Marina Abramović was born in Belgrade the year after the end of World War 2. Both her parents had been partisan heroes during that conflict. Her upbringing, in part by her grandparents, was a deeply restrictive and religious one. But from an early age she developed an interest in art and later, taking this interest further, she graduated from both the Belgrade and Zagreb academies of fine arts, specialising in performance art. All throughout her now long career she has attempted to extend the boundaries as to the definition of art. ‘Using her own body as a vehicle, she has pushed herself to the ultimate limits, often exposing herself to lethal hazards to create performance art that is shocking, challenging and deeply moving.’ Now a resident of of Amsterdam, her fame takes her world-wide to the great galleries. In 2010 she landed in NYC to present a marathon seventy-five day performance piece at MoMA, ‘The Artist is Present’. It consisted of Ms Abramović seated at a table opposite a chair to be filled by patrons willing to sit with her for a while. It attracted large audiences, polarised and for some opposite the main attraction it was a profound experience.
It is around this event that Heather Rose’s 2017 Stella Prize winning novel ‘The Museum of Modern Love’ is framed. I was delighted to see a local take it out, especially as I had so enjoyed ‘The Butterfly Man’ (2005), as well as, to a lesser extent, ‘The River Wife’ (2009). Rose (as Angelina Banks) also writes, with Danielle Wood, the children’s series ‘Tuesday McGillycuddy’.
In Rose’s tome, Arky Levin becomes addicted, as an observer, to Abramović during her New York stay. He’s a composer of musical scores for films with a seriously ill wife. As he works through the issues involved in his life at that time the performance by the artist becomes his salve. He feels he has to see her artistic marathon through to the end. In this process we get to know others similarly drawn, some of whom connect to Arky in various ways. Rose also weaves in the artist’s back story and the strain on herself of the daily ritual she undertakes to present her piece.
Undoubtedly this is a very clever and astute novel on all manner of subjects, ranging from the question of what is art to the nature of friendship and love. Unfortunately it occupied a rarefied atmosphere that this reader had some difficulty with. I can attest to it being something special but I could not connect to it. Perhaps the nature of the performance artist’s oeuvre affected the tone of author’s writing, in a deliberate way, placing it out of my comfort zone. My brain told me I should be enjoying it, but my heart wasn’t in it. I am disappointed in myself for not being able to embrace it – but there you are. Like much of the work of her subject, it just wasn’t my thing.
Of course Marina A is just David Walsh’s thing. It’s wonderful that, when the artistic megastar visited Mona in 2015, as a performance piece Ms Rose read an excerpt from her novel to the great woman. Now that is special
The author’s website = https://heatherrose.com.au/