“I ask you to imagine that you’re standing in a public place in a town. You look down and see that you are standing inside an empty square.” So goes the thought-experiment at the heart of The Square, the latest, Golden Palm-winning film from Ruben Ostlund, which details the preparation for a new art work, also entitled “The Square,” at a fictional contemporary art gallery in Stockholm. Housed in a portion of Stockholm Royal Palace, the X-Royal Gallery, led by curator Christian (Claes Bang), has used a new bequest to make this acquisition, which appears to be part installation work, and part performance piece – a series of luminous neon squares outside and within the gallery, but also a promise that these squares will also create a situation in which members of the public “all share equal rights and obligations.” Beyond that, it’s hard to say too much about this art work, whose creator never appears, and whose preparation and exhibition weaves its way so deftly into the film as a whole that it gradually feels like a precondition for the gallery space in the first place – or the space itself turned into an exhibition – rather than a discrete object or entity in its own right. Along the way, Ostlund elaborates what has to be one of the most staggeringly ambitious visions of the art world I’ve ever seen committed to the big screen, moving between a host of disparate characters that include journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), artist Julian (Dominic West), and one of the “performers” of “The Square” (Terry Notary), without ever quite settling into a stable or recognisable ensemble narrative or character-driven drama either.
Instead, The Square feels like a sustained act of world-building, or space-building, as Ostlund embeds the viewer in the daily rhythms and ambience of the gallery, and the way it converges around the preparation for this particular exhibition. Given that one of X-Royal’s mission statements is to continue Robert Smithson’s manifesto on site-specific art – they’ve just finished staging an exhibition called Exhibition/Non-Exhibition that’s directly modelled on his Site/Non-Site – it’s only natural that the life and world of the gallery should gradually become continuous and continguous with those of the surrounding streets and cityscape, especially because this seems to be exactly the point of the “The Square,” whose first stage involves transplanting a piece of the stone pavement outside into the gallery space within. That focus on the contemporary art world as the locus of urban life often comes off as slightly stilted, but not in an inept way, since it’s more that the whole film feels like a sustained piece of performance or installation art, which is some ways it is, since the genesis of the film was itself a multimedia project, also titled The Square, that Ostlund worked on with producer Kalle Bonam. That intermediality is perhaps one reason why the film never feels overlong – at least right until the end – despite running for almost three hours, since while it may be sprawling, the cool, clinical spatiality prevents it ever feeling shaggy either.
While this square may be variously compared to the edge of a painting, a pedestrian crossing or a satire on bourgeois morals, it ramifies first and foremost, as a conjunction of two very specific spaces – the space carved out by the film frame, and the space carved out by the white cuboid gallery spaces that came into vogue in the 1970s, often in pointed contrast to the traditional structures within with their modular structure was housed. As the film presents it, X-Royal is exactly this kind of art space, nesting a series of brilliant white voids inside the lavish infrastructure of the Royal Palace, a contrast that becomes especially clear on the eve of the exhibition opening, when Christian takes his elite circle of guests through a locked door to reveal the royal apartments lying just beyond the gallery’s white walls. As with Force Majeure, Ostlund here demonstrates an incredible capacity to seamlessly situate his camera within unusual and oblique architectural spaces, to the point where it is almost to imagine it having any other home, and indeed impossible to think of it being extricable from the space in any way at all. In effect, his camera becomes installed in the gallery’s spaces as the film proceeds, and becomes a kind of installation or performance piece in itself, until “The Square” seems to reside in just this interpenetration of the world disclosed by the camera and the works disclosed by this particular kind of exhibition venue.
By installing his camera in a space designed for installation art, and framing the presence of his camera within a contemporary art venue as a kind of performance piece in itself, Ostlund beautifully, and elegantly, presents both spaces – the space disclosed by cameras and the spaces provided by art galleries – as a microcosm for the fate of public space as a whole in a digital media environment. From the outset, part of the brilliance of “The Square” lies in the way in which it forces consumers to accept the gallery as a radically publically space, if only by questioning the role of the “exhibition space” itself in a world in which every other space is so radically porous and anomalous. Of course, this has always been the point of installation art, which has existed largely to challenge the gallery itself as a supposedly sequestered pocket of semi-public space. What makes The Square so powerful, however, is that it presents the white cubes of space within which installation art flourishes as a piece of installation art in themselves, insofar as their blank, abstract, anonymous spatiality makes only the slightest claim to spatial sequestration or specificity. In effect, then, Ostlund dovetails the spaces of installation art with the spaces within which installation art is exhibited, such that “The Square” itself has to do little more than reiterate the fact of its own presence in order to render every other art work exhibited around it redundant, or else render the spaces within which those art works are exhibited redundant.
