Kirsty Gunn: Great art makes people wonder ‘What was all that about?’

Ruben Ostlund's The Square is about the unexpected, the terrifying and the funny in society and domestically
Ruben Ostlund's The Square is about the unexpected, the terrifying and the funny in society and domestically
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My daughter and I are still reeling after seeing Ruben Ostlund’s The Square at Dundee Contemporary Arts on Tuesday night. It can be hard to talk a teenager into a film with subtitles – has been my experience, at least – but Millie was on for it, having had many a mind-expanding experience in the velvety, comfy environment that is that wonderful, stunningly programmed cinema in the heart of Dundee. So a two-and-a-half hour film set in Stockholm’s refined art world in Swedish? Of course.

The Square is all about the unexpected, the terrifying, the funny. Ostlund is interested in maleness, in what it is to be a man who feels he has to be in charge of things, and yet isn’t. Who, when pushed, is frightened, actually, and uncertain and full of self doubt. His first film Force Majeure – about a terrific dad who, without thinking about it, runs out on his wife and young children when an avalanche threatens to destroy them, leaving his family behind to save himself – covered similar territory. The Square goes further. It’s about society – as well as domestic life – about snobbery and art and the way liberal sensibilities can come so easily undone. He shows cruelly and perfectly how people who think they are good and well-meaning, when taken out of their safe havens of self-righteousness where they are only surrounded by people like themselves, are as mean and self-serving as any day-to-day monster.

All of this is Muriel Spark territory, of course. Her novels have the same qualities of violence and uncertainty, strangeness; they unsettle us. She too had a searing sense of humour and could see the comedy in human frailty – in our snobbishness and inflated self-regard and delight in our paltry sucessess. “The art and literature of sentiment and emotion, however beautiful in itself … has to go,” she wrote in an essay about the role of art in society in 1970. “In its place I advocate satire and ridicule.” Art should make us alive, she believed, reactionary. It shouldn’t do the job of thinking and feeling for us. “Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left,” Spark said. Yes, I think she and Ruben Ostlund would have got on like a house on fire.

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Millie and I talked about that, after the film, the way humour makes us keep on thinking about things – instead of having the easy way out that you get with a more straightforward story that has you empathising like mad but actually coming away from the whole experience absolutely unchanged in your prejudices and point of view. “Headnodding” they used to call it in my advertising days. As in, you want everybody nodding along, agreeing with everything you say, everything you are selling them, the gurus at Ogilvy and Mather used to tell me. How much more challenging, then – and the very opposite of a “sell”, as they say in marketing – it is not to know, to turn to each other and say: What was all that about? In the case of The Square only knowing that you now no longer view masculinity and cultural power and the glamour of a certain kind of world in quite the same way. “I can’t stop thinking about all those things,” my 19-year-old said. I had to give her a hug.

Graham Domke, the exhibitions curator and art writer with connections and influence that are both local and international, knows about “those things” – and some. All his professional life he has challenged how we experience culture by mounting some of the most exciting shows of contemporary art Scotland has seen. He’s at work at the moment on a project that kicks off on 19 April at a new art space in Glasgow’s Laurieston district and I know, just from hearing him talk about it and seeing some of the photographs, that it’s going to be one of those fist-in-the-mouth and not-being-able-to-speak-for-a-minute-or-two experiences that, to me, is what happens when we’re confronted with truly exciting and original work. “Chamber of Maiden Thought” is the title of the new show, a piece created for – though also outwith, Graham reminds me – the Glasgow International Festival. That word “outwith” describing in its true Scottish way what it is to be both part of something but separate from it, speaking to this enterprise, in particular, and to the idea of creating work, generally, that can live and breathe on its own terms.

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As a first creative use for an old building, the exhibition will comprise work by seven artists, including the Black Isle painter and colourist Katy Dove, who died in 2015 and whose work Graham has championed for over a decade. So she must be there, in the “Chamber”, alongside the groovy light and image installations, paintings and collage and drawings by Peter Davies, Angus Hood, Eilidh McNair, Catherine Street, Christian Stock and Raydale Dower to whom the “Chamber” belongs.

He told me all this as we had camomile tea in Tonic – the terrific bar and cafe in Dundee’s Nethergate where we have our “Writers Read” literary events through the year. We talked Keats to each other – “Chamber of Maiden Thought” is a line from one of his letters, the poet describing our minds as though they were a mansion of many rooms – Graham reading me the whole letter, me quoting back the lines from the famous ”A thing of beauty is a joy forever …” that goes on, “In spite of indifference … The inhuman dearth of noble natures …” The show is about the pleasure art gives, Graham said, and we talked about that, too, the importance of finding respite from the press of capitalism and an uncertain political future, and about how when you go down in the the dark places of human experience we can find the “resolve to create”, as he puts it.

Graham is one of the cleverest people I know. I’ve learned so much from him about contemporary art and how it might affect us, what it might … do. That it’s not about it being famous or hanging up on a wall after being prepped with a sales kit and press package. Rather it’s about it giving us another kind of experience that sits outside the everyday and all that is known – while sending messages to the deepest part of our understanding. It’s that word “outwith” again. That art might expose us somehow, make us realise our shortcomings and prejudices, in order to change.