Out of the Box, on The Square (dir. Ruben Östlund)

— Jason Simon


To research The Square (2017), Ruben Östlund met with Moderna Museet
director Daniel Birnbaum over the course of a year. The film revels in the
understanding that Östlund and his lead actor, Claes Bang, have a full command
of contemporary art’s institutional and cultural short-hand. The Square
has become a must-see for art world familiars and has struck deep nerves, both
pro and con, in that part of this audience at least. The range of all-too-recognizable
types and situations invites a reflexive weighing of one’s own responses:
a queasy ambivalence melting into pleasure at being won over by the film’s
sly wit. That the film feels so accurate and so cynical at the same time brings
on a kind of loathing admiration for its truly rare comedy.
The Square is a strange sort of legacy of Birnbaum’s intellectual era: it
is both a dark satire and a critically celebrated work of popular cinema that
milks the museum for all its blind vanities. The artworks, the titles, and the
professional motivations and tasks woven into the plot are mostly utterly
plausible—even if the dramatic choices are not. The opening speeches, the
guest chef of the buffet dinner, a sweaty and exuberant dance party where
the museum staff party harder than all the guests, are uncannily familiar and
deftly portrayed. In return for such fidelity, the Cannes jury, under the leadership
of Pedro Almodóvar (no stranger to comedic portraiture without caricature),
awarded Östlund the Palme d’Or. When a singular self-critical satire
breaks through and wins wide recognition, the Cannes Film Festival’s highest
award no less, we can feel relief that the genre persists at all. Irony has been
proclaimed dead, but at least satire still lives. And like shooting fish in a barrel,
the art world has reliably provided fodder for this since at least Daumier.
Caricatures of connoisseurship, aesthetic snobbery, and creation-in-isolation
are reliable comic types that also position the paying audience squarely at the
opposite to this, on the side of the distracted collectivity entertained by popular
movies. So why did Birnbaum agree to do it?
The turning point of the film, also depicted on the movie poster, is a
museum gala dinner performance by an artist named Oleg who enacts a
dominant great ape. All howls, grunts, and muscles, he intimidates and cows
his audience, banishes the competing artist Julian (played by Dominic West
dressed in formal pajamas, such as those of his namesake, Julian Schnabel),
and initiates a rape that awakens the tuxedoed crowd to violence and passionate
cries of “Kill him!” The scene’s visceral force is thanks to actor Terry
Notary. In real life, Notary is a professional ape actor for the film industry.
Notary’s movie-magic gorilla skills are not hidden here as they usually are,
behind a motion-capture CGI mask and bodysuit, but fully revealed as the
fictional art practice of Oleg. Being able to imitate an ape at the skill level
of big-budget movies is manifestly an artistic practice, albeit one that turns
vicious at the X-Royal gala, biting the hands that feed it. The scene is a long
and tense tour de force of discomfort and signals the beginning of the end for
the lead character Christian (played by Claes Bang), the museum’s director
and chief curator. It hinges on Östlund exploiting a slippage between fine art
and cinema, as embodied by Oleg/Notary, while displaying the contemporary
art practices in The Square as empty totems.
Östlund’s slowed down dramatic and directorial style ruthlessly scrutinizes
his characters and has been compared to masters of the pre-digital era
of film making. Here, it purposefully seems to recall Michael Haneke’s Caché
(2005). Like Oleg’s video installation that we later see projected in the X-Royal
Museum, big screens enact a new set of privileges across institutional boundaries,
including Östlund’s. Digital cinema has brought back the style of the
observational, in comedy and video art alike, for our golden age of scripted
content. Limited only by time and digital storage instead of the old, anxious making
film stock and lab costs, big screens and long takes now signal the
overlap of cinema with video art installation that is the literal and figurative
terrain of The Square. Small and mobile screens, by contrast, are for the rapid fire
editing of collages of text and sound over a pixel-textured image, like the
museum’s disastrous promotional YouTube video. Throughout The Square,
despite the attention to what is shown, it is the inability to say what is meant,
to say what is apparent, that is just about every character’s funniest undoing:
when museums are full to bursting with media, the crisis of the museum is
a crisis of content.
An Argentine sociologist and artist named Lola Arias is the author of the
film’s eponymous artwork, yet her character is entirely absent throughout.
In allegorical fashion, Christian is continuously made to stand within and
for Arias’s work: to enact its humane and civic goals, to teach its charitable
principles, and to embody its beauty with his fashion-model appearance. He
fails at almost every turn, usually without knowing it. The subject of satire
is always more or less allegorical, suspended between signifiers, and in this
case, something like being pinched between the corrosively familiar and hopelessly
aspirational. Making these mishaps a particular misfortune of masculinity
is a forte of Östlund’s. His previous feature, Force Majeure (2014), is a
more convincing take on the bungling capacity of privileged men oblivious
to the wreckage of their behaviors and motives. In that film, a young family
on a ski holiday has to survive its naive patriarch’s crisis of cowardice. But in
The Square, the man at the center of the story is alone—a symptom of the art
world that Östlund’s film, too, cannot do without.
No one is ever the villain of their own narrative—a blind spot that is fertile
ground for satire. My own implicated queasiness about the film is well
accounted for by Östlund and perhaps even risks satirizing myself. As a type,
I can object to the film’s cynicism; I can ask, do we need to be reminded, over
and over, that contemporary art is a playground of the cluelessly rich and
their underpaid, over-educated sycophants and content providers? Whether
this film and our current art world deserve each other or not is a zero-sum
debate. In that sense, Östlund’s farce is complete, and in the larger scheme
we can be happy to have a satire challenging such sacred cows and winning
prizes for it. Trump doesn’t laugh, and that alone may be reason to champion
the genre, if not the film. The Square is full of little ruins of liberal intention,
and they hang in the air like the art in the museum. In early droll moments,
care lapses into neglect, restitution turns to abuse, restoration to destruction,
and shared sentiments are inverted by strangers and hucksters alike. These
events build in the background like choral rounds until they materialize in the
form of panhandlers and the homeless who populate Christian’s daily routes
through Stockholm: the art that breaks the social contract; the noble immigré
who exposes Christian’s lies and bigotry. This last is an adolescent played by
Elijandro Edouard, who lives in the tough suburbs and swears to “make chaos”
for Christian—and succeeds. By this point the film has left the museum, and
it will never return. Social forces have overtaken the art, the art curator, and
the comedy, and we can only gape at Christian alongside his daughters and
wonder what will become of him, without art, without jokes.

▲ Back to top ◄ BACK TO CONTENTS / MAY #19

► From the same author
On the exhibition “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” at the MET, New York in May #13