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I often do not realise what I am creating or painting until one day I find these signs already sedimented in my behavior and personality.

The four photos above were taken on 8, 10, 12 January and 19 May 2020; The first three photos are my experiments with embodied the unconscious space using the thread, foam ball, laundry bag and red tissue paper. The last photo is my exploration of the unconscious space through painting practices. When I made the painting I did not realise I had taken these three photos, but one day when I was looking through the album, I suddenly realised the similarity between them. My creation is often accidental and unconscious, but this does not means I do nothing and just wait for inspiration to come along. This unconscious creation can be regarded as a visualisation of an unthought known. Influenced by Bollas’s conceptions, I would like to discuss the transformational object applied to my art practice, and the situation that I lost the part of the subject in the creation process and became the object of ego.

In my previous blogs, I introduced Bollas' concept of transformational object which refer to the infant’s experience of the first object. Then, how can this concept, which originates from the field of psychology, be applied in art practice?

In a clinical example in Bollas’s book, the transformational object relation could present as the schisophrenia. For example, Peter is a man whose mother had expected him to bring great wealth to the family.He feels anxiety and pressure because he cannot fulfill his mother's wishes. He was expected to be a ‘good son’ who is fulfilling his mother’s desire, but his identity as a subject disappears in the process of fulfilling his mother's desire, and he exists as a ‘good son’ rather than as Peter. This means Peter does not exist as ‘I’ but as ‘it’, or as an object of his mother.

In a therapy process, the analyst functions as an evocative anemic trace of the transformational object help the patient to find their identification through recalling an early object relation as an infant. In Peter’s cases, he presents himself as a person who needs care such as ‘my stomach hurts’ and he caught the analyst’s attention by some agitated gestures. Bollas realised that these actions were a secret expression that Peter recalled in his earliest relation with his mother. For Peter, what matters is not the analyst's interpretation and evaluation of what he describes, but the analyst's connection with him as an object. In such a process of establishing a relation; a process of treating the analyst as a condition for evoking memories and retrieving identities, his subjectivity can be revealed through object relations.

This transformational-object-seeking process happened in aesthetic moments in adult life, as these occasions has the same functions as the analyst—intense memories of the process of self-transformation (Bollas 1987, 14). These aesthetic moments function as the first transformational object—mother, as these occasions are not ‘cognitively apprehended but existentially known’(ibid, 5). The aesthetic moment can be felt as an atmosphere but not known as an object; Such occasions ‘evoke a psychosomatic sense of fusion that is the subject’s recollection of the transformational object’ (ibid).

What I concerned is this fusion of the subject and object in the aesthetic moment. This fusion, or immersion is dual, simultaneous, reversible and dialectic. According to Jeffry C. Alexander, on the one hand, it can be called ‘materialization’, the process “by which the subject falls into the object and loses oneself. One become the thing, existing inside it"(Alexander 2008, 6). In an example of performance art, the fusion happened between the audience (the subject) and the actors (the object), as the audience projected themselves onto the actors performing on the stage and experienced what the actors were acting (see Woodward & Ellison 2010, 50-51). Through this fusion, such an aesthetic moment evokes a certain emotion or memory of the past as the subject of the audience. On the other hand, the opposite experience can be called ‘subjectification’, this is a process that the object become the subject, a moment that the object become alive and loses its objectless. In photography, the photograph can be understood as the object falls on the subject, as the photograph as an object contains the subject’s conscious and unconscious investment (Kember 2008).

So far we have seen such subject-object structure occurs in the communication between the infant and the mother, the therapist and the patient, the actors and the audience the photograph and the photographer. Then, how does this model apply to my painting practice? What is the relation between subject and object in my painting? How does the unconscious appear in such a painting process? How does this relate to the unconscious space?

In my art practice, my being as a subject decayed or even disappeared. I made room for the unconscious, making myself as the object of the unconscious, existing as ‘it’ rather than ‘I’. Therefore, I did not intentionally create the subject matter of unconscious space, but participated in the process of revealing “what the unconscious space might be”. I am part of the objects, together with other objects such as materials, techniques and ideas, were co-responsible for the works of art. In this case, I allow an unthought known to be present through the painting process as a feeling rather than a thought. In the creative process, I do not always know what I am painting, what techniques and materials I should use. When I looked at my work with the audience after it was finished, it was new and strange to me; It allows for a variety of interpretations. There is no authorship of artworks, it is a different version in everyone’s mind, and it is an object like a container, allowing the subject to drill into it and take possession of it in its own way. The artwork creates an open space as being an object to everyone rather than an object of the artist.

