This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001


(photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Carolee Schneemann’s early paintings and sculptures are a revelation at MoMA PS1 retrospective (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Doc Fortnight 2018: George (Jeffrey Perkins, 2017) and Carolee, Barbara, and Gunvor, (Lynne Sachs, 2018), MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves., 212-708-9400, Wednesday, February 21, $12, 7:30
“Art and Practice with Carolee Schneemann,” MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Ave., 718-784-2084, Thursday, February 22, free with advance RSVP, 6:00
Exhibition continues at MoMA PS1 Thursday - Monday through March 11, suggested admission $5-$10, free for NYC residents

MoMA PS1’s “Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting” is a revelatory exploration of the career of the immensely influential multidisciplinary artist. The seventy-eight-year-old Pennsylvania-born Schneemann will reveal yet more this week during two special programs. On February 21 at 7:30, she will be at MoMA for the world premiere screening of Lynne Sachs’s Carolee, Barbara, and Gunvor, a nine-minute short about Schneemann, Barbara Hammer, and Gunvor Nelson, which is screening with Jeffrey Perkins’s George, about George Maciunas and Fluxus, as part of “Doc Fortnight 2018: MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media.” Schneemann, Perkins, and Sachs will participate in a discussion after the films; in addition, Alison Knowles will re-create her interactive 1963 piece Shoes of Your Choice. (MoMA PS1 will also be hosting “An Evening in Honor of Carolee Schneemann,” a screening and discussion on March 5 with Melissa Ragona, Jenny Jaskey, Branden W. Joseph, and the artist.) “Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting” continues through March 11, an expansive two-floor survey that shines a light not only on Schneemann’s well-known feminist video and performance pieces but her exceptional paintings and sculptures. Superbly curated by Sabine Breitwieser with consulting curator Branden W. Joseph and organized at MoMA PS1 by Erica Papernik-Shimizu with Oliver Shultz, the show takes deep looks at such Schneemann works as Meat Joy, in which a group of people roll around with raw beef, chicken, and fish; Interior Scroll, in which Schneemann pulls a long strip of paper from her vagina and reads the contents; and Up to and Including Her Limits, for which she strapped herself in a harness and used her body to draw on a surface. In 1993, Schneemann declared, “I’m a painter. I’m still a painter and I will die a painter. Everything that I have developed has to do with extending visual principles off the canvas.” For the Abstract Expressionist Pinwheel, a white-gloved staff member will spin the painting upon request. Like Joseph Cornell, she made shadowbox-type works, and her collections of sharp, often aggressive detritus hang on the walls like three dimensional paintings. Colorado House is a “failed” painting turned into a freestanding sculpture. Magnetic audio tape falls out of the bottom of One Window Is Clear — Notes to Lou Andreas Salomé, a tribute to the Russian-German psychoanalyst and writer.

(photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Carolee Schneemann’s Flange 6rpm consists of seven foundry-poured aluminum sculptures that move at six revolutions per minute (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

“My work can take substance from the materials I find,” Schneemann wrote to French poet and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel in 1964, which helps explain Blood Work Diary, a visual document of her menstrual flow. For Body Collage, a naked Schneemann, coated in wallpaper paste and molasses, rolls around in paper shreds. Her body is also one of the main subjects in Fuses, a film in which she makes love with her then-partner, James Tunney, while her beloved cat, Kitch, hangs around nearby. Kitch can be found in several works, but it’s Cluny (and later Vesper) who Schneemann gets perhaps a little too close to in Infinity Kisses. Meanwhile, Vulva’s Morphia is so hot that Schneemann includes four electric fans to cool off the thirty-five vaginal depictions, with such text as “Vulva decodes feminist constructivist semiotics and realizes she has no authentic feelings at all; even her erotic sensations are constructed by patriarchal projections, impositions, and conditioning.” That statement gets to the heart of Schneemann’s six-decade oeuvre, taking back the female body, and the power that comes with that, and redefining it, with no limits. Particularly in the era of #MeToo, “Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting” is an extraordinary exhibition by an extraordinary artist who has never been afraid to make the private public, and political.


