The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose


In her acceptance speech on winning the 2017 Stella Prize (best book by an Australian woman) for this novel Tasmanian author Heather Rose (1964- ) said, “I am sure lots of you are thinking, ‘Who on earth is Heather Rose?’”. Who indeed? There have been quite a lot of reviews of The Museum of Modern Love in this corner of the blogosphere, but it still comes as a surprise, to me, to see that Rose is an established author. Her previous (adult) novels are:

The Museum of Modern Love – Allen & Unwin, 2016
The River Wife – Allen & Unwin, 2009
The Butterfly Man – University Queensland Press, 2005
White Heart – Transworld, 1999

You can see Rose’s upward trajectory in her publishers, and also in her awards: The Butterfly Man – based on the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974 – was long-listed for the IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award, shortlisted for the Nita B Kibble Award and won the 2006 Davitt Award for the Crime Fiction Novel of the Year written by an Australian woman. In 2007 Rose received the Eleanor Dark Fellowship and an Arts Tasmania Wilderness Residency for her novel The River Wife. And as well as the Stella, Rose won the 2017 Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the New South Wales Premier’s Prizes, and the 2017 Margaret Scott Prize  in the Tasmanian Premier’s Prizes for the best book by a Tasmanian author, was shortlisted for the Australian Literary Society medal and the Queensland Premier’s Prizes, and is currently long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award to be announced in 2018.

What I can’t see is any evidence that any of us were aware of her before The Museum of Modern Love. Feel free to contradict me! I have listed below the reviews that led me to immediately put this book on my TBR shelf, but searches of your sites have failed to bring up reviews of any of her earlier work. (Subsequently, Google brought up what a search on her site had not – my incompetence, I’m sure – Kim’s review of The Butterfly Man, and the fact that it is available as an audio book read by Humphrey Bower.)

The Museum of Modern Love is an observation of a performance, The Artist is Present, by Marina Abramović at MoMA, New York in 2010 during which the artist sat at a table, almost completely still, 8 hours a day for 75 days while members of the audience sat opposite her, observing her intently, for lengths of time of their own choosing. The fictional characters are Jane, a recently widowed Georgia school teacher; Arky Levin, a fiftyish composer; Healayas, a tall black woman, ‘raised Muslim in Paris”, a  TV art critic and singer; Brittika, a young Dutch woman of Chinese descent doing her PhD on Abramović; and an ‘I’ who makes an occasional appearance, a spirit who has followed Abramović throughout her life.

The writing is wonderful and if I wished that Jane’s late husband had been a Tasmanian orchardist rather than a Georgia cotton farmer then that is a minor quibble and to do with advertising Aust.Lit to the world rather than a criticism of this work or of Rose. The questions which Rose raises, and addresses, are of course ‘What is Art?’ but also, more surprisingly, ‘What are the duties of a husband?’.

The writing if not ‘experimental’ as I half expected, tells one story for a little while, then another, mixing in Jane at MoMA, meeting Arky, Arky at home, with the reactions of participants in the work, discussions, elements of Abramović’s back-story and so on, all the while steadily making its way through the 75 days, and still it is a very easy book to read, one of those novels where you are always eager for the next page.

A lot of the ‘fill’ is about Art, to the extent that it is quite often in the foreground, and Jane and Brittika and to some extent Healayas, are vehicles for that. The narrative tension is around Levin’s wife – or Levin’s inability to deal with the situation of his wife – Lydia, a wildly successful architect, and so an artist in her own right, who has an illness and then a stroke which has sent her into a coma, and she, who has managed every aspect of their married life, is now incommunicado in a nursing home in the Hamptons with a restraining order preventing him from a visiting her, and medical power of attorney vested in their med. student daughter Alice.

He has been a ‘good husband’ – though Lydia is clearly both provider and organiser – but lost in his music, often busy at times when Lydia and Alice are together. We men try hard to be good husbands and fathers, but we try in between doing other stuff, work and education and sport, while women rarely ever try, they just are. Wives and mothers is who they are first and foremost.

That’s enough about the story, which in any case, as Brona points out, is more than adequately covered elsewhere. So, what is Art? Don’t answer Art is Beauty as so many do, because then I will ask you is Romeo and Juliet Art? Of course, you will say, it is beautiful. And what about Romeo and Juliet if it was written by that roomful of monkeys with typewriters. Or if all Shakespeare was in fact electrical appliance instruction manuals written by Martians. Or I might ask is this Rembrandt Art? And what about this clever fake which looks exactly the same? Is it Art? The point is that Art is about Intention. It is the artist’s response to a discussion which has been going on for as long as we got up off all fours. Mind you Abramović has a performance titled Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful so maybe she disagrees.

