B&WHeather Rose was born in Australia in 1964. Her novels have been shortlisted or have won awards for literary fiction, crime fiction, and children’s fantasy. In 2017, The Museum of Modern Love, her seventh novel, won the Christina Stead Prize and the Stella Prize. It is her first novel for adults to be published in the United States. She lives by the sea on the island of Tasmania.

Praise

An Amazon Editors’ Best Book of December 2018
A Goodreads “Hot Book” November Selection
BookPage Top Pick for December
Winner of the 2017 Margaret Scott Prize – Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes
Winner of the 2017 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards
Winner of the 2017 Stella Prize

“An engaging, multifaceted meditation on the meaning of life and art . . . This is a brilliant find for any reader who enjoys grappling with the larger questions of life and literature, and it is an excellent choice for book clubs seeking thought-provoking discussion.” BookPage

“Rose celebrates the transformative power of art with an artful construct of her own . . . [Rose] displays a deep appreciation of art and a deft ability to blend fact, fiction, abstract ideas, and sentiment that recalls Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.”NPR

“A tender meditation on art, love, grief, and life.” Bustle

“Framing a love story around a long-durational performance work, where the passage of time is essential, is a profoundly original idea. I loved this book.”Marina Abramovic

“Rose has woven a rich tapestry of plot and characters . . . The result is an unusual and lively work of fiction.”Newsday

The Museum of Modern Love interrogates what it is that drives artists to create—and the power of their creations on those who allow themselves to truly look at them.”Book Reporter

“A glorious novel, meditative and special in a way that defies easy articulation.”Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites

“A deliciously inventive tale of the New York art scene, swirling with complex characters and connections, posing questions about how we should live, about art’s ability to change our lives, and about the ways art changes the artists who create it.”B. A. Shapiro, author of The Collector’s Apprentice

“This captivating work explores the meaning of art in our lives and the ways in which it deepens our understanding of ourselves. As Hannah Rothschild did in The Improbability of Love, Australian author Rose also combines intriguing characters with a laser-sharp focus on art to produce a gem of a novel.”Library Journal, starred review

“Deeply involving . . . profound . . . emotionally rich and thought-provoking.” Booklist, starred review

“Clever, genre-bending . . . A portrait of human desire and human failing, but perhaps most profoundly, human striving for something greater than self. Rose’s melancholy book resonates with emotion, touching on life’s great dilemmas—death, vocation, love, art.”Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A lush tone poem to the life of art and art in life, The Museum of Modern Love coruscates with captivating energy . . . Incisive, beautiful, and precise.”Foreword Reviews, starred review

Discussion Questions

1. The Museum of Modern Love was inspired by Marina Abramović’s performance piece The Artist Is Present. How has reading the novel influenced your ideas about art—and in particular performance art?

2. Jane Miller is drawn to return again and again through her precious days in New York to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). She finds it helps her process her grief. Have you ever found solace in something unexpected during times of grief or hardship?

3. The novel is a hybrid of fact and fiction. Discuss how the story moves between the real and the imagined.

4. We meet Arky Levin at a dark hour of his marriage. How has he contributed to the situation in which he finds himself?

5. What do you think Lydia’s motivations are in distancing herself from Arky? What would you have done in her shoes?

6. All the characters in the novel are affected by The Artist Is Present. What impact do you think art can have on individuals, and on society as a whole?

7. Has the book encouraged or inspired you to look more deeply into the work of Marina Abramović? What have you discovered?

8. The presence of Danica Abramović presides, ghost-like, over the event at MoMA. Discuss Marina’s relationship with her mother, and how Danica’s mothering affected Marina. Does your mother still have a presence in your life? How might she have influenced choices you have made?

9. The book is also a study of commitment—to marriage, to family, and to love, but also to creativity. Discuss commitments you have made (or would like to make) to living your life as fully as you can. Do you set aside time for creative pursuits or other hobbies? Have you done so even when there were conflicting pressures?

10. Eye contact is a normal part of life, but extended eye contact—the gaze—is intimate and revealing. Try it with a friend or loved one. See what happens. Share your experience.

11. Have you discovered other Australian writers? If so, which books have you most enjoyed?

Excerpt

He was not my first musician, Arky Levin. Nor my least successful.

Mostly by his age, potential is squandered or realized. 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.