national academy salons

Who: Judith Bernstein, Mickalene Thomas, Odili Donald Odita, David Reed
What: Conversations between National Academicians
Where: National Academy of Design, 5 East 89th St. at Fifth Ave., 212-369-4880
When: Thursday, March 15 & 29, free with advance RSVP, 6:30
Why: Exhibits and classes at the National Academy of Design, situated in the Huntington Mansion on Eighty-Ninth St. and Fifth Ave., have been on hiatus as the institution seeks to sell its buildings and find a new home. But the organization, which was founded in 1825 to promote the fine arts in America, is still hosting special programs. In March, the salons@nationalacademy series continues with what should be two fascinating conversations between National Academicians. On March 15 at 6:30, two New Jersey natives who live and work in New York, Judith Bernstein, known for her explicit sexual imagery, and Mickalene Thomas, a multimedia artist who explores feminine desire and power through glittering works, will get together for a conversation that has the potential to be explosive given what is happening in the country today and in the art world specifically. Two weeks later, on March 29 at 6:30, California multimedia artist, lecturer, historian, and curator David Reed will be joined by Nigerian-born abstract painter Odili Donald Odita, who lives and works in Philadelphia and specializes in large-scale, ornately colorful wall installations. Admission is free, but there is limited seating, so advance reservations are strongly suggested.


Dr. Robinson

Dr. Susan Robinson has to make difficult choices when deciding whether to perform a late abortion

AFTER TILLER (Martha Shane & Lana Wilson, 2013)
BAMcinématek, BAM Rose Cinemas
30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.
Monday, February 19, $15, 7:00
Series runs February 19-22

BAMcinématek celebrates the tenth anniversary of Oscilloscope Laboratories, the independent studio founded by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch in 2008, with five days of films that are representative of its dedication to quality and diversity, screening February 19-22. The series begins on February 19 at 7:00 with After Tiller, in which directors and producers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson manage to humanize one of the most contentious, controversial, and complicated issues of our age: late abortion. In May 2009, Dr. George Tiller, who specialized in third-trimester abortions, was assassinated in front of his clinic in Wichita, Kansas. That left only four doctors in the United States who performed late abortions, each of whom had either trained or worked with Dr. Tiller. “It was absolutely no question in any of our minds that we were going to keep on doing his work,” one of those four doctors, Susan Robinson, says in the film. As After Tiller begins, Dr. Robinson works with Dr. Shelley Sella at Southwestern Women’s Options in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Dr. LeRoy Carhart is a former U.S. Air Force colonel who operates the Abortion & Contraception Clinic of Nebraska, and Dr. Warren Hern is director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic in Colorado. Shane and Wilson follow these four dedicated doctors who continue doing their work despite the personal danger associated with their profession, including harassment, murder, assault, and bombings. “When I walk out the door, I expect to be assassinated,” Dr. Hern says. The filmmakers show the doctors in their offices, meeting with women who are requesting late abortions for various reasons; Shane and Wilson also follow the abortion providers into their homes as they go on with their daily lives, offering an intimate portrait of these men and women who are so often called monsters but are firm in their belief that what they are doing is important and absolutely necessary, performing their jobs with care and understanding. However, Dr. Hern wonders if he should stop providing late abortions and just settle down peacefully with his new wife and adopted son, while Dr. Carhart and his wife opt to move out of Nebraska after a law change and meet resistance as they try to move their clinic to Maryland or Virginia.

