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Rights, obligations and the art of caring

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The Square (MA). Director: Ruben Östlund. Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary. 151 minutes

Elisabeth Moss in The SquareLast year Brooklyn Museum of Art held an exhibition of radical 20th century works by American women of colour. The radicalism ranged from overt (the sculpted head of a black man framed by a metal hoop styled as a gun sight) to subtle: Elizabeth A. Sackler's The Hole Truth is a vast but innocuous looking mural that reveals itself up close as a collage of countless hole-punched confetti, produced by the artist by hand in an implicit commentary on women's labour.

The exhibit was titled 'We Wanted a Revolution', and the very act of producing the art in an era when women — let alone black women — were expected to expend their labour largely within the home, constituted a large part of said revolution. 'For me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio, is a political act,' said Emma Amos, the Atlanta, Georgia-born painter of the self-portrait Flower Sniffer (1966). Her words provided a thematic lynchpin for the exhibit.

But curating is about much more than putting artworks in a room. The narrative constructed by the Brooklyn curators of 'We Wanted a Revolution' was deepened and enlivened by its colocation with the long-term installation The Dinner Party. Judy Chicago's 1970s creation is a spectacular, powerful piece of Second Wave feminist art, that has long been noted for its white, middle-class preoccupations. Here the two exhibits sat side-by-side, in terse, illuminating dialogue.

All of which sheds light on the plight of Christian (Bang), the central figure of Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund's strange and captivating art-world farce The Square. Christian, chief curator of a prestigious Stockholm museum, is on the cusp of launching a new exhibit titled The Square, tasked with synthesising the artist's intentions with a curatorial and promotional narrative that will speak to the public and serve the museum's commercial and reputational imperatives.

Yet for Christian, there is a cognitive dissonance between the artwork's socio-political intent and the way he exists within the world around him. The work is accompanied by a statement by the artist: 'The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.' The film sees Christian confront a series of professional and personal challenges that entail weighing his own rights and obligations. Frequently the former is ascendant.

Consider his careless treatment of Anne (Moss, pictured), an American journalist and potential sexual conquest; Christian openly identifies the power that attends his own wealth and profile as the defining characteristic of their attraction. Equally telling is a recurring motif in the film wherein the pleas of urban beggars are casually declined, including by Christian; at one point he returns to one of these rebuffed beggars moments later to plead assistance with a problem of his own.


"It takes an excruciatingly long time, yet the switch, when it does happen, from bystander effect to mob violence is shockingly abrupt."


The ways in which Östlund explores this theme are many and varied. Early in the film, Christian is robbed — ironically, as a direct result of his stopping to help a stranger. However the lengths to which he goes to assert his right to retrieve his stolen property have unforeseen consequences — unpacked humorously and later tragically — that constitute a gross failure to recognise the diverse and complicated humanity of those outside his own elevated social sphere.

Elsewhere, an extended, increasingly surreal sequence sees presumably wealthy guests at a gala dinner terrorised by a man (Notary) pretending to be a wild ape. The decidedly Brechtian art performance builds from discomfiting to outright sadistic, as if to test at what point onlookers will eschew self-preservation and intervene on others' behalf. It takes an excruciatingly long time, yet the switch, when it does happen, from bystander effect to mob violence is shockingly abrupt.

As The Square drifts dreamlike between its narrative threads, its relevance to concrete reality is hammered hard. Near the end, Christian fronts a press conference prompted by a tasteless viral video promoting The Square. When a question about solidarity with the vulnerable is overwhelmed by a journalist pontificating about free speech, Christian manages the mumbled insight that free speech comes with obligations. Maybe he has learnt something after all.

Underlying all of this is the perennial question of what constitutes art. The piece at the heart of the film, after all, is literally an illuminated four-metre square on the ground. Christian asks Anne at one point, if he placed her handbag on the floor of a gallery, would that make it art? The simplistic answer is no; art's significance requires a number of factors, including the artist's skill, labour and intention, and the way in which a work is 'read' by critics and audience.

In the case of museum exhibits, it comes also from the narrative elicited by each work's placement relative to other works. This will be effective to the extent that curators understand the works they are presenting; the Brooklyn curators surely knew what they were doing when they placed 'We Wanted a Revolution' adjacent to The Dinner Party. By contrast, while Christian can explain The Square intellectually, in missing its resonance for real life, he misses the very point.



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Square, Ruben Östlund, Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West



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Existing comments

Tim, your review as usual was spot on. And you didn't give away any spoilers. Ostlund created a provocative film. Some of these thoughtful directors help highlight the gap between our stated principles and the actual way we live in today's world. A memorable , enriching film.Can't wait till you review Mary Magdalene, which a group of us viewed for International Women's Day.

Celia | 08 March 2018  

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