It is the spring of the year 2010 and one of my artists is busy in a gallery in New York City. Not the great Metropolitan, nor the Guggenheim, serene and twisted though she is. No, my artist’s gallery is a white box. It’s evident that within that box much is alive. And vibrating. But before we get to that, let me set the scene.

There is a river on either side of this great city and the sun rises over one and sets over the other. Where oak, hemlock, and fir once stood beside lakes and streams, avenues now run north–south. Cross streets mostly run east–west. The mountains have been leveled, the lakes have been filled. The buildings create the most familiar skyscape of the modern world.

The pavements convey people and dogs, the subway rumbles, and the yellow cabs honk day and night. As in previous decades, people are coming to terms with the folly of their investments and the ineptitude of their government. Wages are low, as are the waistbands of jeans. Thin is fashionable but fat is normal. Living is expensive, and being ill is the most costly business of all. There is a feeling that a chaos of climate, currency, creed, and cohabitation is looming in the world. On an individual basis, most people still want to look good and smell nice, have friends, be comfortable, make money, feel love, enjoy sex, and not die before their time.

And so we come to Arky Levin. He would like to think he stands apart from the riffraff of humanity, isolated by his fine musical mind. He believed, until recently, that he was anesthetized to commonplace suffering by years of eating well, drinking good wine, watching good movies, having good doctors, being loved by a good woman, having the luck of good genetics, and
generally living a benign and blameless life.

It is April 1, but Levin, in his apartment on Washington Square, is oblivious to the date and its humorous connotations. If someone played a practical joke on him this morning, he would be confused—possibly for hours. The morning sun is spilling into the penthouse. Rigby, a gray rug of a cat, lies sprawled on her back on the sofa with her paws stretched high above her head. In contrast, Levin is curled forward over a Model B Steinway, his fingers resting silently on the keyboard. He is so still he might be a puppet awaiting the first twitch of the string above. In fact, he is waiting for an idea. That is usually where I come in, but Levin has not been himself for many
months. To write music he must hurdle over a morass of broken dreams. Every time he goes to leap, he comes up short.

Levin and I have known each other a very long time, and when he is like this he can be unreachable, so caught on the wheel of memory he forgets he has choices. What is he remembering now? Ah yes, the film dinner from the night before.

He had expected questions. It was why he’d avoided everyone, hadn’t attended a function since December. It was still too raw. Too impossible. For the same reason he’d ignored emails, avoided phone calls, and finally unplugged the answering machine in February after one particularly upsetting message.

And then last night, in a living nightmare, three of them had got him at one end of the room and harangued him, berated him. Outrageous claims of abandonment and lack of responsibility.

“You don’t seem to realize I had no choice in this,” he had told them.

“You’re her husband. If it was the other way around . . .”

“Her instructions are perfectly clear. This is what she wants. Do I have to send you a copy of the letter?”

“But, Arky, you’ve abandoned her.”

“No, I haven’t. If anyone has been abandoned . . .”

“Please tell me you are not suggesting, Arky, that you have the raw deal here?”

“You can’t just leave her there.”

“Well, what exactly did you have in mind?” he had asked. “That I bring her home?”

“Yes, for God’s sake. Yes.”

They had all seemed stunned at his reluctance.

“But she doesn’t want that.”

“Of course she does. You’re being unbelievably blind if you think anything else.”

He had excused himself, walked the twenty blocks in a rage, aware also that he was weeping and grateful for the handkerchief he never went anywhere without. The bitter taste of helplessness lingered on his tongue. He scratched at the rough patch on his hand that might be cancer. He thought of the night sweats too. Waking drenched at three a.m. Having to change his soaked pajamas and slide over to the other, empty side of the bed, where the sheets were dry. He wondered if it was his heart. If he died in the apartment it could be days before anybody noticed. Except Rigby, who would possibly settle on his corpse until she realized he was not getting up to feed her. It would be Yolanda, their housekeeper, who would find him. Yolanda had been in their life for years. Ever since they were married. Lydia had thought it as normal to employ a maid as keeping milk in the fridge. She had stayed on, Yolanda, through the move to Washington Square. Levin never liked to be home when Yolanda came. Lydia was good at small talk with shop people
and teachers and tradespeople. Levin was not.

Levin thought that if he died, the trees on the deck in their tall glazed pots would almost certainly die too for lack of water. He got up and made another pot of coffee, sliced an onion bagel, and lowered one round into the toaster. Within minutes it was smoking and blackened. With the second half he assumed complete vigilance, spearing the thing with a knife when he sensed it was ready, hoisting it up and reinserting it in a slightly different position. Why had Lydia bought this particular toaster and not a version that didn’t destroy his breakfast every morning? How was it possible they could invent drones to kill a single man somewhere in Pakistan, but not
perfect the toaster?

