Amorphous Cognition.

 

INTRODUCTION to new book.

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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 this brief retrospective view of the artist’s work to an already attentive audience.  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, 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 as the term outsider is frequently marked as discriminatory because many outsiders are becoming commercially savvy and selling their work in mainstream galleries, which alters their status to that of ínsiders.

Generally speaking, 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 inspiration is immediate, more often it requires deep deliberation.  Boinga Bob mixes experiences and desires with multiple locations, sets, stories and fantasies, which he combines 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 ideas about life and the universe to a mode of art that encompasses a variety of universal insignias. Geometric shapes and fractals cover his creations as do the collections of bric-a-brac with their own mathematical shapes and sizes. In addition, the artist engages in the practice of gathering ancient artefacts prompted by his archaeological interests. The end result is an aesthetic construction with a blend that 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 respect, many aspirations get transformed into abstractions and rituals that manifest repetition on a grand scale.  All art is a method of repetition in some way. The outcome of Boinga Bob’s imaginings is a myriad of cosmic fantasies that include hybridized creatures and other reincarnated hyperdeities that adorn the walls of his buildings. The hyperdeities also influence the multi-coloured glass in his asymmetrical windows. Boinga Bob extends the usefulness of materials to stuffed toys and leaves many of them sitting along the roadside in a strange and regimented regime of transmutation. Art is never complete and with this in mind, the rotting artefacts on the main street lend credence to a particular kind of artistic critique, one where material demise is a crucial component replicating the human 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 the art of 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.

Once considered an incongruous mix, art 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.  In addition, outsider art when combined with neuroscience has taught us much about human development and the developmental delays experienced by some individuals as well as the human brain’s capacity for compensation; particularly in the work of gifted savants.

Boinga Bob is an outsider artist who transcends the dualisms. The practice of non-dualism 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.  Non-dualistic art is often called spiritual or visionary art.

Transcendentalism has a long history, which constantly resurfaces through time and the 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.[1]

Many artists have expressed the feeling of non-duality within their art and for Boinga Bob this has become a reflection of the desire for unity in a troubled world.  Boinga Bob sees non-dualism as a shining light, which speaks to the perceived limitations of living in a system of conventions and social norms that appear strange and alienated to someone of difference. Psychoanalysis interprets such a situation as the result of trauma.

From a  psychodynamic point of view duality is both an inward and outward phenomenon that speaks through many mediums including psychotherapy.  All art conveys 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 and almost inevitably to the state of finitude. This knowledge might also be termed a kind of enlightenment, where meaning is the prefix to an object that disturbs

and creates. 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 view 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 Hyperobjects in the work of Timothy Morton and his book titled Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. (2013). 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.   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 its expression in 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 has reached a pivotal point in popular culture 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 expectations; beyond the beyond.

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’ ).[2]    This raises the question of what speaks?   Further, how does art speak to us through abstractions?

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 transforming chaos into 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, it is comparable to the human, the human is also the animal.

Art and Neuroscience.

Recently, the meaning of art has been extended into the study of the neurosciences, which 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 for example 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.[3] What art and brain analysis reveal is the extraordinary changes in styles that can be related directly to brain function.

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 of the sentient world.  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 and psychoanalysts investigating the relation between the brain and art call the process of interpretation higher order cognition.[4]

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 participating individuals.  Also, how a society can change through the production of its 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; [5] or 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 where meaning and method reveal the emancipations and the constraints that are interchangeable only through the imagination.

For the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1929) repetition compulsion is a traumatic experience repeated over and over again.  It can happen in dreams and hallucinations.[6]  Many artists will describe seeing a picture in their head before beginning the replication process, which then 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 repetition is a crucial event of species continuation.  Does this mean that art can help humans continue to grow, if so how might they grow through mutually acceptable artistic endeavours?

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 way of avoiding the obsession with images there is only oneness where the artist gets lost in the unity of creating pictures.  The introjection of the ego into art separates the body from past events.  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 of introspection.

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 as the original source of human anxiety. Following the Cognitive Revolution many neuroscientists have hypothesized the idea that all art is the product of an innate system of laws wired into the brain, which are in turn 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. Art becomes another kind of language, keeping in mind that it is through language that all humanity is embedded into the world.

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 missed.  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.[7]

Boinga Bob’s work is an example of where the eye meets the brain in a constant search for phenomenological answers to the state of being and being(in). It is in this respect that the artist tags everything with a universal message of Love and Light as a spiritual objective.  It is this, which in material terms, is translated into the Hyperobject, or as previously stated, an extension or exaggeration of what is.  Some have called it an ‘isnes’.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

[5]        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.

 

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

 

[7]  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.