The transformational-object-seeking takes place in the present, in anticipation of the future and in retrospect of the distant past. It is not only happened in one’s infant life, but far from one’s birth. If the search of the transformational object occurs in the aesthetic moment in adult life, then the archetype of transformation can be regarded as the embodiment of the transformational-object-seeking process in the dream. The archetype of transformation is the “typical situations, places, ways and means, that symbolise the kind of transformation” (Jung 1968, 52). This archetype often described as a journey to unknown destinations and the exploration of dark places (Jung 1968, 136). From this point of view, I believe it is worth to investigate the relation between the archetype of transformation and the transformational-object-seeking.

Bollas focused not only on the dream content but also the dreaming style. He regarded the aesthetic accomplishments of the ego is embodied in the way in which dream themes of various instincts and memories are dealt with. This aesthetic function is to transform the theme into a dramatic expression, to dramatise the transformational-object-seeking into an exploration of an unknown journey, or to visit a ‘higher beings’ in a mysterious cave. The dream does not bring the individual to their past experience but create a new theme which reflected by the ego. In this new theme, the subject becomes the ego’s object, or it can be understood as the subject inhabited in the object relation. As Bollas pointed out that the dream presents an ironic object relation—“Where the subject is presented with the other’s view of the self”(Bollas 1987, 50).

Therefore, I regard my painting as a way of seeking the transformational object. I am influenced by these objects all the time. They are sedimented in my personality and behavior and constitute the my ‘present self’, the ‘past self’ and the ‘future self’. To examine my own painting is to defamiliarise myself as a part of the subject, to find an unconscious space that can be examined in such an object relation.


Alexander, J. C. (2008). Iconic experience in art and life: Surface/depth beginning with Giacometti's Standing Woman. Theory, Culture & Society, 25(5), 1-19.

Bollas, C. (1987). The shadow of the object: psychoanalysis of the unthought known. London: Free Association Books.

Jung, C. G., & Hull, R. F. C. (1968). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Vol. 1). Florence: Taylor & Francis Group.

Kember, S. (1996). ‘The shadow of the object ‘: Photography and realism. Textual Practice, 10(1), 145-163.

Woodward, I., & Ellison, D. (2010). Aesthetic experience, transitional objects and the third space: The fusion of audience and aesthetic objects in the performing arts. Thesis Eleven, 103(1), 45-53.

What is the transformational object?

The term transformational object is a psychoanalyst term created by Christopher Bollas to describe a transformational structure of subject and object. In the early stage, infants do not regard their mother as an object but as an environment, which is called mother-environment (Bollas 1987, 4).

Mother is the first transformational object to the infants, and the first object is not ‘known’ but as a recurrent experience of being. For example, the mother promotes the growth of the infant in the environment she creates by feeding, communicating and patting. For the infant, there is no object but the environment. This mother-environment further developed into countless subject-objects, but the structure of object relation and the instinct of object-seeking remains in adult life. As Bollas pointed out, “the object as envirosomatic transformer of the subject. The memory of this early object relation manifests itself in the person’s search for an object (a person, place, event, ideology) that promises to transform the self”(ibid). The search of objects in the adult life usually happened in an aesthetic moment in which an adult “feels deep subjective rapport with an object (a painting, a poem, an aria or symphony, or a natural landscape) and experiences an uncanny fusion with the object (Bollas 1987, 5)”. These aesthetic moments brings adults back to their early psychic life, a state that the subject perceive the object as an environment; a recollection of the transformational object.

The concept of transformational object has been widely used in art practices such as photography (see Kember 1996), performance art (see Woodward & Ellison 2010) and painting (see Greg Drasler; Paul Helliwell). The core point in the transformational object is it broken the relation of subject-object but inviting an object relation into an aesthetic moment. The activity of seeking the aesthetic moment arouses an individual memory of an unspoken, wordless and pre-verbal experience as being infant. It is not thought but an unspoken feeling which led the subject into a fusion evoked by an aesthetic moment.

