Amorphous Cognition in the Work of Boinga Bob.

20160405_154527 Boinga Bob (Robert Prudhoe) is an outsider artist whose work spans more than forty years. I have known Boinga Bob since the 1980s and I feel very privileged in being able to bring a brief retrospective view of the artist’s work to an already attentive audience. This post represents a sample from a new book to be released shortly on the work of Boinga Bob.

The outsider art of Boinga Bob represents a unique niche in the alternative art domain both for the scale of his installations and the consistency of themes.  The work is significant in the way the artist represents places, spaces, texts, contexts and identities, whereby each modality reflects a unique and complex pathway in the artist’s thinking. More appropriately described as outsider architecture, Boinga Bob’s buildings capture the public imagination because he transforms objects in ways that astound and often perplex his audience.  At the same time, Boinga Bob’s work touches the deeper psychic centres of faith, critical discourse and questioning, especially in relation to what is meant by the category of ‘outsider art’. The knowledge of outsider art in Australia is very limited compared to other countries and there are questions as to whether the description outsider is even appropriate for what is more or less a branch of visionary art.  In addition, the term outsider is frequently marked as discriminatory as many outsiders are becoming commercially savvy and selling their work in mainstream galleries, which alters their status to that of ínsiders.

Generally, an artist’s motivation comes from nature, technology and the many experiences incurred over a lifetime.  Often this involves exploring history, sociology and the world’s rich cultures, sometimes the source of material is immediate, sometimes inward and likely to sit closer to home.  Boinga Bob mixes multiple locations, sets, stories, fantasies and combines them with many different cultural styles. Some influences come from India and Greece, others from Egypt, Alaska and beyond. Nothing escapes the imagination of this artist.  He has borrowed from monuments, texts and ideologies and made them his own.  Further, by using a vivid colour palate and skilled engineering Boinga Bob has created some extraordinary structures that have earned him worldwide attention.

Boinga Bob builds temples, he is also a philosopher in the broadest sense of the word who applies his thoughts about life and the universe to a mode of art that encompasses a variety of universal insignia. Geometric shapes and fractals cover his creations as do the collections of bric-a-brac.   In addition, the artist is in the practice of gathering ancient artefacts inspired by his archaeological interests. The blend is eclectic and meaningful.  Like many outsider artists Boinga Bob draws on his dreams and often his concepts are far greater than his opportunities for real exploration.  In this sense, many aspirations get transformed into abstractions and rituals that manifest repetition on a grand scale.  The result is a myriad of cosmic fantasies that include hybridized creatures; otherwise reincarnated hyperdeities that adorn the walls of his buildings. The hyperdeities also influence the multi-coloured glass in his asymmetrical windows. He extends the usefulness of stuffed toys and leaves them sitting and weathering along the roadside in a strange and regimented regime of transmutation. Art is never complete and with this in mind, the unfinished product (in the form of rotting artefacts) lends itself to a particular kind of artistic critique, one where material demise is a crucial sceptical of the life’s physical journey.

Most art analysis focusses on a particular time and movement. This work attempts something different, it explores the art of Boinga Bob as the embodiment of Hyperobjects.  The Hyperobject is an object that is extended beyond its original domain.  In linguistics the Hyperobject can be viewed in the same way as a metonymic word (a word into which one can inject many meanings). Hyperobjects transgress the boundaries of the ordinary and enter into the realm of phenomenology, which has its own relation to the human brain and its neural capacity to create great and often seemingly bizarre art.

Once considered an incongruous mix, neuroscience and phenomenology have recently merged to reveal new pathways for understanding human creativity. What is on offer is a more comprehensive view of what drives a person to create and why the production of outsider art is so different to   mainstream art; and indeed, creativity in general.  Mainstream art has become heavily rationalized towards market acceptability, it is either good or bad art.  Boinga Bob is an outsider artist whose work falls into the realm of non-dualism. The practice of non-dualism means ‘not two’ or ‘one undivided without a second’.[1]  It is a concept used to define various aspects of religious and spiritual belief and it generally reflects the discourses and practices  found in a variety of Asian religious traditions as well as in modern western spirituality. In scientific terms non-dualism is speculative.  In personal terms, it is active and real; art-is-art-is-art…  There is intrinsic value simply in the act of creating. That said, value are generally culturally defined and economically driven. To escape these rules, one must turn to the ultimate art of philosophy.

