The Museum of Modern Love. A Collage. In Review.

There are many stories here.

1.

I have seen young women gifted beyond measure – Sofonisba Anguissola at just twenty years of age, Catharina van Hemessen too, Clara Peeters at just thirteen. All of them born before the year 1600. Seek out their paintings if you do not know them. Each had a father who understood their promise and celebrated their value. Each had a mother with talent, too, but a life of housekeeping, wifery and childrearing expected of her. So many women were neither offered nor were able to acquire paint or palette, canvas, ink, tuition, paper, time. And so we have the great imbalance.

(Excerpt from The Museum of Modern Love, 57-58)

As I read another chapter about (protagonist) Arky’s incompetence I am in a fast food restaurant and happen to notice a couple sitting down to eat. She collects his cutlery, fills his water, and directs him to a seat.

It is so typical.

I realise I am making assumptions – not least about gender – and pause to reflect on this. Experience has obscured my interpretation of this simple performance. My ears begin to burn. Frustration is a phantom limb.

As a child I remember empathising with every white male character whose wife would nag him. It took practice to appreciate the difficulty and duty of being a woman. There have been times when domestic duties monopolised my life and I’ve been guilty of blaming womanhood for my lack of creative success. But it is this frustration that allowed Heather Rose to move me. Indeed, just thinking of the red, white and gold cover of The Museum of Modern Love delivers me a special comfort/pain.

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Part of the brilliance of Rose’s work is the characterisation of Arky and his absent wife Lydia. Lydia’s illness has never made sense to her husband so when she makes the heart breaking admission that she’s too sick to stay with Arky it is both self-sacrificial and cruel. By retreating to a medical care facility and cutting him out of her life she gives him the gift of freedom to create, whilst also highlighting his failure to manage the harsh realities of life: people get sick, the groceries need to be bought, the time you take for art is often stolen from the people nearest you.

The book is broken into sections with differing points of view but I name Arky protagonist because he claims the most pages. A musician who makes soundtracks for movies, he is a sympathetic character despite his ineptitude. His struggle to make art – to make the best art – is relatable. But he is also irritating. You want to shake him: your career is over Arky, it’s time to look after your wife.

It’s incredibly difficult as a mother and as a woman to find that solitary thinking time … I think men and women equally work incredibly hard at their books, but I think that there’s more demanded of a woman’s time generally than there is of a man’s.

(Heather Rose, The Guardian)

2.

Reading this book came at a perfect(strange) time for me: shortly after finishing my honour’s year in creative writing. I had just completed the biggest (most honest?) work of my ‘career’ and was feeling its loss. Finding the time – the perfect time – to write is always difficult and working within the institution pushed me to prioritise my writing. Without the structure of weekly due dates I struggle to commit.

All artists need to learn a certain amount of selfishness in order to be able to do their work.

(Heather Rose, The Guardian)

I don’t know whether it is ever made explicit but Rose’s narrator appears to be creativity/inspiration itself. A risky move I had cause to think, as my brain made unfortunate connections to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, but Rose avoids becoming awkward or preachy. Or maybe I was just wide open and ready to receive. The prose is excellent, delicious, at its most operatic when the narrator speaks directly to the reader.

Do you see now the difficulty of my task? All that they are is stored up loud and insistent inside them. But what does it take to be an artist?  They have to listen. But do they listen? Most people are filled up with a lifetime of noise and distraction that’s hard to get past. At least that’s how it feels.

(Excerpt from The Museum of Modern Love, 257-258)

The best books are the ones that make you want to write.

3.

There is something fantastic about the very nature of the (academically?) researched creative work. Creative practice as research. I don’t know whether Rose intended this to book to have academic merit but her commitment to exploration shines through. Abramovic, A Study. Creativity, A Study. Whatever It Is, Makes You Think?

Rose’s portrayal/ exploration of Marina Abramovic is perhaps the most impressive aspect of this novel.

The first time I met Abramovic was in an episode of Sex and the City so that should give you can idea of her popularity. In fact, she’s a little ‘old hat’ I’m sure. When I mention her name to a friend I receive the valid criticism that she was never very nice to her volunteers – asking them to partake in life-threatening performances without regard for their welfare or the possibility of compensation. While it wounds my Marxist-sympathising heart to think of her as a cold hearted ‘boss’ it doesn’t surprise me. Her rendering in The Museum of Modern Love is forgiving but not saccharine.

Abramovic had once said that in theatre the blood wasn’t real. The swords weren’t real. But in performance art, everything was real. The knives cut, the whip ripped skin, the ice blocks froze flesh and the candles burned. For one piece, called Lips of Thomas, a naked Abramovic has lain on her back on huge blocks of ice forming a cross. Then she stood up and used a razor blade to slowly cut a large five-pointed star into her stomach. After each cut she ate from a kilo-jar of honey and drank from a bottle of wine. She whipped her back over and over with a cat-o’-nine tails until her skin burned a mass of red welts.

(Excerpt from The Museum of Modern Love, 79)

What does it mean to glorify Abramovic’s art? Does The Museum of Modern Love glorify her?

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Prompted by the moreish quality of the book I began researching the artist immediately. She is committed – perhaps more committed than anyone I’ve ever known – to her art. She speaks of her body as a vessel.

Her body. Though she refused to call herself a feminist artist.

She is lungs for art to breathe through.

The question then. lingers. (How) Is it possible to live that kind of life?

The body is her subject, time is her medium, and birthdays mark the moment that the performance of living officially begins.

(Judith Thurman in “Walking Through Walls”, The New York Times)

4.

Things I’ve completed since I started writing this review.

52 days

52 sunrises

52 anti-depressants

3 full moons

3 job applications

1 interview

4 tanks of fuel

4 panic attacks

38 Instagram posts

2 house applications

2 psychologist appointments

1 vet visit

2 periods

4 pay periods

5 hangovers

5.

Review: this is a good book.

This will always be unfinished. On to the next thing.

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