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A piece of art so entranced this author, she created ‘The Museum of Modern Love’

“The Museum of Modern Love” is based on a true event: In 2010, performance artist Marina Abramovic sat perfectly still and silent at a table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 736 hours while people took turns sitting in a chair opposite her and meeting her gaze. Thousands more came to observe.
“The Museum of Modern Love” is based on a true event: In 2010, performance artist Marina Abramovic sat perfectly still and silent at a table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 736 hours while people took turns sitting in a chair opposite her and meeting her gaze. Thousands more came to observe. Music Box Films

Heather Rose had a few weeks of research to do and then a book – her seventh novel – to finish writing. It seemed as simple and clinical as that.

“I was going to New York to look at a piece of art,” the Australian author says.

The winter of early 2010 had melted into spring, and renowned performance artist Maria Abramović was mesmerizing audiences at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. She sat still and silently every day for 75 days as people lined up, many for hours, to sit across from her to look into her eyes. The experience of “The Artist Is Present,” as the piece was called, proved transcendent for many.

It would be for Rose in particular. Her new novel, “The Museum of Modern Love,” revolved around Abramović, or a character based on her, and four times over her three-week stay she took a seat in the museum’s atrium and met the artist’s intense gaze. She had to see it, to feel it, herself.

Cold and clinical dissolved into something else.

“It was as if we were in an altered reality and all the sound of the people around the atrium dropped away,” Rose says of their first face-to-face encounter. “And I thought, ‘Oh, there’s something else going on here. This isn’t normal. She is emitting some kind of field of energy that I have just become a part of.’

“It was as close as I’ve come to being in some kind of a religious ceremony … as if I were transported into something other than being in the middle of MoMA. I had all these pictures and images. I can’t say they were memories; they were new images that came to me. That went on for some period of time and then, suddenly, I was returned to the present moment. And I realized it was finished.”

A shaken Rose got up and walked away. She estimated that she’d spent 12 minutes with Abramović. Checking a Flickr feed later, she discovered that it had been 46. “I could not account for that time at all,” she says, “and it happened every time I sat.”

museum of modern love

That mysticism courses through “The Museum of Modern Love.” The book, winner of Australia’s 2017 Stella Prize for “excellence in women’s writing,” imagines the impact of the Abramović exhibition on a handful of visitors who become devotees, who form a community of sorts that gathers each day at the Museum of Modern Art. One is a middle-aged film score composer tormented by a forced separation from his gravely ill wife. He befriends a recently widowed middle school art teacher from Georgia.

They, and others who fall under Abramović’s spell, discover what’s missing in their lives or courses of action they must take. Rose also digs into the career and backstory of the innovative and famously fearless artist from Serbia, now 72 and known for performance pieces that incorporate her (occasionally unclothed) body.

“The Artist Is Present” remains one of the best known and most controversial pieces of performance art ever staged, drawing more than 850,000 observers during its run from mid-March to the end of May 2010. Rose was one of 1,554 people who sat down with Abramović.

It took her 11 years and some 75 drafts to write the book, Rose’s first for adults to be published in the U.S. Her research was consuming. She studied up on art and the process of composing movie scores, on architecture and New York and Abramović herself. That, while Rose was running an ad agency – then her full-time job – and raising three children.

For five years, she says, she thought she would fictionalize Abramović. Her four sit-downs at the Museum of Modern Art changed that. The artist was too powerful a presence. She was too magnetic.

During their final encounter, Rose recalls, “I thought, ‘I want her to be a character. Maybe just telepathically, I can ask her,’ So I did. I’m sitting there at the table, and she’s sitting there and we’re doing the gaze, and I put this thought into my brain: ‘Marina, I want to include you as a character in the novel. Do you think you could be?’

“Marina would mostly sit back against her chair, and she very, very rarely moved. But she leaned right forward, and this lightning bolt seemed to go into my head. In my mind, I could hear her say to me, ‘You must do it. But you must be fearless.’ I nearly jumped out of my chair.”

The story fell into place from there, she says.

Rose, 54, recently discussed “The Museum of Modern Love” – praised by Abramović as “a profoundly original book” – and the experiences that went into it. Excerpts are edited for length.