In contrast speculative realism is a philosophy that has transcended any metaphysical origins (metaphysical, being that which humans attach to people and things to alter meaning and perspective). What the outsider artist does in his or her work is to create a purely object oriented ontology (OOO) out of a desire for transcendentalism, but this also distorts the object making it metaphysical.

Transcendentalism has a long history, which constantly resurfaces through various belief systems. For example, one of the most recent gurus Osho speaks to his followers about the journey towards transcendentalism  and puts it this way:

  • Awareness cannot exist with duality, and mind cannot exist without duality. Awareness is non-dual, and mind is dual.
  • If you go outwards you will move into the world of duality. If you go inwards you will move into the world of non-duality; you will become non-polar.
  • Enlightenment is the realization of the non-dual.
  • When there is I, it creates thou. When there is I it creates duality, and all is lost in duality. When there is no I, then there is non-duality. Then you are one with existence, utterly one. Then you are nothing but a pulsation of existence itself, just a ripple in the lake of this infinite consciousness.
  • If you are divided in two, into man and woman, negative/ positive, darkness/light, mind/heart, thought/feeling — if you are divided in two, your energywill be going downward. Division is the way of the downward. When you are undivided, one, you start moving upward. To be one is to move upward, to be two is to move downward. Duality is the way to hell, non-duality is the way to heaven.
  • These are the two planes of humanity: duality, the plane of duality, what Hindus call DWAITA, the plane of two; and non-duality, the plane of one, the plane of the non-dual. When you are divided you are in this world; when you are undivided, you have transcended — you are no longer here, you have penetrated into the Beyond. Then boundariesmeet and the boundaries meet in you. So the whole effort is how to become undivided, how to become one.[2]

 

Many artists have expressed the feeling of oneness in their art and this has become a reflection of the non-dualism penetrating the real world; where it must inevitably take its place in the dualistic system of being and non-being; or being in.  The artist straddles the state of being-in, sometimes as a form of escapism; because duality always demands its own questioning and this can be anxiety-making.  Most artists live on the edge of heightened anxieties and placate these emotions through creativity.

 

From a transpersonal psychodynamic point of view duality is both an inward and outward phenomenon that speaks through many mediums including therapy.  All art speaks to the notion of a deeply felt intuition, which is linked on the one hand to quiescence and on the other to the fight and flight tendencies.  This might also be termed a kind of enlightenment, where meaning is the prefix to an object that disturbs the equilibrium. Objects are also experiential linking a kind of phenomenal unity of consciousness to the material aspects of life. However, consciousness is not a phenomenally unified field.  This becomes obvious when a subject might list all the important experiences that have been taken over time in the belief that there is a constant and unified flow of experience, when in reality something is always missing from the flow.  Firstly, we do not remember all our experiences and secondly, if we did no experience could ever be reproduced with any kind of accuracy.  What this means for art is that repetition is only a partial copy of the original.  What the eye sees is not what the brain translates or what the hand reproduces. Rather, what the eye sees becomes the Hyperobject.

 

Hyperobjects.

 

I first encountered OOO in the work of Timothy Morton and his book titled Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. (2013).  Morton puts emphasis on the damage humans do to the environment and compares it to more universal forms of change.  For example, Morton throws light on the melting icecaps caused by global warming with a convincing argument that if we humans looked at the world from a non-anthropocentric perspective the melting ice caps would not be viewed as threatening or unusual. Morton’s point is that the chief stumbling block to environmental thinking is the image of nature itself. The same can be said of art analysis. We need to ask, what is art?  As humans we have already put a meaning on art that defines our position as knowable humans; but while art might be a human endeavour it is not a replica or humanity or anything close.  There is an ecology to art that is separate from its creators, one very good reason why it makes for a good module for therapy or to put it differently, the restoration of (w)holeness and well-being. the search for (w)holeness frequently dominates the artist’s thinking.

