A performance artist who acts like an ape is turned loose at a black-tie dinner. What could possibly go wrong there?
Plenty — at least in “The Square,” a dark social satire from Sweden that’s playing at the Ross Media Arts Center.
While writer/director Ruben Ostlund aims the dramatic satire at targets far larger than the art world, museums and their audiences, he hits directly at a milieu that he knows intimately. The movie grew out of actual “The Square,” a project he did at a museum.
The performance-art-gone-awry scene occurs late in the picture and it’s strikingly effective — bringing to mind some performances that I’ve seen that have been baffling and uncomfortable. But nothing like this.
It helps that Oleg, the performance artist, is played by Terry Notary, the world’s second-best motion-capture actor behind the great Andy Serkis. Notary's a movement coach on most superhero movies and an expert on ape movement who’s been in all three new “Planet of the Apes” movies.
With his snaggle-tooth make-up, muscular, shirtless appearance and the crutch-like appendages on his arms that allow him to scoot around like an ape, Notary is terrifying. That may be a step beyond 99 percent of performance art, but it’s not out of the question.
But performance art isn’t the main target of Ostlund’s satire in the scene. Rather, it’s the tuxedoed and gowned diners who are seated at the round tables: the wealthy, oft-elderly patrons of the museum, the museum director and curator, and a pretentious, jargon-slinging artist, who’d taken a good punch earlier in the picture.
The less than flattering portrayal of the art audience as passive, easily manipulated and upper crust pushes some buttons. But, like all satire, it’s exaggerated to make its point in the social satire about class, power and, to some measure, immigration.
That view of the audience, in reality, doesn’t reflect the art “elite” — which isn’t just economic, social or academic.
The elite, in the words of the late Kirk Varnedoe, the former chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art, are “self-selected.”
That is, Varnedoe argued in a speech more than a decade ago, if you have interest and are willing to spend a little time learning, you can be a member of the art “elite.”
You may not get invited to the fancy dinners as a donor or be able to afford the tickets for exclusive events. But there’s no class, economic or educational requirements to appreciate the art and engage in the dialogue it creates.
The only thing needed to join the “elite” is interest and effort. But that kind of elite isn’t so ripe for cinematic skewering.
However, that’s not to say that “The Square” doesn’t hit its art targets — uncomfortably, at times, hilariously.
The latter includes a scene in which Christian, the curator who is the film’s central character, is forced to hold a tense, ultra-personal discussion by Anna, an American TV reporter, in the middle of one of the museum’s galleries.
While the semi-kinetic work — it appears to be a stack of chairs — moves and moans as they speak, the laughs come from the elderly woman security worker who’s sitting around corner, poking her head out to make sure she gets all the conversation.
I’ve always figured that the guards listen in on conversations in the usually hushed galleries. “The Square” provides proof of that.
There’s also a great riff on contemporary art when a janitor accidentally vacuums up part of an exhibition, sending curators into a panic.
Again, that’s not a crazy exaggeration — I’ve seen more than one show where that could have happened and another in which bright yellow bee pollen was spread across a museum floor. I was baffled as to how it didn’t get destroyed by the daily cleaning or the air handling system.
Fortunately, from my side of things, the journalist who gets skewered in “The Square” isn’t an art critic. It’s the TV interviewer. Making fun of TV cluelessness is fine — just leave us writers alone.
“The Square,” which I found to be potent and thought-provoking, is playing at the Ross through Jan. 18. I recommend it for those art aficionados who don’t mind taking a shot from the screen.