“In the aesthetic moment, when a person engages in deep subjective rapport with an object, the culture embodies in the arts varied symbolic equivalents to the search for transformation. In the quest for a deep subjective experience of an object, the artist both remembers for us and provides us with occasions for the experience of ego memories of transformation.”(Bollas 2012, 11)

Painting thinking, prose thinking and musical thinking, these process can be viewed as transformational object (Bollas 2012, 200). A painter can paint without knowing what the painting is, a poet can write a poem but do not need to think what the poem is. It is what Bollas (1987) terms the unthought known, a phrase refers to an unrepressed unconscious which is known but has not yet been thought. This often refers to preverbal and the earliest experience that may effect one’s behavior unconsciously. It placed the subject in the object relation, and this relation prior to one’s thought and language. I regard the process that the subject search through a transformational object is the way that the unthought known into thought. In this process, “the object no longer simply expressing self, but re-forming it. This might be considered a type of projection—a putting of the self into an object”(Bollas 2011, 200). Or perhaps it could be understood as the subject inhabited in object relation.

The painting process somehow manifests how the subject transfers itself into an object relation. I can paint the ‘unconscious space’ even though I do not know what the ‘unconscious space’ is. The ‘unconscious space’ is my unthought known that emerges from the activity of painting (transformational object). We express the unthought known through our behaviors in the daily life. It is not a relation of mastery between subject and object, instead, Bollas regarded the subject as ego’s object which makes the relation become a relation of objects. In other words, what I consciously express seems to be an act of subjectivity, but it is actually an intrinsic drive. The unthought known emerges in an environment created by the ego in the form of an object and by other objects. I shall cite Bolt’s point of view here, “the work of art is the movement through the encounter between tools, materials, knowledges, objects and bodies” (Bolt 2004, 50). Both Bolt and Bollas emphasised the position of subject transform to the object relation, and the unthought known is coexist with the known through behavior.

The concept of unthought known and transformational object corresponds to the concepts of sedimented practical schema and archetype of transformation, as they all respond to a structure of past, a pre-verbal experience and a personal history in terms of unconsciousness. The scenes that I had not experienced but has images in my dreams, the scenes that had defamiliarized in my memories, the scenes that had existed in myths and fables before I was born, these scenes were all transformed into an object relation in my painting and in the way I interpret them.


Bollas, C. (1987). The shadow of the object: psychoanalysis of the unthought known. London: Free Association Books.

Bollas, C. (2012). The christopher bollas reader: Routledge.

Bolt, B., & Dawsonera. (2004). Art beyond representation: the performative power of the image. London: I.B. Tauris.

Kember, S. (1996). ‘The shadow of the object ‘: Photography and realism. Textual Practice, 10(1), 145-163.

Woodward, I., & Ellison, D. (2010). Aesthetic experience, transitional objects and the third space: The fusion of audience and aesthetic objects in the performing arts. Thesis Eleven, 103(1), 45-53.

We may also regard the object in my painting as the evocative object, it is a term refer to a high psychic value that “touches us on a deep level and sets inner creative process in motion” (Bollas 2012, XX). The evocative object could be a person, a landscape, a poem or a painting, by evoking the memory of the past through aesthetic activities, the subject dissolved, and the meaning inhabited in the object and atmosphere. The evocative objects emphasizes the unconscious thoughts encounter with objects. The object, becomes a trigger that makes the unconscious possible.

There are six ways that an object can evoke unconscious thought, “An object presents itself as sensible, as structured with a certain atomic specificity, as memorable, as related to certain concepts and signifiers, and as a transient container for projections” (Scalia 2002, 16). From this point of view, I recall a visit to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, which led me to use the image of concrete slabs for a long time to present the claustrophobia in my paintings (see following picture). This open site creates a place of remembrance and claustrophobic by using 2711 concrete slabs of different heights. One may lose himself in it, and these huge, silent concrete slabs may evoke one’s dark experiences and negative emotions. In this case, the concrete slabs had already been mentally signified because is associate with a dark period or a personal experience. The concrete slabs as evocative objects associated with my experience in Berlin, and it implies a special meaning in my painting.

The unconscious, according to Bollas, thus becomes an activity evoked by the evocative objects, and its meaning is implied by the notion of the evocative object (Scalia 2002, 10).The meaning emerges from an encounter between the evocative objects and the unconscious that is affected in one’s experience of a place, a house, a person, a painting, things and thought. It is not just a repressed affection claimed by Freud, but a universal capacity to perceive and interpret the world.


Bollas, C. (2012). The christopher bollas reader: Routledge.

Scalia, J. (2002). The vitality of objects: Exploring the work of Christopher Bollas: Sage.

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