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Abstract art can teach us how to handle uncertainty

Heidi Kukkonen has studied the mediation of abstract art to children. She believes that adults have a lot to learn from the way children perceive and interact with art.

Photo of two children at an art exhibition
“Children and young people move around the room to see the artwork from every angle. They often adopt a more playful approach to abstract art compared to adults,” says Heidi Kukkonen. (Credit: iStockphoto)

In her role as a museum educator, Heidi Kukkonen receives many questions, especially when the audience encounters abstract and contemporary art. Questions such as “Why is this considered art?” and “What does it signify?” are common.

“Abstract art can often be perplexing and evoke a wide range of emotions. This is true for me as well. These personal experiences inspired me to explore how we communicate such art,” says Kukkonen.

She recently obtained her PhD degree from the University of Agder (UiA) for her dissertation titled ‘Material-relational abstraction: Museum educational situations with abstract art.’ In this work, she explores the educational potential of abstract and contemporary art.

Foto av Kukkonen på museet

As part of her research, she curated the Abstraction! exhibition at Sørlandets Art Museum. Here she is in the first room of the exhibition with the works Breakthrough (1965) and The Well Spring Appears (1961) by Irma Salo Jæger and Fantasihjelmen (2012) by Tori Wrånes. (Credit: Sørlandets Art Museum)

Learning from children

“Children and young people are often more open to abstract art than adults. We adults tend to immediately seek to understand and verbalise what we see,” states Kukkonen.

Foto av Heidi Kukkonen

Heidi Kukkonen has worked as a museum educator in several Finnish museums. After obtaining her PhD at UiA, she now works at Kunsthall 3,14 in Bergen.

As part of her research, she curated the ‘Abstraction!’ exhibition at Sørlandets Art Museum. During this and another exhibition featuring the modernist pioneer Gunnar S. Gundersen, she observed how school classes interacted with the artwork.

“Children are more physically active than adults when engaging with art. Even though the museum setting involved dialogues with an art communicator, the children spontaneously got up to explore artworks from different angles,” says Kukkonen.

Educational potential

In her research, she applied the theory of new materialism. This theory posits that not only humans act and influence the world around us, but objects can also affect us. Artworks, for instance, can evoke unexpected associations and emotions that are not always easy to explain.

“As a researcher and communicator, I don't just explore how humans create art, but also how art in turn shapes us,” Kukkonen explains.

While new materialism is not a new concept, it has yet to become established in museum education and art communication. Kukkonen hopes that her research will inspire others to explore and apply these theories.

Encountering uncertainty

Some museum visitors may experience frustration and a sense of losing control when confronted with abstract and contemporary art. Kukkonen, however, believes there is significant educational potential in such art.

“When a school class encounters an abstract painting, pupils may perceive different aspects within the image. This provides an excellent opportunity to explore how each person understands the world from unique perspectives. While some might find the absence of a definite answer frustrating, this can help enhance our tolerance for uncertainty in everyday life,” she says.

In one instance observed by Kukkonen, a sceptical teacher was guided by one of the children through various museum rooms. This took place during the ‘Abstraction!’ exhibition, which featured numerous sensory and playful activities without fixed answers.

“Children do not perceive the art as strange; they accept it for what it is,” notes the researcher.

A different approach to art mediation

Kukkonen approaches her job as a museum educator differently now than before she completed her doctoral project. Rather than dwelling on art history or artist biography, she now focuses more on the material qualities of art and the spontaneous, intuitive reactions that can arise in encountering it.

“This shift has led to a more participatory approach that emphasises sensing and directly engaging with the art, as opposed to merely talking about it,” she adds.

Kukkonen believes that conventional guided tours that are rooted in art history will continue to play a significant role in museums. However, she hopes that communication inspired by the new materialist philosophies can offer an important alternative.

“Abstract art has the potential to amuse, confuse, provoke, and surprise us. We need playfulness to transform difficult emotions into curiosity and new discoveries,” she concludes.