Painting as the transformational object

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

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.