In 2010, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović completed one of her most famous performances, The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where she sat still and silent opposite an empty chair in which audience members were invited to sit and stare at her. The work ran from March to May and garnered responses from art critics, celebrities, and ordinary people from all over the world. The Stella Prize winning novel by Heather Rose, now adapted for the stage, imagines the lives of some of the audience members to Abramović’s performance and the impact it had on them.
Arky (Julian Garner) is a composer and is struggling to deal with his wife Lydia (Tara Morice) dying in a distant facility without him at her request. He has withdrawn into his work in an effort to honour Lydia’s request but that means also abandoning the other people in his life like his daughter Alice (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) and his old friend Hal (Jennifer Rani). At MoMA, Arky meets Jane (Sophie Gregg), an art teacher visiting New York after the death of her husband, who has her life shaken up by Abramović and the people who flock to see her. The performance seems to spark disruption all around it as the characters read in to the symbolism of their encounters and go on to change their lives because of it. The Museum of Modern Love centres art in its story but incorporates the many spiralling emotions and experiences bound up in art like love, connection, meaning, and the ever-looming death.
Tom Holloway’s adaptation is faithful to the original narrative with interlocking storylines converging in the gallery. The many different responses to art are represented in the characters from the idoliser to the cynic and they carry the discussion of the meaning of art; art as evocation, provocation, or indulgence. With the script, director Tim Jones did well to add equal weight to the characters whose stories were alongside Arky and Lydia to generate a sense of range and depth of experience in the production. The scenes that glimpsed other lives like the spat between Hal and Arnold (Glenn Hazeldine) or Jane’s intense conversation with a PhD student (Aileen Huynh) were rich in their own right and added interesting colour to Arky’s personal pains.
The performances were arresting for their strong commitment to even the passing chatter of unnamed audience members. Love, death, art are huge concepts that the actors carried with both deference and lightness as the scene demanded. Arky was insufferable, relying on absolutes to excuse his behaviour, and Garner played him as appropriately unself-aware. On the other hand, the elegance of Lydia and Hal was beautifully balanced by Morice and Rani as they navigated a world that expects them to doubt themselves. Gregg and Hazeldine’s characters provided welcome comic relief for very different reasons but the humility of Gregg’s Jane and the vulnerability of her curiosity was refreshing amongst the artsy know-it-alls.
Unsurprisingly, a stage adaptation allows different avenues to explore performance and visual art than the original novel; namely, the production design. The set, designed by Stephen Curtis, mimicked that of The Artist Is Present with a taped-off space in the centre, large light-reflecting panels, and empty chairs around the perimeter that the actors used to both perform and watch the performance. Projected onto the back wall was a continuous slideshow of portraits, designed by David Bergman, that recreated the full-frontal stare of sitting with Abramović. In the final moments, this converted to a live feed of Arky and Lydia working up the strength to finally really look at each other. The symbolism of the gaze was integral to the production design as it represented in realtime the considerations of art, watching, seeing, looking, understanding that the play evokes. In the staging, the act of watching became meta-referential as the actors, while “watching” Abramović, were turned outwards to face the audience; an audience watching another audience, two different types of performances. This process of looking, handed off from Abramović to Rose to Holloway to Jones to the actors and finally landing on the audience, had a confronting implication of seeing, connecting, and understanding, or the failure to do so, which underpinned the production’s tense interpersonal relationships.
The Museum of Modern Love challenged art consumers, whether books, music, visual art, or theatre, with the question, what are you watching? And more importantly, what are you seeing? The answers might change your perspective forever.
The Museum of Modern Love is running at Seymour Centre from January 22nd – 30th
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