Q: You’ve called the book “a sort of love letter to women of art and to creativity in general.” What motivated that?

A: I’ve always loved art … painting and photography, and I studied fine art in the latter of my years of my schooling. I think by the time I’d gotten to my early 40s, I’d begun to realize that the sacrifices women made for art seemed to be much greater than the sacrifices that men made for art. I don’t mean the creative process; I mean everything around the creative process. I saw as a mother of three and everything it was taking me to write my books at night – because that was when I’d write, around the edges of my life – it was a very, very difficult thing to do. I also was very aware by then that women were underrepresented in galleries and we’d had many extraordinary female artists who were never studied in our art history courses. That has been true in many, many art forms.

I think when I found my artist in the form of this Serbian I knew so little about, who had been a woman of such extraordinary courage but also with a romantic heart … there seemed to be such a lot to say about the journey a woman goes on. This was a woman who didn’t have children. In fact, by the time she got to “The Artist Is Present,” Marina’s marriage had ended only a few months before. I started to get a much deeper sense of the complicated road that women embark upon if they really want a big life’s journey and also want the things in life that we want, which are love and friendship and connection and a life of richness.

Q: You obviously believe in transformative power of art. One of your main characters, Jane, tells a man at the museum, “I think art saves people all the time.”

Author Heather Rose Courtesy of Heather Rose

A: I was a prodigious reader; I started when I was only 3. Reading saved me. And writing saved me. Here I was at the end of the world (growing up in Hobart on the Australian island of Tasmania), a curious child very much in love with my home and family and my people but also wanting to live a big life. I knew I wanted to be a writer and knew I needed to travel, but I began to understand … that I could go to galleries and understand history. And I could go to concerts and understand how that history fit in with musical history. I started to map the world through those creative forms. In a way, until I could get out and travel, which I did when I was about 19, this was a way to save my creative mind from feeling constantly as if it didn’t have enough food.

I studied drama, too, through my teenage years, and remember watching a lot of drama students. There was one in particular who was quite an unstable person in life but would get on the stage and be still and focused and dynamic, and I began to understand that art gave an outlet to people who didn’t necessarily fit into the world any other way. Art, the opportunity to be able to create, does save people over time.

You sought and got Abramović’s consent to feature her in the book. What complications come with making an actual person – a famous one at that – a central character?

When I got that permission, I was excited, of course. I can put her in the book. Oh, that will be easier. But of course, it wasn’t easier. It was excruciating, how hard it was because of the responsibility I felt to her – to her legacy, to the people around her – and the sense that I could so easily get this wrong. This was a very, very long tightrope, and it was over a very big canyon in my world. The other (fictional) characters were alive and reached for me, and I knew exactly what was going on with them. But there she was, silent in the middle of the atrium, and I had to find a way of accessing her without seeming to give her a presence that wasn’t accurate, that was in some way misguided.

How did you react, then, to Marina’s approval of the book?

I really didn’t expect her to read it because people along the way had said she might not read a novel. It just wasn’t her area of interest. But then one day not long after it was published, Giuliano (Abramović’s business director, Giuliano Argenziano) sent me a note and said, “Marina has just called me from India to tell you she loves the book, you really got it.” Then, when the American edition was coming out, she offered a quote (for the jacket): “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.” That was pretty amazing.

You finally got to meet Abramović, right?

I think it was end of 2014, in Hobart of all places. Our gallerist (at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art) is a great fan of her art, and she was brought here for a retrospective. The owner of the gallery had given me a studio for a year and a half, had read the manuscript and loved it, and said to me, “Would you read a chapter to her? Will you read a section to Marina when I’m on stage with her?” So, he got me up in the audience, and I read a chapter to Marina. It was a very strange thing because your characters don’t normally sit on a stage and listen to you read something about them.

You’ve lived an interesting life, working in different countries as a goatherd, as youth hostel manager, as chambermaid and fruit picker. Was that a matter of expanding horizons?

