Visualising Unconscious Space By Creative Practice

  • Mingyi Wang

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This doctoral thesis uses multiple creative practices, including participant-produced drawings in qualitative research, my drawing experiments, and participatory projects to explore the phenomenological perspective of the unconscious in artistic practice. Drawing inspiration from the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, and their proponents, the thesis introduces the concept of an ‘unconscious space’ where the unconscious is examined not in isolation as another physical reality within psychoanalysis, but rather under a phenomenological and topological lens, manifesting as a pre-reflective interaction between the lived body and the environment.

The study begins by exploring how Sigmund Freud’s topological view of the unconscious has influenced artistic practice, starting from early Surrealism and extending to contemporary practices. It argues that the problem of representation impedes the understanding of the unconscious, and therefore seeks a non-representational approach to explore the unconscious space. Husserl describes the unconscious as the ‘affective zero-horizon’, Merleau-Ponty views the unconscious as ‘the unthought in thought, the invisible in visible’, and Thomas Fuchs further develops it as ‘the absence in presence, and the unperceived in the perceived’. In contrast to Freud’s vertical model of the mind, these phenomenological perspectives shift the structure of the conscious and unconscious towards the foreground and background gestalt and the horizontal dimension of subjective experience, which is embodied in everyday life as an atmosphere and a style of being.

Adopting this phenomenological, non-representational perspective of the Gestalt and horizontal dimensions of the unconscious, this thesis employs open-ended interviews and practice-led approaches to obtain qualitative data on participants’ spatial experiences in everyday life. Additionally, it employs a practice-based approach to create performative data through site-based participatory projects. Both types of data are seen as lived experiences of unconscious space, which become explicit through multiple approaches of visualising.

The qualitative research investigated the participants’ spatial experiences pictorially. It identified five themes and 14 sub-themes by using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) and a triple hermeneutic circle. These findings are further explored in subsequent practical projects and an exhibition; Room 525 (2020) explored the idea of the unconscious as ‘an operation of perceptual links’; I-916 (2021) investigates the concept of the unconscious as the invisible within the visible; Please Do Not Think in This Area (2021) and the exhibition Caution! This is an Exhibition (2021) used traffic facilities and reflective road signs to ‘play with everyday protocols,’ exploring the idea of the ‘unconscious as future-directed,’ presenting the horizontal dimension of the unconscious as ‘in front of us’ rather than the psychoanalytic perspective of underneath consciousness.

This doctoral thesis contributes the following new knowledge: it shows the phenomenological unconscious through multiple creative practices, which go beyond the traditional representations of the unconscious; it proposes the concept of ‘unconscious space’ as the unnoticed background of everyday life, the default schema of interaction with surroundings, and a pre-reflective way of living in the world; It enriches the interpretation of the unconscious within the realm of artistic practice, the practice of phenomenology, and the creative practice using non-representational theory.
Date of AwardOct 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorPaul Sermon (Supervisor) & Amy Cunningham (Supervisor)

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