In Ruben Östlund's satire The Square, the hermetic grid of the contemporary art museum, its ultra-modern halls, its white cubes and black, are revealed to contain and represent the vast, interlocking system of privilege. The inclusive realm of the film's crux, the artwork ‘The Square', is spatially contracted, a demarcated empty space in which people are encouraged to help each other. A hopeful microcosm of society, the work's plaque declares itself to be a ‘sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations'.
One square is contained within the other, the museum allows art to be displayed within its confines; Östlund makes it clear that art and artists cannot be considered apart from the cash nexus of donors, dealers, curators, and visitors. They take a mostly bland and nerveless view of ‘The Square', until the museum becomes implicated in a baldly provocative digital marketing campaign gone disastrously awry. The campaign's video, playing on our everyday neglect of homeless people, acquires hundreds of thousands of views across the world in hours; one of the only instances of boundary-crossing that Östlund shows art to effect.
This PR catastrophe is the consequence of neglect at the hands of the well-suited, relentlessly polite chief curator Christian (Claes Bang): after his phone and wallet are pickpocketed in a dramatic stunt – the setting a square in central Stockholm – he becomes exhilarated and consumed by a Ballardian obsession with the threat of violence and cross-class encounters, mostly with the residents of the block of flats to which he traces the stolen items.
The chain reaction of chaotic events which Christian engenders is the chain reaction of what we could call the second body – a term used by writer Daisy Hildyard in an ecological context to describe the effects of our individual actions on the global environment. Similarly, it is the second body of social privilege and power in which Östlund is interested: in an interview with Frieze, he said that ‘I wanted [Christian] to be controlled by the position he has in the system…I never consider the characters other than in terms of the social position they find themselves in'. His alignment of Christian's identity with his interiority is cold, thrilling and empathetic, as his white, be-suited body collides with the world around him.
The message of The Square haunts Christian's attempt to tighten his grip on his identity – his authority, his privilege – as it becomes exposed and ever-more precarious due to his own actions, including the small moments of complacency which reveal the contingency of his compassion and narrow the gap between subject and audience. It is in these episodes, such as Christian's kindness to a homeless woman only when life is going well for him, the brutally indifferent exchanges between those inside and those outside, that it is easiest to see ourselves.
Östlund takes a refreshingly brazen approach to the relationship between film and audience. His address is predicated on confident foreknowledge of those whom he interrogates and implicates: that the majority will be liberal, white and self-styled cultured, whether they're at the Curzon or at Cannes. Such is the especially rarefied nature of the latter audience, that the screening of The Square at the festival – where it won the Palme D'Or – had, as Dennis Lim wrote in Artforum, a ‘site-specific mise en abyme effect'.
It is this merciless, and sometimes sympathetic, exposure of the hypocrisies of the audience that gives the film its disturbing power, rather than the moments of shock which propel the narrative: they're figured as instances of intrusion, which aren't startlingly original in the message that they convey, just startling, and often uneasily visually appealing, downplayed and heightened by the film's brilliant visual formalism. Östlund's overlapping networks of squares figurative and literal, inclusive and exclusive, are contained and glossed by a menacingly clean style. Shooting on digital here does not feel like convention, but an absolutely correct medium: there is a fitting surface slickness to the white cube and to Stockholm, here a homogenous city of 7-Elevens.
The same, almost indifferent patina blankets the curators' cups of cold brew, the men's luxuriant ponytails, an opulent donors' dinner turned terrifying, an underground carpark at night, and the postures of the homeless in distress, which leads to a disquieting sense that shock and apathy are being levelled, cancelled out. This is the central pull of The Square – the attempts at provocation, the noisy clashes between artist and audience, elite and poor, remain mere noise.
The Square is released on the 16th March 2018.
Words by Charlotte Palmer.
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