Environmental ecologists want to conserve nature and they propose a change in worldview, but the very idea to preserve the natural world leads them away from the ‘nature’ they are aiming to protect.  The problem, according to Morton, is a symptom of the ecological catastrophe in which we are living.   Art faces a similar paradox.    As Morton  states, ‘ to have a proper ecological view, we must relinquish the idea of nature altogether’. Morton argues: ‘When we try to visualize the environment we encounter entities that are distorted (anamorphic) and spectral (physical yet suffused with nothingness) To see the environment as Nature is to skip over the necessary step of facing horror and fear’.[3]  Morton’s views are a form of anti-humanism, similarly, outsider art might be classified as anti-art.

Just as we humans have humanized the earth with our presence and in doing so we have created a social construction of nature, which is not attainable, so too have we encapsulated art within an idea that is not attainable. The French philosopher Jacques Lacan in his rewriting of Sigmund Freud   argued that his produces a lack.[4]   Otherwise put, a void occurs, which might be translated into an incomplete form of art. For the artist is the work is never finished.   Lacan takes this idea from the first encounter the child has of his or her image in the mirror and the formation of the ‘I’ or the ego. This according to Lacan, lays out the parameters of a human identity as being always already decentred.   Before this time, Lacan suggests the child is little more than a body in bits and pieces, unable to clearly separate the I and other and wholly dependent for its survival the primary caregiver. The implications of this observation are that the I is the other from the beginning, but the other is also an intangible distant entity that presents as something to be desired not something one has.  The subject then always wants what the other has. Hence, the artist is always already engaged in creating the other as the desired Hyperobject. 

Morton believes that Hyperobjects are defining human existence every time the onlooker engages with them in much the same way as the butterfly effect suggests that small causes can create great changes and have manifold effects.   The Hyperobject harks back to the Pythagorean School and a more archaic mode of  non-duality that resists the philosophies of human finitude. In this way,  a human life is always recast as unreal as is the human’s art.  The idea was strongly opposed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in response to the European Enlightenment, but not without contest as science, like art, is constantly attempting to recast the unreal.

Transcendental materialism (and neo-vitalism) have reached a pivotal point in popularity because Hyperobjects have a ‘strangeness’ that is appealing, yet unconscious and it is this ‘unconscious strangeness’ that makes us strangers to ourselves.   The outsider artist attempts to get beneath this alien self by going beyond the artistic conventions.

The ideas encapsulated in Morton’s discourse on object-oriented ontology (OOO) suggest that objects have been misunderstood; objects are more a phenomenon than examples of tactile matter to be viewed or used as is suggested by object philosophy and the utilitarian arts.  Graham Harman (2010) interprets Morton’s  Hyperobjects objects by suggesting they try to ‘undermine’ objects by saying that objects are simply superficial crusts to a deeper underlying reality, either in the form of monism or a perpetual flux, or those that try to ‘overmine’ objects by saying that the idea of a whole object is a form of folk ontology, that there is no underlying ‘object’ beneath either the qualities (e.g. there is no ‘apple’, only ‘red’, ‘hard’, etc.)… or …that an object is only what it ‘modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates’ ).[5]    This raises the question of what speaks?  Does art, and especially outsider art have a voice?

The notion of Hyperobjects upsets the Western ideas of perception because Hyperobjects are the holographic view of the world, a view, which the outsider artist lives daily within his or her perpetual cycle of chaos and creativity.   In reality, the philosophy of Hyperobjects displaces the historical constraints by transmutation of a wholly anthropocentric worldview. The animal is no long the animal comparable to the human, the human is also the animal.

 

Art and Neuroscience.

The juxtaposition between art and neuroscience first came to public attention because doctors and specialists needed to know how to better treat degenerative illnesses and injuries to the human brain.  The discoveries of brain plasticity offered the realization that different people see things differently. The question posed by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran was simply this, we all look at art and we find all kinds of reasons for explaining what we see, but in doing so we forget one vital question: Why do we see at all?  The answer to this question brings together the functions of the brain and the functions of art.[6]

Art cannot function without the brain, but how well does the brain function without art? The brain offers an implicit record of human consciousness, it creates history as it selectively relays the experiential totality.  The brain’s totality includes a host of motivations and emotions, many of which are not conscious and some are innate.   It might be said that if the brain is the encyclopaedia of our life-world experience, then art is its index. To this end, psychologists investigating the relation between the brain and art call it higher order cognition.[7]

