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‘The Square’ and the circle of political correctness

Would you turn on a blender and kill some goldfish for the sake of art? This year's Palme D'Or winner makes us introspect about how we react in different moral and ethical situations

A still from the ‘The Square’.
A still from the ‘The Square’.

The Square stood out for me in the Mumbai Film Festival line-up this year, not just because it won the Palme D’Or, the highest honour at Cannes, five months ago, but also because it was widely advertised as “a satire on the contemporary art world".

The film’s central figure is Christian (the Danish actor Claes Bang), the curator of Stockholm’s X-Royal contemporary art museum. But this movie is not about a hero’s journey. It is about all of us.

Christian’s museum is about to unveil a new exhibition, The Square, which is a 4×4m demarcated space in the museum’s courtyard. A plaque announces it as a sacred place that demands equality and the responsibility of helping whoever is inside. The idea, as Christian explains in a press conference, is that people act differently in different spaces. It is a social experiment based on the idea of relational aesthetics. However, Christian begins to question his commitment to these liberal values after his phone and wallet are stolen.

Directed by Ruben Östlund, The Square makes us introspect about how we react in different moral and ethical situations. The Swedish director’s last movie, Force Majeure (2014), in which a cowardly father abandons his family during an avalanche, was also a wry take on the gulf between a man’s actual deeds and his lofty ideals.

I find the idea of posing these questions within the ambiguous world of contemporary art very savvy because that is precisely what immersive, interactive art installations—which are having a moment right now—ask: What would you do?

There is a fair amount of art in the movie. Apart from the piles of gravel that Östlund has admitted were inspired by the work of the American installation artist Robert Smithson, the rest are made up but very on-the-ball. In one work, museum visitors are required to push an “I trust people/I don’t trust people" button and then go one of two ways, reminding me of the time I had to make many such choices at Frieze New York in 2015. At the art fair, the Japanese-American artist Aki Sasamoto’s installation Coffee/Tea invited visitors into a three-dimensional personality test where, by answering questions like whether we liked our toilet paper rolled outwards or inwards, we arrived at one of many doors in the end (I was given a pin that said I was “Into Big" while my friend was apparently “Into Happy".)

Not all interactive art is as breezy. In 2000, the Chilean artist Marco Evaristti stirred up a heated debate on art and ethics when he asked visitors if they would turn on a blender with live goldfish in it. The piece Helena & El Pescador debuted at the Trapholt museum in Kolding, Denmark, and had goldfish swimming in 10 kitchen blenders. Visitors were given a choice: Hit the “on" button and kill the fish, or pardon them. Could Evaristti be accused of violating animal rights if he was only giving visitors an option? Would you turn on a blender and kill some goldfish for the sake of art?

At Cannes, jury president Pedro Almodóvar cited The Square for depicting “the dictatorship of being politically correct". This is best exemplified by a harrowing scene in which the museum is hosting an artist’s talk. The panellists are repeatedly interrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s syndrome who shouts sexually explicit obscenities. When they complain, they are chastised by the sophisticated audience on grounds of political correctness—the man has a neuropsychiatric disorder, and cannot help his creative insults. The scene captures the ridiculous lengths to which a group of people might go to keep up the appearance of tolerance and civility.

About his lead characters, who are archetypally weak men, Östlund has said in several interviews that he is interested in what it means to be a man these days because we are all born into a kind of collective guilt. The choices we make define us.

Back in 1933, Ayn Rand wrote The Night Of January 16th, a play in which members of the audience were chosen to play the jury, and judge if the mistress of a businessman was guilty of his murder. The play’s ending depended on the verdict. The judgement by audiences in different parts of the world revealed their own moral compass.

The Square closes on an open note. We don’t know if Christian does the right thing. In fact, it is entirely up to the audience to even decide what the right thing is. Art is a good place to ask these questions. Like whether you would turn on the blender.

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