Leaving his plate and cup in the sink, Levin washed his hands and dried them carefully before returning to the piano. On the music ledge was an illustration of a Japanese woman with long blue-black hair and vivid green eyes. He wanted to write something spellbinding for her. A flute would be good, he had decided a few days before. But everything he came up with reminded him of The Mission. He felt like a beginner again, searching through old melodies, attempting transitions that didn’t work, harmonies that tempted and then became elusive.

And so for the next few hours Levin immersed himself in the process, moving from the Steinway in the living room, where so many of his ideas began, to his studio in the western end of the apartment with its Kurzweil keyboard, Bose speakers, and two iMacs giving him every variation of instrument at his fingertips. He took the ink drawing with him and put it back on the corkboard where storyboard sequences in the same distinctive style were pinned. There were also more illustrations of the same Japanese woman. In one she was bending over a pool of water, her dress the green and shimmer of fish scales. In another she was reaching out to touch the nose of a huge white bear. And in another she was walking with a child along a snow-laden path, red leaves the only touch of color.

Levin switched from flute to violin on the keyboard, hearing the same transitions from C to F to A minor. But violin wasn’t right. It was too civilized for forest and river. I suggested the viola, but he dismissed me, thinking it too melancholy. But wasn’t melancholy what he was looking for?

I had encouraged him to take this film score because solitude may be a form of contentment when you live in a fairy story, but not when you are an artist in New York who believes your best years are still ahead of you. Artists are stubborn. They have to be. Even when nothing is happening, the only way through is to work and work.

I drew Levin’s attention to the day outside. He went to the window and saw sunlight dazzling the fountain in Washington Square. Purple tulips were blooming on the walkways. He looked again at the audio file on his screen. I reminded him of the previous evening, before the women had pinned him against the table. He had sat with his old mentor, Eliot, who had told him of the Tim Burton exhibition at MoMA. It was not the Burton I wanted him to see, but it was a way of getting him there. For all he wasn’t listening to my musical suggestions, he was amenable to an interruption.

“You will have to wait,” he said to the Japanese woman, but he might as well have been talking to me. In his bedroom he chose a favorite blue Ben Sherman jacket and his dark gray Timberland sneakers.

He took the E train and got off at Fifth Avenue, crossed the street, and walked into the Museum of Modern Art. With the membership Lydia bought them each year, he skipped the lengthy queue for tickets. The narrow corridor to the Burton exhibition was jammed with people. Instantly he
was surrounded by the warmth of bodies, the gabble of voices. Within a few minutes the illustrations of stitched blue women, their wide-eyed panic and long-limbed emptiness mingled with the odor and proximity of warm bodies, began to make Levin nauseated. He saw with relief an exit sign. Pushing open the door, he found himself in an empty corridor. He stopped, leaned
against the wall, and breathed.

He intended, at that moment, to go downstairs and sit in the sculpture garden to enjoy the sunshine. Then the murmur from the atrium drew him in.

Essay

An Unflinching Gaze

An Essay by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love took me eleven years to write. It started back in 2005, when there was a Dutch Masters exhibition in Melbourne, Australia. After taking in the Van Goghs and Rembrandts, I wandered into another part of the gallery and came across a black-and-white photograph. The interpretation panel said this was Rhythm Zero performed by Marina Abramović in 1974 in Naples, Italy. On the table in the photo were 72 items—including a bottle of olive oil, a rose, a loaf of bread, a feather, and also chains, a whip, a gun, and a bullet. Abramović gave the visitors to the gallery complete permission to use any of those items on her over the course of six hours, and she would remain passive. (The audience nearly killed her.)

The interpretation panel also said that Marina Abramović was known for a performance called The Walk, in which she and her then-partner, Ulay, walked from either end of the Great Wall of China, meeting in the middle after 3,000 miles to end their relationship and say goodbye.

That got me. The idea of a woman who could be so tough, so fearless, with those 72 items, and so romantic with that long walk. “There’s a character for a novel,” I thought. I didn’t know anything about performance art. I knew nothing else about Marina Abramović. I couldn’t find much about her on the internet in those days. So I did what we novelists do. I began to make it up.