So is The Artist is Present Art? As Rose illustrates in some detail, it is both a step forward in Abramović’s own artistic output and a statement in that branch of the discussion featuring, for example, Christo and Tracey Emin. The performance both tells us things about human nature which we hadn’t thought about in that way before, and is a new way of telling it.

In posts and comments we sometimes discuss portrayals of the Holocaust, and if indeed new imaginings should even be attempted (I mostly think not). Rose has this to say, talking about Abramović who was born in the former Yugoslavia and her piece Balkan Baroque (1997):

It was her own form of outrage and lament and possibly farewell to a country she had loved.

‘I am only interested in art which can change the ideology of society,’ Marina said at the ceremony to award her the Golden Lion.

Francesca understood some of that. She was German. It was enough to simply say that. She was German and nothing could take away the things that statement had come to mean since Hitler.

Rose here demonstrates, Abramović demonstrates, 800,000 visitors over 75 days demonstrate that art is important. Meanwhile Arky thinks that with his daughter away at uni his job as father is done. He will find, as do we all, that it never is. What a marvellous book!


Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2016

see also, other reviews:
Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here)
Sue at Whispering Gums (here)
Kim at Reading Matters (here), The Butterfly Man (here)
Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)
Brona at Brona’s Books (here) – also an excellent review of the artworks in TMoML

Heather Rose’s speech: “Some men are intimidated when women step into their magnificence”. Guardian 19 Apr 2017 (here)

13 thoughts on “The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose

  1. No, you’re not wrong about most of us not having reviewed her before, though at least one person did recommend her Butterfly Man on my blog a few years ago, something I’d forgotten in fact but came across it in the last week or so while I was looking for something else. It sounds well worth reading.

    And, oh no, I would never say Art is Beautiful, but it’s very hard to come up with something that encapsulates it. IN the book Jane decides that art “captures moments at the heart of life”. I rather like that, but I guess if I had to define it, I’d go wishy-washy and say that it is simply the artist’s “expression” of something important to him or her (which might relate to your idea of “intention”). It can be political, philosophical, spiritual, social, whatever. If it is JUST beautiful with no sense of expressing anything then it risks being empty. (It could of course express “beauty”.) BTW I wonder if Abramowicz’s “Art must be beautiful” performance is intended to be ironic or if it encompasses a broad meaning of beauty? (I don’t know this performance so I have not idea – just wondering based on what I have seen of her.)


    • My guess was ‘ironic’ too. It was hard to tell from the context – Arky’s daughter said it made less sense because the artist really was beautiful – and I haven’t followed up any of these performances on YouTube. But what is Art? is a great question because we all think we have the answer and they’re all different.


  2. I think you’re right about Rose’s low profile prior to MOML. And I think the answer is easy: before there were lit blogs, how did any of us know if there were Australian books longlisted for the IMPAC? We knew about winners, not runners up or nominees. And unless we were part of the literary establishment we relied on print media for reviews (and most of the ones I’m familiar with always gave precedence to US and UK lit, as they still do) and we relied on indie bookshops to let us know what was available either with catalogues or just by shelving new releases. Presumably they made their choices based on what they got from publicists.
    But now, as well as a plethora of book blogs, anyone can sign up for new releases catalogues from the major publishers, and we can get prize news from Facebook and Twitter linking us to the prizes’ websites.
    And we don’t have to rely on bricks-and-mortar booksellers. If they don’t have what we want, we can go to the major online booksellers, or direct from a publisher’s website.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My problem now, and yours too I’m sure, is that I see (and buy) too many books that I must read, though The Museum of Modern Love is probably the most ‘important’ new release novel to have sat a year on my TBR shelf – though Bloodlines, One, Doing Life, Georgina Molloy, The Art of Time Travel, Solar Bones the latest A. Roy are all clocking up months, if not years on the shelf. Still I might try Rose’s The River Wife – she says it’s her favourite and the one that sells the least.


  3. Thanks for the link Bill. As you know, I loved this book. If you get a chance, check out some of Abramović’s clips on YouTube. I was lucky enough to see a retrospective of her work a few years ago at MONA and I found it extremely compelling (sometimes in a weird and repulsive way).

    Which leads me to your question, what is art? I’m going with my immediate response – it’s something that you have an uncontrollable heart (or perhaps gut) reaction to. Which is why Abramović’s work, whilst not something I want in my lounge room, stays with me, because I had a deeply ‘felt’ reaction to it. I’m sure people do a lot of ‘thinking’ about what constitutes art but I’ll leave that to the critics and art majors. For me, it’s something that makes me pause and feel before I start thinking about why I had that reaction.


    • I was impressed by Rose’s description of the retrospective at MoMA, and would definitely go and see it if I got the chance. WA Art Gallery used to take shows from MoMA but didn’t get enough people through the doors and cancelled the connection. I like your definition of art – do you use it also to mark the difference between Literature and easy reading?


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