Dr. Hern

Dr. Warren Hern is one of only four doctors in America who provides late abortions

The film also reveals that deciding to perform a late abortion is often an extremely difficult choice for the doctors as well as the patients and not something the providers do automatically when a woman comes to them. One of the most compelling scenes occurs when Drs. Sella and Robinson have a heart-wrenching disagreement over whether to proceed with a late abortion for a young woman, evaluating whether her reason is valid enough and lamenting that the ability of the woman to tell her story could affect the final decision. It’s a pivotal moment that also brings into focus the concerns of the American people; while less than one percent of the abortions performed in the country occur in the third trimester, the procedure is often the centerpiece of the antiabortion movement, but even pro-choice supporters will find themselves questioning the efficacy of all late abortions. The women come to the doctors for many reasons, ranging from the health of the child to economic situations to admitting that they either didn’t know or refused to accept that they were pregnant until it was too late. “It’s guilt no matter which way you go,” one desperate patient, whose child would be born with severe disabilities and would likely die within a year, tells Dr. Sella. “Guilt if you go ahead and do what we’re doing, or bring him into this world and then he doesn’t have any quality of life.” Although Shane and Wilson include footage of protestors, news reports, and congressional hearings, After Tiller is a powerful, deeply emotional documentary about the doctors and patients who must make impossible choices and live with their decisions for the rest of their lives. The BAM screening of the film — which raises fascinating, difficult questions for which there are no easy answers — will be followed by a panel discussion with Lady Parts Justice League founder Lizz Winstead, Planned Parenthood of New York City general counsel Meg Barnette, and executive producer Diane Max, moderated by Obvious Child cowriter and producer Elisabeth Holm. “Oscilloscope at Ten” continues through February 22 with Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, Diego Echeverria’s Los Sures, and a double feature of Yauch’s Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! and Fight for Your Right Revisited.


Embrace of the Serpent takes viewers on an extraordinary journey into the heart of darkness and beyond

Wednesday, February 21, $15, 9:00

Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra takes viewers on a spectacular journey through time and space and deep into the heart of darkness in the extraordinary Embrace of the Serpent. Guerra’s Oscar-nominated film, the first to be shot in the Colombian Amazon in thirty years, opens with a 1909 quote from explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg: “It is not possible for me to know if the infinite jungle has started on me the process that has taken many others to complete and irremediable insanity.” Inspired by the real-life journals of Koch-Grünberg and botanist and explorer Richard Evans Schultes, Guerra poetically shifts back and forth between two similar trips down the Vaupés River, both led by the same Amazonian shaman, each time guiding a white scientist on a perilous expedition in a long, narrow canoe. Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, ailing white ethnologist Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his native aid, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), seek the help of Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a shaman wholly suspicious of whites and who believes he is the last of his tribe. However, Theo claims he knows where remnants of Karamakate’s people live and will show him in return for helping him find the magical and mysterious hallucinogenic Yakruna plant that Theo thinks can cure his illness. Forty years later, white botanist Evan (Brionne Davis) enlists Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) to locate what is thought to be the last surviving Yakruna plant, which he hopes will finally allow him to dream in order to heal his soul. Evoking such films as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Embrace of the Serpent makes the rainforest itself a character, shot in glorious black-and-white by David Gallego (Cecilia, Violencia) in a sparkling palette reminiscent of the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. As the parallel stories continue, the men encounter similar locations that have changed dramatically over time, largely as a result of rubber barons descending on the forest and white missionaries bringing Western religion to the natives. It’s difficult to watch without being assailed by imperialist concepts of the “noble savage,” mainly because the Amazon — and our Western minds — have been so profoundly affected by those ideas. “Before he can become a warrior, a man has to leave everything behind and go into the jungle, guided only by his dreams,” the older Karamakate says. “In that journey he has to discover, completely alone, who he really is.”


