The Square is an intelligent satire exploring the art world and one of its favourite buzzwords: ‘engagement’. Directed by Ruben Östlund it explores the loss of human contact and art’s efforts to restore it in the fictive X-Royal art museum in Stockholm. It focuses on Christian, the museum’s charismatic chief-curator and his latest curatorial project, ‘The Square’, which opens to the public alongside him being robbed of his phone and wallet. The project is an installation of an illuminated outline of a square outside of the museum. In front of it, there is a plate with the words: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its bounds we all share equal rights and obligations”.
From an art theory perspective The Square can be interpreted through relational aesthetics and antagonism. Both can be seen as contradicting experiences resulting in artworks emphasising human interactions. While relational aesthetics argues for the production of microtopias within the gallery, antagonism aims to disturb social and individual harmony by evoking feelings of dissensus, provocation and anxiety. Christian’s vision resonates with relational aesthetics. The square is a utopian form that teaches those who enter how to share the space with trust and care. Within a broader context, it corresponds with educational policies of art institutions that promote projects based on accessibility and engagement, especially amongst those who are not represented in the arts. The Square challenges these good intentions by juxtaposing the framed utopia well understood for the art milieu with antagonist relations occurring outside the museum.
Opposite to ‘The Square’ stands an enormous housing project that holds Christian’s stolen belongings. In contrast to his positive and inspiring curatorial vision, Christian chooses an aggressive tone when he sends threat letters to all the residents of the housing project. He shows an inability to communicate within a space that lacks a shared language. Moreover, his insensitivity is exposed as he decides to accuse the entire housing complex of being thieves. For him, ‘The Square’ does not exist outside the museum. This realisation is sharpened when he is antagonised by an immigrant boy from the building who demands an apology. This clash and Christian’s subsequent reaction raise questions, such as what are the purposes of engaged projects, who are they aimed for, and what can the art community teach us about communication and interaction outside its spaces?
While these questions are part of a complicated discussion on art’s relationship with communities, the film makes its point by ridiculing the cultural elite. It argues that by showing how those who lack power and safe spaces take risks by practicing antagonism. The boy’s actions do not take for granted the rights and obligations automatically given by ‘The Square’. They demand it from the person pretending to teach the other how to be sensitive and empathic by forcing him to get out of his ‘sacred space’.
The Square, HOME, Manchester.
Screened 15 March – 26 April 2018.
Please check your local cinema listings for current/future screenings.
Mor Cohen is PhD student at the Postgraduate Arts and Humanities Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research examines art collectives and socially engaged practices in contested and marginal spaces.