Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Book Review: "The Museum of Modern Love" by Heather Rose

Fans of 80s music, do you remember Hall & Oates' song, "Method of Modern Love"? The one that went, "M-E-T-H-O-D O-F L-O-V-E. It's the method of modern love..."? Because of a slightly similar title to this book (and nothing else), I couldn't get that song out of my head the entire time I read this! (I'm sure those of you who aren't familiar with the song are wondering what the hell I'm talking about.)

Pardon my digression.

Art fascinates me. While I tend to be a fairly literal person when it comes to art I enjoy (although I'm a sucker for Georges Seurat's pointillism), I'm always amazed by how differently people can interpret the same work of art. And that's not even taking performance art into consideration, which is a whole different jar of paint. (I was trying to go with an arty metaphor.)

Arky Levin is a musician who composes film scores, but he's hit a rough patch. His wife's unexpected departure has left him time to work, but he cannot seem to make any progress, so he decides to visit the Museum of Modern Art as a diversion.

"Levin was ready for something big. What was the point of turning fifty if you weren't ready to peak?"

At the museum he stumbles on an exhibit that he cannot get out of his mind. Visitors sit across a table from the performance artist Marina Abramović, without saying a word. (This is based on Abramović's real installation in 2010.) They can sit for as long or as little as they like; they can stare directly at the artist, glance at her shyly, or do whatever they choose. Some cry, some beseech the artist for some silent words of encouragement or strength, some simply enjoy being part of an art installation.

While the people who participate in the exhibit find themselves inexplicably changed, so do those simply viewing it. Arky is fascinated by the installation, and becomes one of a number of museum-goers who return day after day, simply to watch the parade of people sitting across from the artist. As he builds connections with his fellow observers, reflects upon his troubling relationship with his wife, and thinks about his work, he, too, starts to feel changed, as if somehow the exhibit is helping him through osmosis of some kind.

"Art is really a sort of sport. To master the leap is essential. It is the game of the leap. Practice, practice, practice, then leap. The starting point may be different for each, but the goal is the same. Do something worthwhile before you die."

The Museum of Modern Love is certainly a commentary about art and its effects on the viewers, the artist, and the participants, but more than that, this is a book about connection, human connection, and how much we hunger to be seen, heard, and viewed as relevant, as worthy. Of course, as the title suggests, this is also a book about love, and how we are changed by both its presence and its absence.

This was a tremendously thought-provoking book with many layers. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I started it, and my expectations kept changing as I read it. There are a lot of characters, and at times, the alternating of perspectives (as well as the shifting of time in Arky's recollections of his relationship with his wife) felt a bit confusing. But just like the way your perceptions change if you stare too long at a painting, the book's complexities kept revealing themselves.

Performance art isn't for everyone, and this book won't be either. But Heather Rose does a masterful job at creating such a unique story, anchored by some fascinating characters.

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