Guide Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) and botanist Evan (Brionne Davis) explore dreams in Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent

Winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Art Cinema Award at the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, Embrace of the Serpent is an unforgettable spiritual quest into the ravages of colonialism, the evils of materialism, the end of indigenous cultures, and what should be a sacred relationship between humanity and nature. Written by Guerra (2004’s Wandering Shadows, 2009’s The Wind Journeys) and Jacques Toulemonde (Anna), it is told from the point of view of the indigenous people of the Amazon, whom Guerra worked closely with in the making of the film, assuring them of his intentions to not exploit them the way so many others have. Aside from the Belgian Bijvoet and the Texan Davis, the rest of the cast is made up of members of tribes that live along the Vaupés. Guerra actually brought along a shaman known as a payé to perform ritual ceremonies to ensure the safety of the cast and crew and to protect the jungle itself. “What Ciro is doing with this film is an homage to the memory of our elders, in the time before: the way the white men treated the natives, the rubber exploitation,” Torres, in his first movie, says about the film. “I’ve asked the elders how it was and it is as seen in the film; that’s why we decided to support it. For the elders and myself it is a memory of the ancestors and their knowledge.” Salvador, who previously had bad experiences with filmmakers, notes, “It is a film that shows the Amazon, the lungs of the world, the greater purifying filter, and the most valuable of indigenous cultures. That is its greatest achievement.” Embrace of the Serpent is a great achievement indeed, an honest, humanistic, maddening journey that takes you places you’ve never been. Embrace of the Serpent is screening February 21 in the BAMcinématek series “Oscilloscope at Ten.”


china institute new year family festival

Sara D. Roosevelt Park and other locations
East Houston St. between Forsythe & Chrystie Sts.
February 16-25

Gōng xǐ fā cái! New York City is ready to celebrate the Year of the Dog, or, more specifically, the Earth Dog, this month with special events all over town. People born in the Year of the Dog are honest, loyal, reliable, and responsible. Below are some of the highlights happening here in the five boroughs during the next several weeks of Chinese New Year.

Friday, February 16
Lunar New Year for Kids, with storytelling, crafts, snacks, games, and a Chinese acrobat, China Institute, 40 Rector St., 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

New Year’s Day Firecracker Ceremony & Cultural Festival, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, Grand Street at Chrystie St., free, 11:00 am – 3:30 pm

Saturday, February 17
Lunar New Year Family Festival, with “The Mane Event: A Lion Dance Performance” by the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, “Sounds of the New Year” featuring the pipa and the gong, “Whirling, Twirling Ribbons: A Ribbon Dance Workshop” with Mei-Yin Ng, folk arts, food sampling, storytelling, a gallery hunt, lion mask and paper dog workshops, and more, Museum of Chinese in America, 215 Centre St., $12, 11:00 am – 4:00 pm

Lunar New Year Celebration, with family-friendly arts and crafts, a lion dance, a paper-cutting workshop, zodiac face painting (for an additional fee), a taekwondo demonstration, a plant sale, and live performances, Queens Botanical Garden, 43-50 Main St., free, 12 noon - 4:00

Lunar New Year, with a lion dance, Shaolin Kung Fu demonstrations, Chinese drumming, Chinese acrobatics, traditional Chinese music and dance, and master of ceremonies Cary Chow, New York Chinese Cultural Center at Arts Brookfield, 230 Vesey St., free, 2:00 – 3:15

Tuesday, February 20
Lunar New Year Concert, with the New York Philharmonic performing works by Li Huanzhi, Andy Akiho, Beethoven, and more, with Ping-Pong players Ariel Hsing and Michael Landers, Elizabeth Zeltser on violin, David Cossin on percussion, Serena Wang on piano, Alex Rosen on bass, sopranos Heather Phillips and Vanessa Vasquez, mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, tenors Marco Cammarota and Chad Johnson, and the Farmers’ Chorus of the Yunnan Province, conducted by Long Yu, David Geffen Hall, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, $35-$110, 7:30

Saturday, February 24
Lunar New Year Celebration 4716: Year of the Dog, with costume contest, riddles, martial arts, live music and dance, arts and crafts, games, and more, P.S.310, 942 62nd St., free, 11:00 am - 2:30

