The transcendental artist
Aleksander Bohnak aims to recreate the meditative experience
Aleksander Bohnak needs a job.
Besides teaching art, most of his previous employment experience consisted of meditating eight hours a day, to bring about world peace, which he’s discovering does not qualify him for much.
The artist—25, blond, neatly dressed in a striped button-up—ruefully confesses that he just quit his latest job, selling community-supported agriculture boxes door to door, earlier in the day. He sits placidly in his brightly lit, warm studio inside the otherwise chilly Verge Center for the Arts, a downtown artist collective and gallery, and explains that the paid-meditation gig was a result of his studies at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. (It’s a transcendental meditation university, founded by, yes, that Maharishi. Think “Dear Prudence” and the Rolling Stones.)
Bohnak says he was drawn to MUM’s atmosphere, “where 2,000 people a day are meditating,” because it was something completely different. “I felt a sense of peace that made me want to unclench my fist a little bit from all the work I was doing.” He spent six years at MUM, earning a bachelor’s in studio art with a concentration in large, interactive ceramic works. And while in Iowa, he found himself “both repulsed and fascinated by gaudy and sometimes tacky golds, and bright colors, in the Western interpretation of Indian art and architecture.” And so he began to work those themes into his art.
He completed a master of fine arts degree at UC Davis in 2010, and his recent works include an arresting series of photographs taken inside both his former studio in Davis and also his new space at the Verge. His studio has a harsh, Day-Glo dreamscape feel, and cheap florescent tape, which he uses as his primary artistic medium, is strewn and stuck everywhere. The effect is haphazard, but the scene coalesces when viewed through a stationary lens, as everything in his studio is meant to be viewed through the eye of the camera.
His video piece “Transform” also has this chaotic, abstract-painting effect—until Bohnak appears, nude, in the frame.
His motivation for being naked is one of the main questions he’s often asked. His reply: “At first it was about completely exposing myself. … I also didn’t want anything to reference, ‘Oh, I’m like a hipster-preppy guy that wears these type of clothes.’ I don’t want it to reference a certain time.
“I keep debating about how to cover myself. I really like wrapping myself in tape.” He stumbled upon the stop-motion technique used to create the “Transform” video while he was layering hundreds of stills in Photoshop and noted that it was “interesting how they changed over time.”
This inspired. “I think I needed to approach [video] in my own way. Kind of bass-ackward in a way,” Bohnak shares, “where I didn’t just pick up a video camera; I had to figure out this whole convoluted process with all of this weird technology to get to where I wanted it to be.”
Bohnak spends up to 40 hours a week in his studio, alone, arduously assembling elaborate constructions and photographing himself naked in them, sometimes in deliberately awkward or painful poses. His aim is to recreate the feeling he gets during meditation, “where I’m awake and things are clear and automatic,” he explains.
“I think that when I talk about letting go and letting things happen, that comes from my experience in meditation. I think that I set some conditions of control and then I am able to—what is the meditation term? It’s like setting the correct angle and then diving in. … That’s the analogy they use.”
When quizzed about the link between creativity and transcendental meditation, which has been explored by many artists before him, including most famously David Lynch, Bohnak says that all of his work before was about communicating “some inner experience” he’s had during meditation.
“So, for me, the link is maybe more direct than some people. I don’t think I’d be an artist without meditation.”
Bohnak had planned to use his Verge studio as a temporary spot before a move to San Francisco to further his art, but recently he’s changed his mind. “At first I didn’t see anyone. I just wanted a studio space. I didn’t want it to be a community. I didn’t think I would stay in Sacramento, [but] just recently I feel like I’m settled and this is where I’m going to stay, because I have a lot of support here,” including that of VCA executive director Liv Moe.
Indeed, Moe made one of Bohnak’s installations the centerpiece of a recent fundraising party at VCA—and it’s been the talk of the Sacramento art scene since. Party-goers entered the fete by passing directly through the installation, which was a candy-colored passageway.
The catch: People were unaware of the fact that they were being videotaped and projected onto a two-story-high screen, visible to the rest of the gathering in a separate room.
Moe described the effect the piece had: “People would often look confused, agitated and in most cases excited. Halfway through the night, we actually had someone complain about being embarrassed once she realized what was happening on the other side of the wall.” (Full disclosure: Moe and the author curate a monthly film night at VCA.)
Moe says she thinks Bohnak’s aim is to change the way we see and interact with each other and our surroundings. “[It’s] really fun and refreshing. There is an abandon to which he approaches color and materials that feels celebratory to me,” she explains.
Another prominent fan is local photographer Doug Biggert, who lingered at the installation taking pictures and serving as the ambassador for the piece, ensuring that people took their time with it. Biggert said it was “a fine concept and excellent execution.”
“The Verge should keep it around,” he added.
As this article went to press, Bohnak had just received a last-minute invitation to participate in the annual prestigious Cream From the Top grad show in San Francisco on January 22, which gathers the top emerging artists from nine Bay Area MFA programs, including UC Davis.
If the first three weeks of 2011 are any indication, Bohnak may not need to look for a day job for much longer.