Squaring the contemporary art circle

BEIRUT: It’s after hours in a Stockholm contemporary art museum, where a fellow from housekeeping staff has driven his floor polisher into a gallery. The installation there, “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel,” is made up of identical piles of dirt arrayed on the floor. On one wall, a neon sign reads “YOU HAVE NOTHING.” The housekeeping guy finishes a circuit around the edge of the show, then pauses to peer at each gravel pile. This being a museum, the work on display must not be damaged. On the other hand, his job is to keep the museum floors spotless.

How the janitor goes about squaring that circle (imagine parallel parking on a gravel road), and the small crisis he provokes, is part of the hilarity of Ruben Oestlund’s “The Square.”

Most of the jokes and jabs skewer the contemporary art world and those who inhabit it, so the janitor’s interlude with the gravel can be read as a sort of cartoon version of what the film’s about.

The story centers on Christian (Claes Bang), a Danish art curator employed by X-Royal, a Stockholm museum located in a palace that formerly housed Swedish monarchs.

He’s preparing a big exhibition called “The Square.” The main installation is a literal square, situated in the cobblestone square outside X-Royal. Workmen are shown meticulously installing a brass plaque there, upon which is engraved: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

Rooted in a childhood experience he had with his granddad, Christian’s show seeks to provoke the public to examine individuals’ relationship with society – matters of trust, mutual respect, charity and so forth.

The audience meets him while in the midst of a long day of interviews to promote the exhibition.

Christian’s next sit-down is with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a gormless American journalist who, among her boilerplate questions, asks him to translate the description of an exhibition that she’d pulled off the museum’s website.

The description will resonate with anyone who’s entered a contemporary art show and, bewildered by what the objects or images on show mean, consult the brief essays that frequently stock exhibition guides or adorn adjacent walls.

The prose of these things can be littered with language as impenetrable as the work itself. Here, the writer goes on at some length about “the topos of exhibition/non-exhibition.”

The meaning’s straightforward when Christian describes the show in plain language. There’s little else in Christian’s life that’s straightforward – including his subsequent comic encounters with Anne.

To publicize “The Square,” Christian and his team call in a couple of hipster consultants whose work is known for going viral on social media. (The pitch sessions with these image-makers themselves offer a fine send-up of the PR trade.)

The provocative video the consultants cook up to promote X-Royal’s altruism-testing project does go viral. The hipsters are delighted.

The public is not. Neither are Christian’s employers.

“The Square” is a deliciously perceptive – not necessarily funny – lampoon of the art world and its various fetishes.

Early on, a black-clad art denizen enters the gallery and squares off to a mound of gravel with his smartphone, only to be stopped by the seated security guard, hissing, “Photos are forbidden!”

Later, at an ornate gala, well-heeled museum patrons are confronted by a performance by an artist (Terry Notary) whose lifelike mimicry of ape behavior at first elicits giggling embarrassment. Soon the actor displays the less-cute side of animal behavior, provoking fear and anger in his purportedly polite and cultured audience.

The performance ends violently, but not that of the artist.

Oestlund might have sustained an entire film on art-world satire alone, but the writer-director has chosen this world as a frame for humanistic concerns – not far removed from the themes Christian wants to explore with his exhibition.

The central plot of “The Square” explores the consequences of a theft. A trio of scam artists corrals Christian into what he thinks is an act of civic altruism, as a terrified-looking woman runs through a crowded square, pursued by a howling man. It’s actually a setup for the woman to swipe his wallet and mobile phone.

The curator has a phone tracker, so he knows the perps’ location. His assistant, Michael (Christopher Laesso), helps him concoct a letter warning the thieves he knows where they live. If they want to avoid arrest, they should return his things to a designated convenience store.

The scam artists live in a 13-story block in a not-affluent district, a threatening place teeming with immigrants and poor people.

The uncomfortable Christian and Michael must drive his Tesla there and, since they don’t know the perps’ exact location, drop a letter through the postal slot of every flat in the tower.

A convenience store employee calls Christian to say someone’s dropped a package for him. He’s astonished. It’s not exactly the model of selflessness he’d had in mind when devising “The Square,” but still a relatively painless procedure.

Then he receives a second call from the convenience store staff – from one of the other flats that got his accusatory letter – and things go pear-shaped for the curator concerned with selflessness.

Oestlund’s film has been well-received – taking the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring and included among the five titles contending for the best foreign language film Oscar. “The Square” received a one-night-only projection at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Sunday evening as part of the European Film Festival program.

There’s much to admire. The performance of the international cast is first-rate. The production design and cinematography make excellent use of the juxtaposition of monumental bling, chilly modernism and contemporary art mimicry that makes the museum something like a sentient character.

Oestlund employs the privileged enclave of contemporary art as a metaphor for the narrow worlds of self-interest that are an increasingly prevalent feature of urban life. “The Square” isn’t really about contemporary art, but contemporary us.

The European Film Festival continues through Feb. 4. For more, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2018, on page 16.




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