Lunar New Year Festival: Year of the Dog, featuring a Japanese shakuhachi soloist, Balinese music by Gamelan Dharma Swara, the Met Quartet in Residence: Aizuri Quartet playing “Japan Across the World,” fan painting, “Put Your Stamp on It” with Kam Mak, “Double Dog Dare You!,” a fire-breathing dragon mask, good luck puzzles, Wayang: Indonesian shadow puppet making, zodiac puppets, a hand drum and fan dance workshop, Wu-Wo tea ceremony and bubble tea gatherings, a hand-pulled noodle demonstration, a “What Your Nose Knows” scent tour, “My Chinatown” with Kam Mak, and more, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd St., free with suggested museum admission, 11:00 am – 5:00 pm

Sunday, February 25
Chinese New Year Family Festival, with workshops, dumpling making, storytelling, lion dance, live music, a puppet show, and more, workshops $5-$20, party and performance $10-$20, China Institute, 40 Rector St., 11:00 am – 3:00 pm

Nineteenth annual New York City Lunar New Year Parade & Festival, with cultural booths in the park and a parade with floats, antique cars, live performances, and much more from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and other nations, Chinatown, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, and Columbus Park, free, 1:00

Lunar New Year Celebration, with live performance and paper-cutting workshop sponsored by the New York Chinese Cultural Center, Staten Island Children’s Museum, 1000 Richmond Terr., $8, 2:00 – 4:00


Performance Space New York is reborn in the East Village

Performance Space New York is reborn in the East Village

Performance Space New York
150 First Ave. at East Ninth St.
Sunday, February 18, free, 6:00 pm - 1:00 am

After a major renovation, one of downtown’s best and most diverse venues is back, as Performance Space New York, formerly known as PS122, celebrates its return with a free event on Sunday night, “Avant-Garde-Arama.” Kicking off the East Village Series, the festivities will feature live performances from six to nine on several stages by a vast array of creators, including Adrienne Truscott, Erin Markey, Hamm, Holly Hughes, John Kelly, John Zorn, La Bruja of Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Penny Arcade, Pharmakon, Reggie Watts, and Sister Jean Ra Horror, among many others. At nine, a dance party takes over, with JD Samson, Justin Strauss, and more. The evening’s hosts are the Factress (Lucy Sexton), Carmelita Tropicana, and Ikechukwu Ufomadu. On its website, the venue declares, “Performance Space New York was born in the East Village in 1980 as Performance Space 122 when a group of local artists occupied the empty building that had been home to Public School 122 and started making performance work as a passionate rejection of corporate mainstream culture. Today, almost forty years later, Performance Space New York is faced with a radically transformed neighborhood unaffordable for young artists and a national political climate that feeds off social inequity more than ever. Moving back into our newly renovated spaces, the inaugural East Village Series asks what kind of art organization we need to become in light of this ever-more-exclusionary social and political context.” The East Village Series continues through June with such presentations as “Focus on Kathy Acker,” “Women’s History Museum,” Diamanda Galás and Davide Pepe’s Schrei 27, a world premiere by Sarah Michelson, Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s CLUB, Penny Arcade’s Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, and Chris Cochrane, Dennis Cooper, and Ishmael Houston-Jones’s Them.


(photo © Stefan Falke)

Stefan Falke will be at Deutsches Haus at NY for special conversation about his moko jumbies photos on February 12 (photo © Stefan Falke)

Who: Stefan Falke, Laura Anderson Barbata
What: Exhibition opening and artist talk
Where: Deutsches Haus at NYU, 42 Washington Mews
When: Monday, February 12, free, 6:00
Why: From 1997 to 2004, German-born, New York-based photographer Stefan Falke photographed Trinidadian stilt walkers, known as moko jumbies, collecting his pictures in the book Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad (Pointed Leaf Press, 2005, $65). Falke will be at NYU’s Deutsches Haus on February 12 at 6:00 for the opening of his latest exhibition, featuring photos of the Dragon Keylemanjahro School of Art & Culture in Cocorite, which have never been on view in New York City before. Falke, who has also published La Frontera, portraits of artists on either side of the US-Mexico border, will be speaking with Mexico City native Laura Anderson Barbata, a multidisciplinary artist who lives and works there and in Brooklyn and who has also photographed moko jumbies for her project “Transommunality.” “Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad” continues at Deutsches Haus through March 31.



