Fiction – Kindle edition. Algonquin Books, 2018. Originally published 2016. 256 pgs. Purchased.
What is art? How does it encourage people to form connections with others, to express their love towards those in their lives? These are the questions posed by Heather Rose in her fictional exploration of the very real Marina Abramović performance of The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
Over 75 days, Abramović sat largely immobile in the MoMA atrium with an empty chair across from her. Visitors to the museum were invited to sit for however long or as little as they liked with the only requirement that they had to maintain eye contact. Over 1,500 people participated, including Alan Rickman, Colm Tóibín, and James Franco, with many moved to unexpected emotional reactions during their sitting. (An album with photographs of each sitter is available on Flickr, and the photographer features as a fictionalized character in Rose’s novel.)
Rose explains in the afterward that Abramović granted Rose permission to fictionalize herself and her performance, but the focus of the novel is almost entirely on those who sit with Abramović, including a PhD student from Amsterdam who strips off her clothes before sitting, an art critic from NPR, a teacher from the American Midwest, and a film composer from New York City named Arky Levin.
Arky’s story – his strained relationship with his twenty-something daughter, his physical separation from his wife at the best of her end-of-life instructions – become the central focus of the story. Arky is drawn to Abramović’s performance, and watching it allows him to meet others who are drawn to the exhibit and together contemplate the meaning of art.
More importantly, though, watching the performance and debating whether or not to sit with Abramović provides Arky with the space to contemplate how fear has held him back. Fear of connection. Fear of loss. Fear of the unknown. Fear of taking a necessary but devastating step.
“Until you understand what connects you, you have no freedom.”
I went into this novel without much background information as it came to my attention back in 2017 after it won the Stella Prize, an annual Australian literary award established in 2013 for writing by Australian women in all genres. I thought Abramović was entirely fictional until the sheer number of details included about her background led me to suspect she was real and to a quick Google search.
I waited to watch the final day of Abramović’s performance on YouTube until after I finished the novel. I didn’t want the real art to overshadow the fictional interpretation, but I needn’t have worried as the two work beautifully off one another. The performance provides an intriguing and moving baseline to build from; the novel adds dimensions to Abramović’s performance that are beautiful and raw and affecting. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find this in my “best of” list for 2019.
‘The Museum of Modern Love’ won the Stella Prize in 2017.