In 2010, the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović spent more than 700 hours sitting motionless in a chair at the Museum of Modern Art. For 11 weeks, every day the museum was open, visitors were invited to sit across from her, for as long as they wished, and gaze into her eyes. Some 1,400 people participated, including the Australian author Heather Rose.
The experience “transported” her, Rose said, and led to her 2016 novel, “The Museum of Modern Love,” being published now in the United States for the first time. Much like the exhibit that inspired it, the book is intensely introspective. It acts as both a compassionate biography of Abramovic and a probing look at the nature of art, love and humanity.
At the center of the story is Arky Levin, a composer whose wife of 24 years has a genetic disease that has left her isolated and unresponsive. Unable to visit her because of a court order she took out, Levin becomes obsessed with Abramović’s exhibit. The legally enforced separation is an odd plot device, but otherwise Levin’s struggle with solitude and creativity works well through the lens of the exhibit.
More interesting are the ancillary characters who float in and out of both the exhibit and Levin’s life — the Southern widow who is trying to move on, the Dutch PhD student who wants to be seen, the chanteuse who collaborates with Levin, and the novel’s ostensible narrator, a sort of muse or angel or historical spirit of art.
The book asks more questions than it answers, but it never tries to do too much, staying within the extended metaphor of an artist — Levin, Abramović, Rose — trying to engage with family or an audience or a reader, for however long a time they have together.