Following the Cognitive Revolution of the 1970s neuroscientists have talked about the way the brain replicates information through higher order laws and how this might determine the role art has in the structuring of society through the minds of its participating individuals.  Also, how the society can change through the production of its arts and culture.   In this sense humanity is constantly reinventing itself through the production and acquisition of the arts.  We might then talk about art as a mode of inter-subjectivity,  or what is it about art that moves us to laughter, compassion, admiration or tears. We can also talk about innate evolutionary processes commonly called visual extension or exaggeration or that, which becomes reformulated through the image production pathway and ends up becoming the dominant view; [8] the Hyperobject.  If we were telling a story using words we might compare these reformulation processes to a chain of signifiers where the narrative (or object of the narrative) gets added to (or subjected from) every time the story gets replicated. In art the replicated objects are magnified to affirm the existence of the original object, often to the point of obsession, the result is a familiar pattern in nature and human nature, meaning and method become subject to limitations, which only the imagination can alter.

For the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1929) repetition compulsion is a traumatic experience repeated over and over again.  It can happen in dreams and hallucinations.[9]    Many artists will describe seeing a picture in their head before beginning the replication, which acts as a replacement for the original image, but because the two images are not the same there is always an unfinished chain of images. This causes many artists to feel their work is inadequate, but it also prompts new creations. An important question is also raised, how important is art in the day-to-day world of replication?  In nature it is a crucial event most of us take for granted.

There are key factors in the replication of higher order laws, repetition being only one component; memory, perception and interpretation are also required to produce our material world, as is obsession. All obsession is commonly understood as commitment on the positive side and addiction on the negative (Hyperlanguage as opposed to a hyperbole). In art there is no avoiding the obsession with images, positive or negative; there is only oneness.  Images are all around us, they keep us cocooned and protected from whatever lies beyond, art brings those same boundaries closer, but with the benefit on inspection.

Freud attributed most human behaviour (and its pre-conscious images) to the sexual instincts, which are also the principle species survival instincts.   It was in his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) that Freud added the death drive, otherwise called Thanatos.   Following the Cognitive Revolution neuroscientists have hypothesized the idea that all art is the product of an innate system of laws wired into the brain, which are connected to the life and death instincts.  By examining the brain’s mechanisms and its ontological development from the primacy of vision to a different kind of vision attributed to the higher order of consciousness, scientists have speculated on the production and necessity of art both as a survival mechanism and a mode of communication.

It has been said that the eyes are windows of the soul, so what do the brain and art truly have in common? The eyes remind us that there is no unified flow in consciousness, something is always left out.  Similarly, art does not record everything seen, there are always missing components. The brain does not relay everything it absorbs; it selects what appears to be relevant. Art is unable to present the subject with the ‘real’ text or image.  Art tends to exaggerate or it transcends reality rather than recording reality accurately, the brain engages in the same process.[10]

Boinga Bob’s work is an example of where the eye meets the brain in a constant search for the phenomenological. In this respect, the artist tags everything with a universal message of Love and Light as a Hyperobject.    

[1] John A. Grimes (1996). A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy: Sanskrit Terms Defined in English. State University of New York Press. p. 15.

[2] Osho.  http://enlightenmenttalk.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/osho-quotes-on-non-duality_10.html

[3] Timothy Morton 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press., p142 and plate 6.

[4] Lacan’s article, titled The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I (1936, 1949)

[5] Graham Harman, Prince of Networks, 95.

[6] V. S. Ramachandran [2001] The Tell-tale Brain:  The Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.   New York. Norton and Co., p147.

 

[7]        Robert L Solso [1997] Cognition and the Visual Arts, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  1.       Braford Book. MIT Press, Chapter 5, p 101.

 

[8]        V.S. Ramachandran [1999] Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol.6, No. 6-7, pp. 15. 51, see also E. H. Gombrich, [1960] Art and illusion, a study in the psychology of pictorial representation,  Phaidon, Oxford/London and  E.H. Gombrich [1972] The Image and The Eye, Further studies in the psychology of pictorial representation, 1972, Phaidon, London and New York.

 

[9]          Sigmund Freud [1941] The Pleasure Principle, Harmondsworth Penguin Classics.

 

[10]  V.S. Ramachandran [1999] Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol.6, No. 6-7,  pp.

15–51 and V. S. Ramachandran [2001] The Tell-tale Brain:  The Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. New York. Norton and Co., p147.