A close-knit Swedish family is about to face a serious crisis in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure

FORCE MAJEURE (Ruben Östlund, 2014)
THE SQUARE (Ruben Östlund, 2017)
Scandinavia House
58 Park Ave. at 38th St.
Tuesday, February 20, $20, 4:00

After three skiing films and two documentaries, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund experienced near-instant success with his fiction work, which has included five features and two shorts since 2004, earning him numerous international awards. Scandinavia House will be honoring the Styrsö native on February 20 with a double feature of his two latest gems, Force Majeure, which was shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and The Square, which is competing for the award at this year’s Oscars. Östlund will be at the Park Ave. cultural institution for a Q&A following The Square, which won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. First up at 4:00 is Force Majeure, one of the best films you’ll ever hear. Not that Fredrik Wenzel’s photography of a lovely Savoie ski resort and Ola Fløttum’s bold, classical-based score aren’t stunning in their own right, but Kjetil Mørk, Rune Van Deurs, and Jesper Miller’s sound design makes every boot crunching on the snow, every buzzing electric toothbrush, every ski lift going up a mountain, every explosion setting off a controlled avalanche a character unto itself, heightening the tension (and black comedy) of this dark satire about a family dealing with a crisis. On the first day of their five-day French Alps vacation, workaholic Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), are enjoying lunch on an outdoor veranda with their small children, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren), when a potential tragedy comes barreling at them, but in the heat of the moment, while Ebba instantly seeks to protect the kids, Tomas runs for his life, leaving his family behind. After the event, which was not as bad as anticipated, the relationship among the four of them has forever changed, especially because Tomas will not own up to what happened. Even Harry and Vera (who are brother and sister in real life) know something went wrong that afternoon and are now terrified that their parents will divorce. But with Tomas unwilling to talk about his flight response, Ebba starts sharing the story with other couples, including their hirsute friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his young girlfriend, Fanni (Fanni Metelius), who are soon arguing in private about what they would do in a similar situation.


There might be no going back in beautiful-looking and -sounding Swedish satire

Winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival and the Swedish entry for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Force Majeure is a blistering exploration of human nature, gender roles, and survival instinct. The often uncomfortable and utterly believable tale, inspired by a real-life event in which friends of Östlund’s were attacked by gunmen, recalls Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, in which an engaged couple encounter serious trouble and their immediate, individual reactions change their dynamic. Östlund (Play, Involuntary), who was also influenced by statistics that show that more men survive shipwrecks than women and children on a percentage basis, often keeps dialogue at a minimum, revealing the family’s growing predicament by repeating visuals with slight differences, from the way they sleep in the same bed to how they brush their teeth in front of a long mirror to the looks on their faces as they move along a motorized walkway in a tunnel at the ski resort. The ending feels forced and confusing, but everything leading up to that is simply dazzling, a treat for the senses that is impossible not to experience without wondering what you would do if danger suddenly threatened you and your loved ones.

The Square

Ann (Elisabeth Moss) and Christian (Claes Bang) discuss more than just art in Ruben Östlund’s The Square