In 2007 I was given a fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the end of that residency, I traveled to the Isle of Skye, where I’d worked years before. I found a small hotel to stay in. It was a balmy evening and the french doors of the restaurant were open to the sea. There was a golden light across the water and magic in the air. I was dining alone. Suddenly I saw my main character, a performance artist, sitting opposite me, and she was eating what would be her last meal. She didn’t know this, but tomorrow at the end of her performance, she would die. Through the course of the dinner, her last supper, she was visited by the people and ghosts from her past. There was a composer, a film director, a mother, a journalist, a daughter, a student, a muse . . .

I went upstairs and wrote until dawn. I could see the whole novel before me. The characters and the food and the parts of a life. When dawn arrived and I was still writing, I thought that this would be a fast book. A novel done in weeks, not months. How wrong I was.

In 2009, I heard that Marina Abramović was to do a show in New York the following year. It was going to be called The Artist Is Present. I knew I had to go.

I booked myself a room at the Chelsea Hotel, flew from Tasmania to New York, and found my way to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was my second trip to New York, my seventh or eighth to the United States. By then I’d been revisiting that idea of the artist at the table, on and off, for five years, squeezing it in around other novels, family, business and community commitments. Still, despite all the distractions, the idea wouldn’t let me go. It turned out that writing a novel about commitment took a great deal of it.

Sitting opposite Marina Abramović at the blond wood table in the atrium at MoMA in 2010, I was startled to realize that, for me, she had always been sitting at a table. At the heart of The Artist Is Present was the gaze. Abramović maintained eye contact with anyone who sat in the chair opposite. This gaze might last two minutes, two hours, or a whole day. The show began to get a lot of media attention. People began to line up, often for hours. As time went on, people were lining up overnight, sleeping on the street outside MoMA, desperate for a chance to experience Marina Abramović’s gaze.

The gaze, it appeared, had the capacity to transport people. It transported me. I sat four times. It was surreal, beautiful, and haunting. I understood then that Abramović was too powerful, too magnetic, and too real for me to fictionalize her or her life.

So I sought permission to include Abramović as herself in the novel. And Marina Abramović, who knew nothing about me or my work, said yes. With no caveats. She went on to sit at MoMA during The Artist Is Present for 75 days, six days a week, for some 736 hours. She did not move from morning until night. She maintained eye contact with everyone who came to sit facing her. More than 850,000 people came, from winter until spring. More than 1,500 people sat in the gaze with her.

After the 2010 trip, I began another draft of the novel. Now at its heart was the real Marina in the atrium at MoMA, seated and silent at her table. Gone was Scotland, gone was the meal, but here were all the characters, still. Arky, the composer; the student; the widow; the art critic; the muse. Add to that the estranged wife, Lydia, recuperating in solitude at the beach.

In some ways, Lydia’s illness connected me to the story. All my life I have lived with a crippling arthritic condition. It’s erratic. When I was well, I ran the family business, swam, mothered, cooked, entertained, cared for my aging parents, squeezed in time for writing . . . and then for a month or so every year or two, and sometimes more frequently, I’d be unable to walk. The pain during these times is extraordinary.

My husband had planned on being a rock star, and it hadn’t happened. This thing about fame gnawed at him like an amputee’s itch. He could never satisfy it. Any acclaim or recognition that came my way wasn’t easy for him. The more that came, the harder it was. And he found my illness challenging. It was an inconvenience.

I wrote a novel about a musician whose wife has a serious illness. She decides to give him all the time and space in the world to write music. But he has to agree to not see her, to let her either die, or recover, in solitude.

Life is never what you think it will be. Before The Museum of Modern Love was published in Australia, my twenty-year marriage ended. It was only afterward, assessing the world with new eyes, that I realized I had written a love letter to every woman who has dared to pursue her art. And I had written a blueprint of how I might carve a different life for myself.

I went through the launch of the book and all that has come after, the accolades and prizes, the public celebrations and events, the health challenges and legal complications, with a broken heart. And I began to get well. Really well. Better than I’ve been in decades. And I have loved my solitude.

In the novel, every character is drawn to The Artist Is Present for different reasons. None of them come away unaffected. Arky has to find his way through his dark night of the soul. But this is fiction, of course, not real life.

Love is a remarkable adventure. And sometimes, like Marina Abramović on the Great Wall of China, it’s time to say goodbye. It took me eleven years and a woman with an unflinching gaze, a performance artist with a fearless heart, a character who became a real woman, to help me find the way.