On the floor, almost perfectly-positioned equidistant from both the whiteboard and the front row of desks, was a mouldy sandwich carefully wrapped in plastic. It looked as though it had been placed there strategically, thoughtfully; so that it could be viewed from almost any spot in the room. Through its centre-stage position, through the incongruity of its decomposing ugliness set against the clean classroom, the sandwich seemed to be screaming through its plastic wrap, its blues and greens declaring: "I am not just a sandwich. I'm a statement of defiance against authority."
We'd all seen it as we filed back in after lunch, but it was gross and no one else was picking it up - so, with the bystander effect in full swing, we left it there, sat down in our seats, awaiting the consequences in horrified excitement. A reckoning dressed in sensible flats and a '90s sundress was coming. Leaving rotten foodstuffs in the classroom as an apparent act of sabotage ranked pretty high on the Year Three crime scale.
Our teacher looked at the sandwich, then to us, and crossed her arms. "Who did this?" she asked in a quiet voice. The silence deepened, and it was almost as though the sandwich was feeding on the tension, somehow getting bigger - or perhaps the room was growing smaller. "Who did this?" she asked again.
The answer was - me. But the whole thing wasn't the anti-authority statement the sandwich placement seemed to suggest. Forty minutes earlier a friend and I had been digging through the empty classroom's lost and found and, instead of the hat we'd been searching for, we came across a lunchbox. My friend picked it up, gave it a shake, and then without warning, it became unclipped, sending the sandwich tumbling out. We both gasped and in the moment, I did the only thing that seemed rational - I kicked the thing across the room before fleeing the scene of the crime.
So, what I'm trying to say here is: art is subjective.
How we interpret any given situation or stimulus depends on what it is we bring to the table as individuals. Once something passes through our senses we then filter it through our unique blend of past experiences, moral codes, trivia, general knowledge and language thus moving something you merely see, hear, touch, taste, or smell, from the blunt and superficial to the significant. This is how two people watch the same film and walk out with polar-opposite views. This is why a Van Gogh could be considered worthless during the artist's lifetime, but worth millions after his death.
It's also how a someone can look at a mouldy sandwich and see a statement rather than a statistical anomaly coupled with childish squeamishness.
What is it that constitutes art is one of the driving questions in Ruben Östlund's The Square. Set for the most part in a prominent Swedish art museum, the film follows a few weeks in the life of the museum's curator, Christian (played by Claes Bang), in the lead up to the unveiling of a new installation - the titular square.
In an early scene, Christian is being interviewed by Elizabeth Moss's character, Anne. It isn't going well - he looks rumpled and tired, and she is too awkward to press him on answers that don't quite make sense. As they go back and forth, trying to nail down exactly what the museum's significance is, Christian eventually asks this:
"If you place an object in a museum - for instance, if we took your bag and placed it here - would that make it art?"
"Ah," replies Anne, her face contorting as she tries to see if this answers her question. "Ok," she says finally, when she realises their conversation has reached a stalemate.
Whether something is art depends purely on who is looking at it. Then, beyond that, what that art means, again, depends on the biases and filters of the person experiencing it. Their personal history. The trivia, the odds and end that have taken up residence in the spare nooks of their brain. What they know of the art world. If they've picked up bits of Scandinavian history. In this way The Square is a strange, beautiful and meta example of the question it sets out to ask - not just in that it is art exploring art, but in the additional layers it throws up for people to filter their experience through.
"Oh, I heard this one is good" I said, flailing an arm in the general direction of the screen. I was sitting in the back row of a small cinema with a friend and a trailer for The Square had just come on. "It was at MIFF. And it won the Cannes Palme d'Or, I think".
"Huh, that was weird," my friend said a few minutes later.
"Yeah, was that a monkey in her apartment?" I replied.
"No, I mean he was speaking Danish."
My friend speaks fluent English and Swedish, so what to me had seemed like a trailer split into English and non-English was to her a mixed bag of languages saying something else entirely underneath the multilingual dialogue.
It is relevant at this point to mention that I also speak two languages - English and Cantonese. Growing up bilingual means a lot of things: being able to have private conversations in public, increased eavesdropping potential, and in my case, knowing a whole lot of idioms about frogs. It also means that subtitles become a normal part of life and it doesn't take long to start noticing the discrepancies. As the kind of child who would get indignant because the Play School flower clock never showed the correct time, I had a lot of questions. In Cantonese-language shows with Mandarin-subtitles, I couldn't read the bulk of the characters and would leap on ones that I recognised or, failing that, revert to the world of numbers. Hey I heard them say goat, so why isn't the character for goat written up there? Why are there less words being written than there are being said?
Even with English subtitles on English-language shows, the words still don't always fully match up. Sometimes unnecessary words are skipped, jokes are summarised, or characters' names aren't used. This isn't uncommon: sacrifices need to be made to balance brevity and communication. The words at the bottom of the screen need to be detailed enough to get the film's dialogue across, yet sufficiently succinct that they can be read at a speed that won't cause viewers to fall behind. Purely watching a film vs viewing it with subtitles means having two very, very similar but also ever so slightly different experiences. You're seeing the same thing through different lenses.
It isn't surprising then that these differences increase when you are watching a film in one language which is then subtitled in another. Whenever I watch a Cantonese-language film, I can't help reading the subtitles and noticing what gets lost in translation.