The plot of Östlund’s 2014 absurdist satire, Force Majeure, turns on a man’s momentary act of surprising cowardice when an avalanche threatens him and his family at a ski resort. In the Swedish writer-director’s absurdist satire The Square, screening at 6:30 at Scandinavia House, the plot is set in motion when a man’s momentary act of surprising bravery leads him into a spiral of personal and professional chaos. The Tesla-driving chief curator of the fictional X-Royal contemporary art museum in Sweden, Christian (Claes Bang) is walking through a busy plaza when he hears a woman crying for help as bystanders do nothing. After his initial hesitation, Christian intervenes and is ultimately quite pleased with himself and his decision to do the right thing — until, a few moments later, he realizes he’s been robbed. Back at the museum, Christian listens to a pair of millennial marketers pitching their campaign for the institution’s upcoming exhibit, “The Square,” which is highlighted by a four-meter-by-four-meter square positioned on the cobblestones in the museum’s front courtyard. An accompanying plaque reads, “‘The Square’ is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” As the museum contemplates a cutting-edge ad campaign for the exhibit, Christian has to deal with an arts journalist, an angry kid, the museum board, and his own moral decisions.

The Square

Oleg (Terry Notary) takes performance art to another level in The Square

The film opens as Christian is being interviewed by Ann (Elisabeth Moss) in a gallery, in front of a neon wall sign that says, “You have nothing.” Later, the sign says, “You have everything.” This dichotomy is central to Christian’s inner dilemma; he seemingly does have everything, but his world is slowly shattering, just like the artworks heard crashing to the ground later while he is in a deep personal discussion with Ann. Östlund skewers the art world, political correctness, class conflict, freedom of speech, privileged social groups, and the concept of “safe spaces” in the film, which was inspired by a real exhibition by Östlund and producer Kalle Boman that ran at the Vandalorum Museum in Sweden in 2015. Immediately following the opening interview, which reveals Ann has no feel whatsoever for contemporary art, workers remove the statue of King Karl XIV Johan that stands in front of the museum; on the base is his royal motto, “The love of the people my reward.” As the monument is being taken off its plinth, the crane drops it and the king’s head falls off. “The Square” takes its place, signaling the old being replaced by the new, physical objects replaced by lofty ideals, with an utter disregard for what has come before. Östlund (The Guitar Mongoloid, Incident by a Bank) is not above making such obvious analogies and references, including naming his protagonist Christian, a man who spends much of the film attempting to do what he considers the right thing. (Östlund, who also edited the film with Jacob Secher Schulsinger, has said that “The Square” installation is a place where the Golden Rule and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should take precedence.)

Wriet-director Ruben Östlund (standing) on the set of The Square

Writer-director-editor Ruben Östlund (standing) on the set of The Square

The film focuses on the issue of trust, and particularly how humans lose their ability to have faith in others as they mature. At the entrance to the “Square” installation, visitors are given the option of deciding between two paths, one marked “I Trust People,” the other “I Mistrust People.” Christian’s two daughters both take the former. The older daughter is a cheerleader, showing trust in her teammates as the girls are tossed high in the air and wait to be caught — but not without several men hovering right behind them to try to prevent any possible falls. The difference between childhood and adulthood is also evident in how Christian deals with a determined young boy in trouble because of the divorced curator. Bang is stoic as Christian, a man who feels more at home among works of art than with other people. He wants so desperately to be good, but it’s getting harder and harder to make the right decision in the current politically correct atmosphere, and he is so self-absorbed that he even fights over possession of a used condom, in one of the film’s most bizarrely comic moments. Those choices come to the fore in two wildly uncomfortable scenes involving an American artist named Julian (Dominic West), first at a public Q&A where he is bedeviled by an audience member with Tourette syndrome, and later at a gala fundraiser where a bare-chested performer (motion-capture actor Terry Notary) moves around the luxurious room, acting like an ape, but as he begins breaking physical and socially acceptable boundaries, no one knows how to react. (His acting like an ape is in direct contrast to Ann’s roommate, an ape who is far more civilized and is never commented on.) Both situations frustrate the viewer as well, as we are as hamstrung as the people in the film, all of us experiencing the bystander effect together. And the mood is further joyfully complicated by the lighthearted, satiric music. Despite a few minor missteps, The Square is a searingly intelligent exploration, and condemnation, of where humanity stands as a society in the twenty-first century, fearful of our every move, searching for that imaginary safe space where we can live and breathe freely with our fellow beings, consequences be damned.