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Art Restores The Soul In 'Museum Of Modern Love'

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 celebrates the transformative power of art with an artful construct of her own — the profound response of a handful of fictional characters to Marina Abramovic's performance piece, The Artist is Present, in which the Serbian artist sat perfectly still and silent at a table in New York's Museum of Modern Art for a total of 736 hours over the course of the performance.

Between March 14 and May 31, 2010, more than 1000 people took turns sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic and meeting her gaze, while thousands more came to observe from the sidelines. Rose places her characters among them as the exhibit's time clock ticks down. Most are at a painful crossroads in their lives, which heightens their susceptibility to Abramovic's performance.

Even if you've never cottoned to Abramovic's transgressive, self-flagellating body of work and regard the lengths she has gone in her explorations of physical endurance and the relationship between the artist and her audience as more stunt than art, Rose's passionate take on it opens readers up to a fresh look. That said, the knife slashes, razor blades, and Great Wall of China trek make for sensational reading, but The Museum of Modern Love wouldn't work if Rose's characters and their stories weren't as compelling as her appreciative assessment of this controversial artist whose "metier [is] to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration."

Central among the novel's cast is Arky Levin, a composer of movie soundtracks and an "immensely sad" and limited — but sympathetic — human being who "didn't know how to solve anything but music." Rose writes, "It's hard to imagine a man more capable of living in his own cocoon than Levin." He loves solitude and "didn't even like living on this planet particularly."

But until 2010, Arky thought he was happily married. That's one of many assumptions he has to reassess after his beloved wife, starchitect Lydia Fiorentino, becomes gravely ill. Shortly before we meet him, Arky has learned that Lydia made advanced legal arrangements to sequester herself in a nursing home, with a court order to keep him from visiting — having long doubted his ability to care for her should her congenital illness turn critical. But their daughter and friends question Arky's willingness to abide by draconian arrangements Lydia is no longer capable of overturning. At a loss, he finds himself drawn repeatedly to Abramovic's MoMA performance.

Other characters converge with Arky as they, too, are mesmerized by Abramovic's MoMA show. Jane Miller is a recently widowed middle school art history teacher from Georgia. Brittica van der Sar is a pink-haired Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic. Healayas Breen, a beautiful black art critic and singer raised Muslim in Paris, was a former girlfriend of Arky's former musical partner — who disappointed them both when he moved on to younger composers and girlfriends. Abramovic's performance teaches each of them lessons about time and stirs a desire to catch some of her courage, daring, and resolve.

Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader.

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 that recalls Ali Smith's How to Be Both. So, too, does her willingness to venture beyond the confines of reality with an omniscient, incorporeal first person narrator — a sort of art-angel muse who spans centuries. An offbeat exploration of Abramovic's difficult relationship with her mother, whose ghost haunts the MoMA show, also evokes Smith's novel.

Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader. Her narrator remarks, "There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work. They are as waterfalls shot with sunshine." The widowed art teacher explains great art's ability to touch deeply and expose something "indescribable ... A kind of access to universal wisdom."

Amid searching but never tedious discussions about what constitutes art, and reflections on Abramovic's grueling performance, Rose posits, "Perhaps art was evolving into something to remind us of the power of reflection, even stillness." Her viewpoint is best summed up in an epigraph from Stella Adler, one of many inspirational quotes that punctuate The Museum of Modern Love: "Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one."

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.