I got away from here as quickly as possible after Year 12 (in school). I worked a couple of jobs day and night and saved up money. Went through Asia and then across Europe, and did a lot of jobs that came up. I picked grapes and olives, and looked after a hundred goats. I worked in a five-star Swiss hotel. Went to Scotland, was a youth hostel manager on the Isle of Skye and stayed there for a summer where the sun only came out on two afternoons for a couple of hours. All the rest of the time, we had 321 variations of rain. The wonderful thing back then is there were no mobile phones. The only way you contacted anyone was by telephone, and it was very expensive as we all remember. It was solitude. I’d write and write. I kept lots and lots of journals. I had lots of adventures, met great people, went many, many places, learned lots of new skills. I knew this was, in a way, my degree toward becoming a writer. This was my form of life university.

In my 20s, I got on a plane and came out to California and bought myself a car. And I drove out to New Mexico, and then I drove north to Oregon. And I started a four-year commitment to a Native American spiritual life with a particular family and practicing a particular ceremony. The only way you were allowed into that ceremony was to make a commitment for four years, and I came back every year for four years.

You had a brush with Hunter S. Thompson. Is there a CliffsNotes version?

I’m in Aspen, probably 27 or 28, and my partner at the time was an American painter. He was friend of Hunter’s and knew I wanted to be a writer, and said, “Come on, we’re going to go up to the tavern and meet him. I really think you’d enjoy his company. If you want to be a writer, you need to meet him.”

So, he drives to the Woody Creek Tavern on this particular night, and there was Hunter and he was welcoming. My partner leaves to hang out with his friends at the bar and leaves me with Hunter, who starts to order food. And the way he orders food is he picks up a (single container of) Half & Half out of the little basket in the middle of the table, turns around and flings it with unerring accuracy at the bartender. I thought, “Oh no, this is bad!” The bartender gets hit on the side of the head, and he just turns around and looks at Hunter and signals to him that he’s received the message. The waitress comes. The food arrives. Hunter says, “Why do you want to be a writer” or some question like that, and I probably reply something like, “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s been with me my whole life. I want to be a writer.” And he starts talking.

I was 27 or 28. I had limited experience in these things, but it didn’t take me long to realize that Hunter was probably a mixture of very stoned and half drunk. He started slurring his words, and he slurred them so badly that as a girl from Tasmania … trying to listen to that accent with whatever chemicals and alcohol were in his body, I couldn’t understand him. He talked to me pretty incessantly for about an hour, and I could not understand a word he was saying.

So, you might have gotten some wonderful counsel about writing and becoming a writer, and you had no idea.

I just made out these tiny little fragments from time to time. And I said to him, “Hunter, could you slow down because I’d really like to hear what you’re saying.” Or, “Hunter, I didn’t catch that.” But it just made it worse. And he kept drinking and eating, and all this fruit kept arriving, and he kept turning around and ordering more by throwing the Half & Half. It was a kind of mad chaos. It was a bit like a strange David Cronenberg movie. If horns had started growing out of Hunter’s head and everyone else had turned into aliens, I would not have been surprised. It was that kind of experience.

Were you able to take anything away from that night other than an experience to talk about for the rest of your life?

If you are going to be a writer, you need to manage your addictions.

Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.

Join the club

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose at 6:30 p.m. March 1 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. To attend, email Stover at Rose will join the discussion from Hobart, Tasmania, via video conference.

An excerpt

(From Chapter 41 of “The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (originally published in Australia by Allen & Unwin). Here, film score composer Arky Levin sits down for the first time with real-life artist Marina Abramović as part of her performance piece “The Artist Is Present” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010.)

And then the person in front of him vacated the chair. The guard tapped him on the shoulder.

“It is time,” he said. “Maintain eye contact, do not speak. When you have finished drop your eyes. Walk away.”

Levin was crossing the square and counting to ten. He was taking a seat. The chair was fixed to the floor. He hadn’t known this until now, but that’s why everyone sat the way they did. He could not move the chair. Abramović had her eyes closed, her head lowered. He breathed. He could feel the prickling of fatigue and the same frequency of nerves that he had before the orchestra played his music for the first time.

He was acutely aware of people talking all around him. He closed his eyes and then he opened them, met Marina’s gaze, and everything stopped.