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The occasion where the unconscious manifest

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.

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