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Ângela Ferreira’s Maison Tropicale: Architecture, Colonialism and the Politics of Translation

PhD Thesis, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, 2015
Fiona Allen
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Ângela Ferreira’s Maison Tropicale: Architecture, Colonialism and the Politics of Translation, PhD Thesis, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, 2015

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

recréation, béton, traduction, installation

Indice de palabras clave :

recreación, hormigón, traducción, instalación

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle, XXIe siècle
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Texte intégral

1This is a thesis about translation. More specifically, it is a thesis about the relationship between translation and contemporary art; a pairing which has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade. In order to explore the connection between these terms, the project stands at the intersection between art theory, contemporary art and literary criticism. However, in bringing together these lines of enquiry, it is not my intention to revive the linguistic turn or to examine the various ways in which the term translation has been used as a metaphor for travel, interdisciplinarity or cultural exchange. Rather, the thesis considers the possibility of presenting translation as a framework through which to address the act of remaking. Whilst this gesture has been a recurring theme throughout the history of art, it acquired a particular significance during the latter half of the twentieth century. With the increasing popularity of practices such as collage, montage and rephotography, remaking was assigned a prominent place in art theory and practice; a position which it continues to hold today. Following the decline of postmodernism, however, many of the core assumptions which informed this conjuncture have been called into question. But how might translation allow for an alternative understanding of the act of remaking? To what extent does it constitute an intervention within current debates on contemporary art? And what type of politics does it bring to the fore? Rather than answering these questions in the abstract or attempting to provide an overview of the current state of contemporary art, the thesis focuses upon a single work: Maison Tropicale by Ângela Ferreira.

2Commissioned by the Institute for the Arts and curated by Jürgen Bock, Maison Tropicale was the Portuguese entry for the 2007 Venice Biennale. In this capacity it was displayed at the Fondaçao Marcello; an l-shaped building located on the banks of the Grand Canal between the Rialto and Academia bridges. On entering the building, visitors were directed towards a narrow corridor constructed from aluminium beams attached to a steel base. Although the roof of the passageway was left uncovered, the sides of the structure were filled with a series of wooden panels. Varying in shape and size, these pieces ranged from small, undecorated rectangular planks to larger panels inset with circles of translucent blue glass. On the left hand side of the passage, the glass portals were flanked by a row of seven angled planks and two large wooden chevrons. On the right, however, the layout was slightly different. First, it had a single rather than quadruple layer of the blue glass panels. Secondly, it contained a double row of the angled planks. And finally, one of the chevrons had been replaced with a series of three large rectangles decorated with a circular motif. Behind these component parts, two large triangles spanned the length of the structure.

3On reaching the end of the walkway, visitors were presented with the second part of Ferreira’s installation: a series of eight colour photographs. Although presented together, the images were clearly subdivided into two distinct groups. The first four photographs featured a large concrete platform surrounded by trees, radio antennae and a number of other miscellaneous objects, including packing crates and open paint cans. The second group, in contrast, focused on a small cluster of dilapidated buildings. Despite differing in emphasis, however, all four images sought to highlight the materials used in their construction. On first encounter, there seemed little to link the two parts of Ferreira’s installation. Yet, on closer examination, both aspects of the work shared the same point of reference: a colonial housing project, also entitled Maison Tropicale, by Jean Prouvé. Whereas the sculptural aspects of Ferreira’s installation echoed the component parts of Prouvé’s structures, the photographs depicted the now-empty sites where the houses were first installed.

4But to what extent is the complex relationship between space and time, history and geography, encapsulated within Maison Tropicale? How might Ferreira’s project allow for a reconsideration of the various theoretical and historical categories that have been used to address contemporary art? How does our understanding of the contemporary transform our relationship to modernity?

5To set the stage for this investigation, chapter 1 takes its lead from a series of categories that have been used to address the act of remaking since the 1970s. Yet rather than focusing on a particular strain of art theory or attempting to provide an overview of the current state of contemporary art, the chapter takes the form of three distinct case studies. Beginning with a discussion of the relationship between allegory, appropriation and montage, the first of these studies considers how the categories of autonomy and heteronomy have been employed in response to the compositional structure of the artwork; a line of enquiry which takes its lead from the writings of Peter Bürger. Following this, the second case study examines how different understandings of parody and pastiche informed debates on postmodernism during the 1980s and 1990s. Building upon these lines of enquiry, the final subsection explores how the changing status of the archive has been addressed within the journal October, specifically in the writings of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Hal Foster. Although this chapter seeks to demonstrate the limitations of these approaches, it is not my intention to suggest that they should be disregarded. By addressing these topics, the chapter seeks to foreground the sense of uncertainty and dissatisfaction which characterises the current field of artistic practice.

  • 1 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator” [Initially published in: Charles Baudelaire, Tableau (...)

