all white and empty art museum room
Performance Art, Life as Performance

I want to tell you about one of the most unique and powerful books I have ever read. Paradoxically, its uniqueness and power arise not from something exotic, but from what’s literally everywhere, all around us. A lot of books lift you out of your ordinary, blah life and drop you into a fantastical or exciting or dangerous or otherwise interesting new world. This book, in contrast, opens your eyes to the profound magic, drama, and artistry of your seemingly ordinary life.

It’s a book about performance art. Performance art exposes the truth that life, inevitably, like it or not, and regardless of whether you notice the fact, is a performance in time. The book itself is a grandiose performance!—but it’s only as grandiose as the universe itself, and beyond, . . . and no more.

Now that’s unique!

The Art of Buying a Book

I happened upon this singular book in a singular way. I was in the bookstore section of a Busboys and Poets restaurant. This, for those who haven’t visited one of the DC-area locations, is a little nook within each venue, with typically three or four aisles of bookshelves.

Randomly, I plucked a book of poetry by Hafiz off a shelf, opened it to a random page, read a poem, and knew I had to buy it, though I had no prior knowledge of this master’s existence. (Read my three blog posts about this book here.)

At that point, the bookseller approached and asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I asked whether she knew of a good novel to recommend. She promptly handed me a book. I flipped through it, but was unimpressed. I politely told her that it didn’t look like my type of thing. Gently replacing it on the shelf, I asked whether she had another recommendation.

That was when she noticed that I was carrying a book by Hafiz, and visibly changed her expression.

“I don’t normally recommend this one to people,” she said in a lower voice, plucking a different book off a different shelf. “It’s not for everyone. But you might like it. I highly recommend it. It’s different.”

Despite feeling as if I had entered the bookseller’s inner circle, I was again skeptical. The visual aspects of the book were unimpressive. But something about it did, indeed, seem to be different. So I bought it.

Modern Art, Modern Love

The Museum of Modern Love, by Heather Rose, is a novel based on real events and featuring both real people and fictional characters. It’s about the performance artist Marina Abramović and her 2010 performance at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City called The Artist Is Present.

In The Artist Is Present, Abramović sits in the museum all day, for several months. Visitors are invited to sit across a table from her and stare into her eyes, for as little or as long as they would like, until the museum closes for the day. Yes, a real person really did this. What astounding stamina it must’ve taken!

Rose weaves an incredible (fictional) story around this incredible (real) story, telling both stories simultaneously, and bringing them together masterfully throughout, and especially at the end. (I love the end of this book!) This is a novel about what it means to look into someone’s eyes, what it means to be close to someone, what it means to love a person and/or life itself, what it means to be an artist, and what it means to perform the artistry of living your own (seemingly) ordinary life.

Performance Art: Do You Get It? Or Is It Weird and Boring?

When I first started reading the book, I remained skeptical. The book was strange. The first chapter was strange. And also a bit boring. The sentences were plain, plain, plain. For example, here’s how chapter 1 ends:

“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.”

Sentences can’t get more plain than that. At first, I was frustrated, wanting the sentences to sing a bit more. But then it hit me: the plainness is the whole point!

When Abramović was sitting across from museum visitors, she was precisely not singing or talking or dancing or painting or doing anything resembling conventional art. She was living in the moment, experiencing another human being’s presence. She was transforming life into a performative art.

And so this novel does not try to wow you with its beauty. It just is. And the more I read, the more I realized that the novel has an extremely deep artistry to it. Even those two “boring” sentences above bring with them layers of meaning, which are too complex for me to explain in this blog post.

Mixed Reviews

This explains the novel’s mixed reviews—not to mention the mixed reviews of performance art in general. It explains the bookseller’s hesitance to recommend it to me, despite clearly being a fan herself.

For example, this reviewer writes about her disappointment in the novel: “The details fell flat,” she writes. “I wanted to get closer to the characters and deeper into their psyches.”

But one of the points of The Artist Is Present is that it’s impossible to get close to anyone through language alone. You think you’re close to someone? Are you sure you are, or is it a farce, a trick of nature? Might you feel closer to Abramović by staring into her eyes for an hour, than you have to anyone else in your life for the past decade?

Performance art opens our eyes to the fact that life, in all its beauty and pain and ordinariness, is something happening right now, every second, even all of the simple, uneventful ones. Rose gets that. Her artistic choice to keep the language of the novel unadorned was sound.

Other readers were enthusiastic, such as this reviewer at NPR.com, who praises Rose as follows:

“My guess is that you’ve never read a book quite like Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. I know I haven’t. This is the Australian author’s seventh novel, though it’s her first published in the United States, and it’s a real find. . . . Rose, who lives on the island of Tasmania, displays a deep appreciation of art and a deft ability to blend fact, fiction, abstract ideas, and sentiment.”

The Art of Writing a Novel

I started to love the novel only after reading a few chapters. But then Rose won me over completely. I was even more impressed when I reached the end of the book.

And I was impressed again yesterday, when I visited MoMA’s web page on the exhibition. Wow—all the photos on that page are exactly how I envisioned the scene while reading the novel. Rose does an amazing job of accurately describing the exhibition in words. This is very difficult to do. Only the best writers can pull it off. Everything I saw in the photos on the web page was already visually in my mind: Abramović sitting at the table with a visitor, surrounded by an empty square space, surrounded by spectators; the naked performance artists staring into each other’s eyes and blocking doorways; the retrospective images of shockingly raw prior performances by Abramović.

The performance is over; we can no longer go to MoMA and stare into Abramović’s eyes. But we can read The Museum of Modern Love.

Are you present?

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