From Artworld Punchline to Real-World Parable: Ruben Östlund’s “The Square”

Ruben Östlund's "The Square," 2017.
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The degree to which contemporary culture understands (or fails to understand) “The Art World” can be measured in how it gets portrayed in film and television. The artworld is often depicted in caricatures and well-worn stereotypes. By these measures, contemporary art is fatuous, morbidly dense, inscrutable; wasteful and pompous; full of grandiose, silly ideas; and populated by headline-grabbing, exposure-craving greedheads – shady personages and unsavory characters with a degenerate world-view. As with most stereotypes, half-truths that resonate in small doses become distorted by the camera lens.

Of course, filmmakers are artists, too. But a film doesn’t always behave as contemporary art. Art film can be formal, it can be funny, it can even use narrative. It can appropriate tropes from popcorn-film genres like sci-fi (the films of artist Melanie Gilligan; or Craig Baldwin‘s brilliant cine-collage film Mock Up on Mu come to mind) or horror (Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein), but this appropriation is often where the similarities end. And so, the invisible lines of misunderstanding or fear that stand between the worlds of cinema/pop culture and art could be best described by George Bernard Shaw’s pronouncement of America and England: “two countries separated by the same language.” Out of the murky realm between these monumental states emerges a film that bridges the divide: Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017).

Bearing as its title the derogatory slur that gets lobbed by artists at anyone who pays their taxes on time, The Square begins, appropriately enough, in a town square, where the finishing touches are being made to a relational-art installation. The eponymously-named work is the season’s main event at a Stockholm contemporary art museum – and a clear nod to London’s Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth Project, which put the work of artists like Mark Wallinger (Ecce Homo, 1999) and David Shrigley (Really Good, 2016) in direct contact with the public. The film’s installation performs a sociological experiment framed in an all-too-familiar, vaguely “Up with People” kind of way. The camera zooms in on a plaque that reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” The remainder of the film gleefully preoccupies itself with ripping this phrase’s unifying wisdom apart.

Like Östlund’s previous film, the alpine and comically tense Force Majeure (2014), the action in The Square is propelled by a startling, disruptive event. In both films, this jolt tests the mettle of a privileged protagonist, whose loyalty and sense of order are all but obliterated. In place of the previous film’s “act of god” catalyst, it’s an unlikely bit of social legerdemain that sets the plot in motion.

The Square revolves around the fortunes of Christian, the head curator at the Stockholm museum. He’s the posterboy for “The Rise of The Creative Class”: self-absorbed, driving the latest sports car, glued to his iPhone; conveniently divorced, with two children positioned like accessories. On his way to work, Christian is conned by some common criminals into believing that he’d helped someone in distress, which has him brimming with adrenaline and high-fiving strangers, and feeling a sudden closeness with “The People.” However, after exchanging congratulations and warm goodbyes, he realizes his cosmic collision was nothing more than a dupe: his wallet and phone are now missing.

As is typical of filmic portrayals of the artworld, The Square is populated with flat archetypes. But where other portrayals might stop, Östlund introduces complexity. There’s the art critic/journalist who queries Christian’s artspeak until it collapses into itself. However, pushing beyond the beloved (even cathartic) trope of interrogating “International Art English,” our inquisitor later shows herself to be an unreliable stand-in for our own skepticism – proving herself to be just as self-serving and skewed as her subjects. The Square performs as a comedy of manners that descends into something more trenchant and diseased. It seems to say, beneath the codified rites and gestures lies a seething want, a bottomlessness that propels our most powerful protagonists.

Ruben Östlund’s “The Square,” 2017 (still).

The Square performs a world in which the wanton barbarity of its characters renders them unsympathetic. It sets up a system of differences between the well-to-do, the ne’er-do-well and the destitute. This divisions are structural; they can be expressed in practical terms as a series of dichotomies (the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the educated and the illiterate), and here they are used to great effect, forcing the viewer to compare and contrast.

Writer-director Östlund brilliantly achieves these juxtapositions not just in his script, but through his production design and artistic direction. The lavishness of the museum is posed against the sketchiness of 7-Eleven interiors. A climactic sequence, featuring numerous wide-angle shots of the Rococo-style museum (an extremely costly exercise in film) is opulent in its approach; meanwhile the beggars, the poor, the discarded denizens of scuzzier environs, are all rendered in claustrophobic close-up.