Specific digs at Hong Kong culture are left out because they won't resonate with audiences outside the region and so a character's line loses its political edge. Tonal based puns are skipped because there is no English equivalent and so a scene that audibly plays out as comedy in Cantonese is read as stone cold serious. There are holes in our cross-cultural communication.
Two weeks later, I drag the same friend back to the cinema for a 9 AM screening of The Square so I can blatantly exploit her Swedishness. I watch the film, careful to note the seamless transitions between English and Swedish and the strange intersections and inconsistencies with language.
Christian speaks fluent English in his scenes with Elizabeth Moss's character. There's a gymnastics exhibition where the coach delivers his pep talk in English to his pre-pubescent Swedish pupils. A museum attendant offers English directions to a lost-looking group who then head off speaking Mandarin, the latter of which isn't subtitled - presumably because it's just general hubbub.
Signs and plaques in the museum don't seem to follow a definitive formula either. The "square" that the title refers to is a literal, illuminated square set up outside the museum. It has an accompanying sign written in Swedish, and the subtitles tell audiences that it says "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations." Inside the museum however, most of the signs are in English, including a new exhibition which invites participants to choose their path based on whether or not they trust other people. There is also a recurring visual where we see different visitors reacting to a room filled with uniform piles of gravel, while a neon sign on one wall declares (in English) "YOU HAVE NOTHING".
I make a mental note when, during a scene where Christian and his assistant are jokingly drafting a threatening letter, Christian is told "don't be so Swedish" when he wants to dial things back a bit. They both laugh. Later on, I notice when another character is being yelled at by a child who then asks if he is struggling to understand what he's saying.
Towards the end of the film my friend nudges me and laughs "he actually said 'speak clearly' - the subtitles are saying 'speak up' but that's wrong."
Afterwards I ask her about the one Danish line.
"What do you mean one?" she says. "Christian was speaking Danish the whole time."
The fact that I can't tell the difference between Swedish and Danish doesn't change my understanding of the overall film. Its main themes are strong enough to pass through the filters and barriers of language and local knowledge.
Christian, through his actions, through his ebbs and flows across the film, comes across as a bit of a jerk. But as a point of characterisation, the fact that he resolutely insists on speaking Danish while everyone else around him speaks Swedish adds an extra edge to his arrogance.
It's important to note that this is not a case of "speak our language or get out" - language barriers are real and an entirely separate issue. Christian, however, as a character, is working in a high-powered job in an important Swedish institution - a job which would involve a whole lot of schmoozing. One of his opening lines in the film is about how much of his job is dedicated to getting money for the museum. He presumably can speak Swedish but chooses not to, and doesn't even make any small concessions to the language of those around him.
Danish and Swedish, much like Cantonese and Mandarin, are similar but not interchangeable; being able to understand one doesn't necessarily translate to understanding the other. But, for the most part, you can kind of muddle through. It just adds an extra layer of difficulty to communication.
Going back over the film with this knowledge shifts a lot of tiny things that I thought I'd understood - when his assistant (the only other character who speaks Danish) chastises Christian for being Swedish, there is a new, nasty tone to it. My friend points out that in the scene with the child I'd noted, the child actually asks the character why he is pretending to be Danish - something which is omitted from the subtitles.
"And" she adds, "the thing where they told him to speak clearly - that's a thing because Danish sounds a bit more mumbly." Knowing that Christian is speaking Danish isn't essential to understanding him as a character or even to your interpretation of the film - but it is interesting that a conscious decision seems to have been made to specifically not highlight this facet of The Square to non-Scandinavian audiences. Especially so when it is arguably such a big facet of his personality. Even the director's choice in naming him Christian is a nod to the fact that he is Danish - the X-Royal Museum where the character works is physically connected to Stockholm Palace, the site where famously (at least in Sweden) King Christian II, a Dane, orchestrated a mass execution which is now known as "The Stockholm Bloodbath".
There's a small scene in The Square where Christian has a hurried conversation with a co-worker on what to do about a potential disaster with one of the exhibits. While riding around on a mechanical floor sweeper, one of the cleaners accidentally vacuums up some of the gravel from the 'YOU HAVE NOTHING' room. The co-worker explains that the piles are no longer uniform, that she should go call the insurance company. Christian cuts her off and, after pausing, tells her to go get the vacuumed-up gravel and meet him at the exhibition.
Presumably they fix the piles, and, presumably no one but themselves and the cleaner know what has happened. If the problem is fixed and no one can tell the difference - is it still the same artwork?
Art is a catalyst for ideas which form as they pass through the prism of our knowledge and experience. It's strange to me that two people can look at the same thing and see it entirely differently based on their lived experience. Or, stranger still, see it exactly the same way, but have arrived at their conclusions via entirely different routes.
A magic eye picture can be a psychedelic mess of squiggles or it can be a monkey. A mouldy sandwich can be an accident or a statement. And an exhibition made of piles of gravel can be simultaneously an original artwork and its own replica.
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and editor whose fiction and nonfiction work is widely published. She is an editor for Reading Victoria, and in 2017 was the recipient of a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship, was a judge for the Scribe Prize, was the winner of the inaugural Feminartsy Fiction Prize, and her short story 'One's Company' was selected for Best Australian Stories 2017.