What ensues, then, from “The Square,” is a gradual and emergent collapse of any distinction between installation piece and installation venue. Among other things, that allows “The Square” to fulfil one of the earliest and most radical functions of installation art – to articulate the connection between gallery space and the economic factors motivating it – in the most spectacular way imaginable. Like Hans Haacke’s iconic destruction of the German pavilion’s flooring at the 1993 Venice Biennale, or the variety of classic installation pieces dedicated to detailing museum sponsors, “The Square” begins with an act of institutional destruction and demystification – namely, knocking over one of the iconic bronze statues housed in noble splendour outside the Royal Palace and ripping up the bricks around it to make way for the signature neon square – and leaves its promoters with little to promote except a reiteration of the gallery itself, both as a physical space and as a media presence. No wonder, then, that the marketing team quickly find themselves moving away from the physicality of “the square” itself – they are given almost nothing, conceptually, to work with – and instead using this “art work” as a platform for conceiving of a new way of promoting X-Royal as a whole. While they might still use “The Square” as a motif and visual anchor, it’s only really as a synecdoche for the white squares of the gallery itself, as they contemplate what’s required for art – or at least art that is still situated in a gallery – to generate a viral impact. Just as “The Square” collapses installation art and installation space, then, so it collapses both, in turn, into the process by which galleries install art and spaces within their own economic considerations, with the marketing team seeming to embody “The Square” more than promote it in their efforts to create an art movement whose “competition isn’t other museums – it’s disaster, terrorism and controversial moves by far-right politicians.”
Of course, that process necessarily means collapsing “The Square,” and the gallery, back into the surrounding streets and city, as the installation piece becomes a reflection on the fate of public space more generally in an era characterised by digital placelessness. Accordingly, Ostlund cuts between the unusual transactions demanded by the installation spaces of the gallery and unusual transactional moments in external public space more generally, while painting a portrait of public space as even more streamlined, clinical and barren in its coordinates than the white cubes of contemporary art exhibition. Some of the strangest moments come from the juxtaposition and confusion of these two spaces, both of which already seem to have disposed of the human as a point of reference, and exist largely for themselves and on their own terms, in a kind of solipsistic and self-regarding spatiality that renders all human agency inherently comic and absurd. While homeless people may initially function as a point of disruption – both within the gallery and outside – their homelessness is gradually generalised into the experience of anyone who stops too long, or who insists on themselves for too long, within the spatial regime of the film, creating a series of awkward and contorted efforts to avoid remaining in any one place long enough for homelessness to ensue, or for an inherent homelessness to make itself fully appparent.
This all informs what might be described as the main subplot of The Square, and the only real part of the film to take place away from the gallery proper – a narrative arc that starts with our first real foray into public space, in which we follow Claes on his commute to the gallery, and proceed through a bizarre tableau in which he is compelled to defend a woman from a crazy attacker, only to find out that the two of them have stolen his mobile phone in the process. What the thieves don’t know, however – or don’t care about – is that Claes is able to GoogleMap his phone online, resulting in an eerie early sequence in which he tracks the phone down to an apartment complex on the outskirts of Stockholm and leaves a threatening note in every letterbox, demanding that his property be returned to a 7/11 in the city centre. In that conjunction of SmartPhone and GoogleMaps – and Claes’ various exchanges at the 7/11 – lie the film’s denuded (public) spatality, a spatiality that blooms over the course of the film into a sequence of set pieces that gradually become coterminous with the coordinates of “The Square” itself. Indeed, I often found myself wondering whether this elaborately staged encounter, and subsequent communication about the phone, might turn out to have been a part of the art work all along, so elegantly and economically does it dovetail the questions that “The Square” raises about ownership of, and autonomy within, public space. Unfortunately, this subplot becomes more conventional in the closing half hour, where it forms the final note of the film, but for the previous two hours it’s critical in ensuring that every space in the film feels like an exhibition space, or that every space itself is some kind of nascent exhibition, even or especially the most banal and bathetic of spaces.
