Anselm Franke, one of the curators of this year’s Manifesta, has been the director of Extra City, a contemporary art center established in Antwerp in 2003, since 2006. In the exhibition guide for “Mimesis,” which he recently organized, Franke explains that the exhibition was intended as an alternative to the perhaps too-numerous recent shows that examine the reciprocal influences between art and theater. According to Franke, these are too often based on comparisons of a strictly formal order, with, for example, excessive attention brought to bear on the question of staging. He feels that what’s really important is instead the concept of mimesis, whose semantic richness allows a broader and more subtle apprehension of the subject.

The exhibition was composed essentially of films and video—in addition to a few photographs and drawings—projected in oversize wooden crates, variously arranged in the open space of the art center. Effortlessly, we lingered, or moved fluidly from one work to another, gradually discovering the general tenor of the show. It soon became clear that this was not a traditional thematic exhibition. A good example of the emancipation of the theme was provided by Jean Rouch’s fabulous film Les Maîtres fous (The Mad Masters). This film, shot by the French anthropologist in Ghana in 1955, is a sort of documentary that presents and explains a curious tribal ritual during which priests become possessed by spirits that take the form of representatives of British colonial power, frenetically mimicking the power relations and hierarchy among them.

The importance of this film in the context of the exhibition proved twofold. On the one hand, the film reveals the ability of the camera to render the real in all its “literalness,” while at the same time it questions the status of this reality. Rouch recorded the ritual as it unfolded before his eyes, but this ritual is no less a fiction itself, as the participants were aware of the presence of the filmmaker and were affected by it. At bottom, a remarkable parallel is established between the subject of this film and the concept of mimesis. Indeed, colonialism testifies to the will of a people to fashion a country and its inhabitants in its image. Likewise—or conversely—the anthropologist seeks to blend into a community, in order to understand the rules that govern it.

The exhibition contained other works that broaden the field of reflection in a comparable way. The distinction or lack thereof between being and non-being (Samuel Beckett’s Film, 1965), identity and anonymity (Sofia Hultén’s video Grey Area, 2001, in which the artist seems to be attempting to disappear by blending into an office environment, or Charif Benhelima’s photographs of a haven for illegal immigrants in Brussels), the individual and the social body (Harun Farocki’s Die Bewerbung [The Interview], 1997, filmed at a training course on how to apply for a job): These are a few of the themes that were opened up for us here, in an exhibition that stepped beyond the limits of its theoretical framework with brio.

Yoann Van Parys

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.