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New exhibition at Barnas Kunstmuseum: Abstraction! curated by Heidi Kukkonen

The exhibition is a collaboration between UiA and Sørlandets Kunstmuseum. PhD Candidate Heidi Kukkonen has curated the exhibition as a part of her PhD project. 

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From the exhibition "Abstraksjon!" by Heidi Kukkonen.
From the exhibition "Abstraksjon!" by Heidi Kukkonen.

Heidi Kukkonen studies how abstract art is mediated and experienced in art museums. Her project develops museum educational practices with modern abstract art, a theme that has not been studied before with similar methods in the Nordic or anglophone field of museum education.

Kukkonen comes from Espoo, Finland. She finished her bachelor’s degree in 2015 and master’s degree in 2017 at the University of Turku, Finland. She spent three semesters abroad during her studies (Alfred University in Upstate New York and Université Paris 8).

She has worked in three museums in Finland on the course of five years on the side as a part of her art history and museology studies. She has worked as museum educator, digitalising and researching art and culture history collections, and been part of constructing and curating exhibitions. She has now lived for three years in Norway, and one year in Kristiansand as a PhD Candidate. Her project focuses on museum educational practices in the context of abstract art. What is the educational potential of abstract art? How do museums mediate abstract art, and how do the visitors experience it in the museum space?

Briefly about the exhibition

Abstraction! at Barnas Kunstmuseum is a collaboration between Sørlandets Kunstmuseum and the University of Agder. Kukkonen has curated the exhibition as a part of her PhD project. The exhibition invites the whole family to explore abstract art with various activities. In her curatorial decisions, she wanted to create an interactive space where abstract art can be tested out and experimented with by the visitors. She will later invite school groups to the exhibition and study their experiences.


Art historical context

Tangen-collection / AKO Kunststiftelse has the largest collection of Finnish art outside of Finland. Kukkonen has chosen abstract art from three Finnish post-war artists to be explored in the exhibition: Irma Salo Jæger (b. 1935), Vladimir Kopteff (1932-2007) and Outi Ikkala (1935-2011). The project relates also to the Gunnar S Gundersen exhibition on the third floor of the museum. The exhibition is funded by AKO Foundation. Kukkonen will also have an art historical part in her project, where she studies how the artists in question have worked with abstraction in their own unique ways.


Background for my curatorial decisions 

“I worked as a museum guide many years in my native country, Finland, and I often talked about abstract paintings with the museum visitors. During these guided tours I received many frustrated comments from the visitors; saying that the art form was difficult to understand. Sometimes it was challenging for me as well to talk about it. It seems like we meet the very human desire to make sense when we encounter abstract art, immediately asking what it is and what it means. This might create uncertainty and frustration, since abstract art does not necessarily make sense with words and reason. I think that art in general has always some degree of abstraction in it, an unexplainable character that cannot be expressed any other way than through art.”

“Abstraction might be difficult to understand rationally through words, but it has a great potential in touching our senses, which we sometimes forget when we mediate modern art in museums. When the painting occupies my perception, I might get chills and goosebumps, move closer or back away. The artworks might often look different from distance. I wanted to create a space where the visitors can explore abstract art with their senses and bodies.”


Children and abstract art

“The exhibition is created for the whole family. Small children are exceptionally talented in this multisensory approach, not yet stuck in all the norms and rules of a museum visit. I think that we adults can learn a lot from children when it comes to abstract art. Some children are much more open to explore art with their bodies and senses, to ask difficult philosophical questions and wonder about paradoxes than many of us adults.”

“The extraordinary space in Barnas Kunstmuseum encourages for movement, and I wanted to further amplify this in my curatorial decisions. The wall texts encourage visitors to move around the space, look closely to the art works, and to think about philosophical questions related to abstract art. What are colors made of? Can you see with your eyes closed? 

Activities with open character

“Modern abstract art does not have the same visual narrative as many other art forms before 20th century. It is difficult to just “get it” and move on, since there are no right or wrong answers. I think that abstraction is a great and safe opportunity to explore uncertainty, confusion and even discomfort. By exposing ourselves to these emotions through play and art, we might become more patient and tolerant towards uncertainty and chaos. It also reminds us to be playful and use our senses, bodies and intuition, all important tools when being creative and inventive.”

“I wanted to create activities for children at Barnas Kunstmuseum where this uncertainty can become curiosity and action. I did not want to create games that give children a fast satisfaction or an easy solution, where one pushes a button, things click, and we can happily move on (as abstract art rarely works like that). Together with the museum, we came up with activities where children can fill up the blanc spaces with their own imagination, creativity and play. In the first exhibition room, the visitors will have the opportunity to create their own spontaneous and unexpected abstractions with the help of digital means. In the workshop space, a large replica of Vladimir Kopteff’s (1932-2007) artwork is exhibited on the floor like a game of Twister, inviting children to come up with their own rules and play on the life-size gameboard.”

Digital kunstformidling

“In the second room of the exhibition, a large digital installation responds to the visitors’ bodies, creating visual traces when the visitors move in the room. The digital installation is developed by Mirko Lazović in collaboration with Sørlandets Kunstmuseum, mediating Gunnar S. Gundersen’s (1921-1983) art. When the visitor moves, a visual trace appears on the screen. All the traces made by the visitors create an abstract image on the wall, so that the visitors can see both their own and others’ traces. Here the very abstract digital space becomes physical and concrete – or perhaps the very concrete movement of the visitor becomes abstract? The relationship between the two philosophical concepts, concrete and abstract, will be further studied in my PhD project. How do the digital elements influence the visitor’s experience?