In that proposition lies the central paradox of the film, which is that while the collapse of physical experience into digital experience may have denuded our experience of public space, it’s also heightened our visibility in public as well, resulting in a public sphere that is at once diminished in its communal coordinates and intensified in its conduits for surveillance. Within that environment, the continual pressure to be on display, combined with the lack of any tangible communal or collective audience that might function as an audience, produces a sense of behavioural and kinaesthetic freefall, imbuing the film as a whole with a perfectly pitched inanity and quite sublime silliness. To be sure, there are a few cheap shots and easy laughs, along with some stuff that doesn’t come together, while it would be hard to deny that some of the later scenes lag and drag at times. Still, at close to three hours, this is not merely one of the most ambitious films I have ever seen about the art world, but one of the funniest as well. On the one hand, there’s something inherently comic about the maintenance, supervision and – in one case – reconstruction of minimal installation that’s usually entirely concealed from the austerity and opacity of its final presentation. Similarly, it’s quite hilarious to witness a viral marketing campaign that doesn’t quite get the viral angle right, despite the best intentions and professional advice.
Still, the comic strand of The Square cuts deeper than this, and allows Ostlund to showcase his skills as a comic director in an even more sustained manner. With such a manicured sense of space, and such contradictory demands made by even the most public of spaces – to be continually on exhibition, but discard the physical presence of other people – every deviation is omic, if only because of how rapidly the even most extreme deviations are seamlessly folded back into the streamlined spatiality of the whole. In that small beat between the extreme event and the recomposure, however, lies the comic genius of the film, as well as the premise of screwball comedy more generally – a premise here likened to the slightly nonplussed experience of walking into a room exhibiting a minimal or opaque installation and feeling compelled to negotiate its presence in just the right way. Of course, the film is full of figures whose professional life depends upon responding to installation art in just the right way, as well as the pronouncements of its artists, even when they’re as absurd as Julian’s musings on relational aesthetics, which must be drawn from Dominic West’s depiction of pontificating author Brendan Gleeson in NBC’s The Affair. Yet the presence of these figures who are perfectly placed at absorbing incidental or infinitesimal disruptions to “normal” (or normative) space just makes it funnier when they’re forced to register the increasingly surreal interjections engendered by “The Square” with just the merest double-take, the mildest show of being non-plussed, the most fleeting recomposure.
Those small gestures are the essence of screwball, which was always less about dialogue than the weird beats, pauses and double-take around dialogue – and some of the very best scenes in “The Square” are entirely free of dialogue too, as we watch one senior figure at the gallery after another struggle to maintain their seamless facial expressions in respond to new or unexpected scenarios. In fact, the myths of seamless spatiality and seamless faciality come to feel like one and the same, as Ostlund offers a new kind of face evolved to fit this fractured public space – the space that “The Square” at once addresses and rebuffs – whose expressions come as close as human expression can to absorbing surprise, shock and the awareness of surveillance, even if that fluidity just makes the few moments of very human discombobulation all the more surprising, hilarious and delightful in turn. As Ostlund realises, that disorientation is most pronounced in transitory spaces, or when spaces suddenly shift in their inflection and intention, with some of the most memorable tableaux – as in Force Majeure – involving people moving in and out of the frame, hovering awkwardly around the fringes of the frame, or unable to figure out just where to situate the frame – or square – in the mise-en-abyme that makes up their public spatial life and self.
In that continual negotiation lies the elegancy and economy with with the film absorbs the summative spectacle of “The Square” back into the film, setting up the installation and performance piece as a destination that disperses as we approach it. That’s not to say that Ostlund refrains from spectacle or catharsis in any kind of glib way, since we do indeed receive quite an extraordinary and sustained encounter with the performance piece at the heart of the project, but that this climax is cut off at its moment of trauma and crisis, which then percolates over the remaining half hour of the screenplay. While that abrupt transition culminates a series of incredible cuts throughout the film as a whole, it’s hard not to feel that this closing sequence doesn’t quite sustain the momentum that preceded it, as the screenplay grows talkier, more conventionally moralistic (and more conventional in its political moralising) and, by the end, entirely removed from the space of the gallery. I guess you could say that this is part of the achievement of the film – that the gallery no longer feels like a discrete or sequestered space, and indeed barely seems to exist in these closing moments – but nevertheless this last, abbreviated act seems to belong to a less audacious and experimental aesthetic universe. Still, it’s a small price to pay for such a provocative and resonant conjunction of film, media event, installation and performance piece, in what may just be the first genuinely intermedial text to win the most coveted film prize in the world.