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Material–relational abstraction: Museum educational situations with abstract art

The thesis is both a practical and theoretical contribution to the new and growing field of new materialist philosophies in museum education.

Heidi Marjaana Kukkonen

PhD Candidate

Heidi Marjaana Kukkonen will defend her thesis titled “Material–relational abstraction: Museum educational situations with abstract art” for the Ph.D degree Tuesday 29 August 2023. Kukkonen has followed the Ph.D programme at Faculty of Fine Arts, with specialization in Art in Context. 

Summary of the thesis

In her Ph.D. thesis, Heidi Kukkonen explores how museum educational situations with abstract art can be created and understood in light of new materialist philosophy. When Kukkonen worked as a museum educator with conventional dialogue-based practices in her country of origin, Finland, she heard many times from the visitors that abstract art was difficult to understand. In her thesis, Kukkonen has looked for alternative practices to mediate abstract modernist art in a museum space. New materialist theories challenge the hegemony of language, human-centeredness, and representational logic, bringing the focus on learning that happens between bodies and matter in a sociomaterial world. The dissertation consists of four articles and a meta-analysis.

A central part of the project is the Abstraction! exhibition (4.9.2020–24.1.2021) Kukkonen curated for the Children’s Art Museum, a section dedicated for children inside the former Sørlandets Art Museum in Kristiansand, Norway. The exhibition displayed Nordic postwar abstract art from the Tangen Collection, together with experimental activities and digital solutions. When the exhibition opened, Kukkonen invited two groups of 5–7-year-olds to the exhibition, and the visits were recorded with stationery and action cameras. In addition to this material, she observed 10–12-year-old children on a guided tour at the Gunnar S. Gundersen – Groundbreaking Modernist exhibition (4.9.2020–24.1.2021) and visiting parts of the Children’s Art Museum. She also explored the concept of abstraction by experimenting with abstract art by herself and together with the Finnish-Norwegian artist Irma Salo Jæger, who has worked over 60 years with abstract art.

The many material–relational situations, created and understood from a new materialist perspective in the project, demonstrate the educational potential of abstract art. The intriguing and sometimes troubling matter of abstract art invites to philosophical wonderings, intuitive movements and surprising associations. Abstract art is a safe and playful opportunity to explore feelings of uncertainty and discomfort, which can build tolerance to uncertainty in everyday life. Abstraction can be an excellent site of learning for its potential to break old patterns and think anew and to reject tunnel vision and binary thinking. Understandings can be made not only by verbal, logical and rational ways, but by engaging with bodies and senses with the teaching matter. Children might be more open towards abstract art than adults, who might be more accustomed to representational logic.

Kukkonen hopes that the thesis can inspire other museum and gallery educators, curators and researchers in the field to pay attention to the thrilling and surprising situations with abstraction. The thesis is both a practical and theoretical contribution to the new and growing field of new materialist philosophies in museum education.

Find more information about time and place for the doctoral defense.