The Square – contemporary art in film

2019 Parasite, 2018 Shoplifters, 2017 The Square – the juries of the Cannes International Film Festival have shown a good sense for outstanding films in recent years. While the winning films of the last two years deal with social issues in a rather unusual way, the film The Square by Swedish author Ruben Östlund is primarily interested in the modern art scene (even if social issues are also dealt with in the movie).

Film and fine arts – both have a close relationship. The series of feature films and documentaries about artists is long. It ranges from the many films about van Gogh (most recently, for example, the biopic At Eternity’s Gate (2018) by Julian Schnabel), William Turner, Gauguin or Klimt to Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away (2018), which is based on the life of painter Gerhard Richter. There are painting directors (such as David Lynch) and painters who direct, artists who give a film a distinctive character through their designs, such as HR Giger of the Alien series. And there are directors who have been inspired by motifs, lighting or the perspective on artwork for shots and cuts.

The problem of the invented artwork

After all, there are films that deal with artists or art, but which freely invent artists and their art. They have a particularly hard time, because at some point the moment comes where the film has to show its colours and show a work of art – which then often disappoints. A problem, by the way, that not only films but also novels about artists have to struggle with, as Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory (2010) shows. Here the main character is the highly paid and hyped artist Jed, who achieves his breakthrough with computer-edited photos of Michelin maps – although the author does not manage to put the alleged fascination of these works into words that are comprehensible to the reader.

The Square also has to struggle with this problem. The film takes place in the milieu of contemporary art lovers around a museum in Stockholm. The curator of the museum of contemporary art is Cristian, chic, slightly arrogant, smart, but not unsympathetic. He is also courageous, defending a woman in the pedestrian zone being chased by her angry boyfriend or daring performance experiments with patrons, even if both actions turn out differently than expected. He speaks freely, knows how to ensnare his audience through – rehearsed – improvisations. And he’s not a control freak either, but gives his staff a free hand – which doesn’t always turn out to be a good idea. The museum director is drawn in a thoroughly sympathetic manner – is this also the case for contemporary art in the film?

Contemporary art is considered by many to be difficult to understand without instructions, is often ridiculed, is head-shaking art. This is also often the case in films where it appears. Just think of the vagina art shown in The Big Lebowski by the feminist artist Maude Lebowski or her crazy artist friend.

In The Square, contemporary art appears in several places. In the museum, works of art are shown in a number of scenes: symmetrically arranged gravel cones piled up in a large room, which, according to the motto “Is this art or can this go away?” During a conversation between the museum director and an admirer, a pyramid piled up out of chairs is blurred in the background – loosely based on Ai Wei Wei’s stack of chairs at the Venice Art Biennale in 2013; the scenery is also very loud, the conversation is disturbed by the rising and falling sounds of an art machine that is not visible in the picture, but dominates the soundtrack. So, contemporary art is loud and uses everyday objects – the film seems to say. And thus, serves clichés. Even if at one point it reflects what possibly makes art art – the context. “If I took her handbag and put it here in the room,” the curator said to a journalist who interviewed him in one of the first scenes of the film in the museum, “that would make her bag an art object.”

Then, of course, there is the eponymous artwork The Square, a square measuring 4 by 4 metres marked on the floor in front of the museum with a white luminous line. Here, too, the first association: ridiculous. Typically, contemporary art. What is this nonsense? Even the accompanying instructions for use in the form of a brass plaque do not necessarily make it any better, as they only say: “The Square is a place of refuge where trust and care prevail. Here everyone has the same rights and duties”. Only an advertising agency can ensure that this work of art becomes explosive. And when you learn at the end of the film that the white square is part of a larger exhibition concept that continues inside the museum, you are somewhat reconciled with the artwork.*

Turning art fun into deadly seriousness

But by far the most impressive work of art in the film is a video installation that stretches across a museum wall and shows in an endless loop the face of a hulking man with bad teeth, who growls at the viewer and braids his bad teeth. An animal muscleman who apparently has difficulty controlling his primal instincts. Later, this artist reappears during a performance for patrons and friends of the museum, which takes place as a side program to an elegant dinner in a hall of Stockholm Castle. With a naked torso and monkey screeches, he jumps through the room like a gorilla on all fours, patting his chest like King Kong, getting more and more into his role – and soon the slightly piqued to amused faces are marked by worry and finally fear lines. There is really nothing funny about this monkey, he is serious, he puts napkins as hats on the guests’ heads, takes away their cutlery, tolerates no contradiction, jumps on the table, pulls women by the hair and forces their head into his lap. Here, art as a beautiful pastime tips over into a bitterly vicious attack – here, where nice art becomes serious, where beautiful appearance becomes an attack on society and its masks, the film is also at its peak, satire becomes an almost unbearable statement, acting and art unite.

Picture: Copyright Scanbox Entertainment

*No wonder, by the way, because The Square is a trick of the director: The Square can be seen as a permanent art installation in the small Swedish town of Värnamo. It was developed for an exhibition by director Östlund and artistic director Kalle Boman even before the film.

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