6Building upon these lines of enquiry, chapter 2 takes its lead from Walter Benjamin’s 1923 essay “The Task of the Translator”. Written as a preface to his translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, the essay begins from the standpoint that the purpose of a translation is neither to transmit information nor to offer an interpretation of a literary text. Rather, Benjamin proposes, the act of translation should be limited to works in possession of a certain “essential quality”—that is, translatability. But although Benjamin presents this characteristic as a prerequisite for translation, this is not to suggest that he believes that all works which possess it should be translated. Rather, he argues, “it means [...] that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability”.1 As a result, Benjamin’s definition of translation is grounded in not one, but two relationships: that of the translation to the original, but also that of the original to itself. It is the form of the latter—and its role in shaping the form of the translation—which defines translatability.

  • 2 Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer” [Initially published in: Versuche über Brecht, Frankfurt (...)

7Although “The Task of the Translator” focuses primarily on literature, Benjamin does not preclude the possibility of translating between media. Within “The Author as Producer”, for example, he stresses the importance of “rethink[ing] our conceptions of literary forms or genres, in view of the technical factors affecting our present situation”, thus highlighting the potential for new media—in Benjamin’s case, cinema and photography—to transform established genres and forms.2 In an attempt to further this line of enquiry, this chapter examines the complex relationship between architecture, sculpture and installation that informs Maison Tropicale. Beginning with an overview of the various ways in which the question of translation has been addressed within art history, it then attempts to locate Ferreira’s work within the broader context of installation art and its accompanying literature. With reference to the work of Hal Foster, Claire Bishop, Alex Potts and others, it explores how the relationship between space and time is addressed within these accounts.

8It is my belief that, whilst none of the aforementioned writers propose a rigid distinction between the two, their accounts ultimately privilege the spatial aspects of installation. Rather than continuing in this vein, the chapter focuses upon the temporal questions at play within Maison Tropicale, specifically, the themes of travel and displacement that haunt the work. In doing so, it seeks to explore how the act of remaking might be thought as a form of translation.

9Having engaged with the sculptural aspects of Ferreira’s installation, chapter 3 addresses the photographic components of Maison Tropicale. Taken in Niamey and Brazzaville during April 2007, the shots depict a series of derelict buildings and the remnants of a locally produced concrete platform on which Prouvé’s houses once stood. But although these images continue the narrative found in the first part of the project, they also depart from it in a number of ways. Whereas the houses were restored and sold at auction, the concrete platform was not included in this process. In many respects, this series of events is paradoxical. Both aspects of the project were designed by Prouvé and manufactured under his supervision. Whilst it might be possible to suggest that the reasons for this abandonment were purely practical, such a claim risks evading a series of much more troubling questions: What does the apparent illegibility of the bases tell us about the status of their producers? To what extent does the photographic medium allow us to confront this problem? And, finally, what might be gained from returning to the postcolony?

10In order to answer these questions, the chapter focuses upon the question of untranslatability. Although the figure of the untranslatable has generated a substantial body of literature over the past decade, this line of enquiry takes its lead from the usage proposed by Emily Apter. Presenting the term as a counter argument to the widely held belief in universal translatability, Apter’s formulation addresses a series of cultural phenomena that are either ambiguous or contradictory—including literary world-systems, theologies of translation and the question of authorial de-ownership—and considers the benefits of engaging with them. In doing so, her aim is not simply to demonstrate the existence of these tropes or to celebrate a type of linguistic indeterminacy. Rather, Apter’s engagement with the untranslatable stems from the various conflicts and political tensions which underpin these phenomena; two lines of argument which are particularly pertinent for Ferreira’s photographs. To further this connection, the chapter begins with an overview of the various histories and debates which surround the untranslatable. Following this, it then examines a series of moments in which the interests of the coloniser and the colonised are brought into conflict. Ultimately, however, it seeks to consider how the photographic components of Maison Tropicale might allow for a greater understanding of the specificities of French colonial rule.

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1 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator” [Initially published in: Charles Baudelaire, Tableaux Parisiens, Heidelberg: verlag von Richard Weißbach, 1923. Trans. Harry Zohn], in Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (eds.), Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913–1926, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1996, p. 253–263 (p. 254)

2 Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer” [Initially published in: Versuche über Brecht, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966. Trans. Edmund Jephcott], in Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (eds.), Selected Writings: Volume 2, 1927–1934, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1996, p. 768–782 (p. 771).

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Référence électronique

Fiona Allen, « Ângela Ferreira’s Maison Tropicale: Architecture, Colonialism and the Politics of Translation », ABE Journal [En ligne], 9-10 | 2016, mis en ligne le 28 décembre 2016, consulté le 26 avril 2019. URL :

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Fiona Allen

School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom, 2015

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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