Östlund foregrounds the divide between rich and poor in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet by contrasting the “street” characters that Christian meets on his quest to recuperate his stolen property with the well-heeled aristocracy of donors, museum directors, “blue chip” artists, cranky critics, and hipster upstarts.

Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in “The Square,” 2017.

 

But this class divide resists, again, an easy reduction. Östlund’s cast of characters achieve their status not by the size of their holdings, but by their relation to labor. As Ben Davis explains in his 9.5 Theses On Art and Class (2015): “The paradoxes … resolve themselves if you accept that class position relates not to how much one happens to be paid but to the kind of labor  one does and how it relates to the economy. The working class is distinguished from the middle class not by how its members have more modest houses or watch different TV shows but by the level of authority they have over the conditions of their own work.”

What Östlund exposes in the seething threat of violence that bubbles beneath every scene in The Square, is a systemic violence. In each aspect of quotidian life in the so-called Developed World, this violence tends to be well-defined, but seldom acutely felt. It’s glossed over even as its urgency gathers. We repress it, convinced that science, technology, and wealth are an impenetrable bulwark against its devastating force. It isn’t until this systemic violence explodes in the form of acute, subjectively-experienced violence that we become painfully aware of it. Slavoj Zizek describes this as “the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.”

Östlund forces us to see: to look askance at the fissures that limn the “creative class,” and account for its complicity. The Square realizes that in manifold ways – both literal and structural, felt and received. The threat of serious bodily harm lurks in the shadows and the subtext of most scenes: the portentous pinging of Christian’s phone from within a ghettoized tenement building; the chaos a little boy promises Christian if he does not give in to his repeated requests for a simple apology. The film’s threats of violence take on absurdist dimensions, too: a chimpanzee roams through an otherwise patrician apartment, and never gets explained. A performance artist crosses a line. A man with Tourette syndrome repeatedly interrupts an artist talk with shouted words like “cunt.”

The film’s unraveling denouement is a tense pleasure to observe: for instance, our protagonist absentmindedly greenlights a social-media campaign pitched by two “cyber hipsters” who have conceived of a short, baiting video featuring a little beggar girl being literally blown up inside The Square. It goes viral, inciting an onslaught of vitriol towards the museum for its insensitivity to the plight of the poor. In the ensuing media maelstrom Christian is tossed about like a dinghy in a storm. During a press conference, he’s alternately accused of being callous and of bending too willingly to the wishes of a tyrannical, censorious establishment. The board of directors summarily ousts Christian from his post.

“The Square,” 2017 (still).

The final sequence of the film works as a coda, a sort of Apocalypse of St. John, in which we finally see the explosion that the film has been building towards for all its 150 minutes. It’s the evening of the exhibition’s big dinner, and the entertainment is a performance by an artist named Oleg, who acts like an ape. The only problem is that Oleg isn’t behaving like an ape, he is an ape (played chillingly well by Hollywood stunt man and actor Terry Notary): a fact that becomes evident when the artist enters the great hall, his arms extended like a gorilla’s by means of prosthetic crutches.

The audience is forewarned that the “beast” before them is a hunter; Oleg does justice to the warning. Chasing out one of the artists and grabbing one of the wealthy attendees by her hair, only the threat of sexual assault causes the attendees to react. They do so tentatively, at first; then, violently. As they descend on the artist, the film fades to black.

Through transposition and reversal of roles, as well as mimesis (an ape allegorically becomes a man; a man becomes an ape), we see the edges – the lands and grooves, as it were – that make up the rifling of that illusive beast, the artworld. But true to form, not everything is visible. The Square doesn’t provide an answer, but it does a wonderful job in redefining the questions, such as “if not this, then what?”

The eccentricities and protocols that pervade the cultural sphere are such that an accurate portrayal of its many complexities is well nigh impossible. It is a crucible that is inscrutable as well as hermetic. But here, by focusing on the class divides inherent to the artworld (as a stand-in for the “real” world), Östlund works an alchemy that elevates his subject from punchline to parable.

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