You think modern art is pretentious? You’ll love ‘The Square’
Words by Amy Wakeham
Ruben Östlund’s new movie tackles hypocrisy, egotism and social responsibility in the contemporary art world
Ruben Östlund, writer and director of The Square, doesn’t want you to feel comfortable in your seat. His new film, which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a masterpiece of awkwardness, misunderstandings and missed messages; it explores everything from art and sex to the meaning of money.
His bizarre (but brilliantly observed) narrative follows the curator of a gallery in Stockholm, Christian (Claes Bang) as he attempts to publicise a new installation – an empty cobbled square laid out in the gallery’s front courtyard – a mini utopia that’s ‘a sanctuary of trust and caring… within it we all share equal rights and obligations.’
The film knowingly presents Christian as everything that’s wrong with the modern art scene. He’s smug, privileged and out of touch, with an air of intellectual superiority that’s both infuriating and all too recognisable. To break his character down, the film poses playful questions the relevance of contemporary art; an American journalist named Anne (Elisabeth Moss) questions Christian’s nonsensical vocabulary and his choice of exhibits – heaps of gravel ‘created’ by pretentious artist Julian (Dominic West).
Even so, it’s when art starts intersecting with the world outside the gallery that The Square gets really interesting. Christian hosts a Q&A with Julian that descends into farce when an audience member with Tourettes interrupts. The museum’s comms team create a offensive campaign (involving a depiction of homeless teenagers being blown up) to PR the gallery. The performance of an artist (played by motion capture expert Terry Notary of Planet of the Apes fame) imitating a chimp at a gala dinner descends into a riot. These surreal scenes do a savage job of satirising today’s corporate art world, warts and all. Östlund digs his heels in, portraying modern art institutions as fixated with money, prestige and saving face. Plotlines following Christian’s life outside the gallery also raise issues around social responsibility and personal insecurity.
Alongside Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman – which was also nominated for an Oscar – The Square is a foreign film that tackles subjects that Hollywood has largely avoided in recent years. As a satirical portrayal of today’s art world it’s achingly funny, but as a take on Western culture it hits uncomfortably close to the bone. While Östlund doesn’t answer any of the questions he poses in The Square, the film – like all good works of art – leaves you thinking.