This article seeks to re-imagine the concept of abstraction as a material mechanism for artmaking. Abstraction is traditionally divorced from the discipline of anthropology, which is rooted in social context and descriptive particulars. Within this debate, abstraction, as a mental capacity, is contrasted with contextual understanding and entails a removal from the life of the people studied. But, for the artist, this conclusion may be premature and abstraction is more accurately regarded as a constitutive function of art-making. The author draws explicitly on this proposition and proposes that abstraction affords artists a material means of transforming how they relate and re-imagine the world, offering them a means of separating the properties of things from the things themselves. Integral to these affordances is abstraction as an art historical construct. Thus abstraction is not the erasure of context, whether conceptual or material, but its imbrication. To illuminate this proposition, this article focuses on the working practice of one Icelandic artist, through which the author suggests that abstraction can be envisaged as a prism of open connections that lead from the artist into the world.
Bibliographical noteThe author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Early research on this topic was funded by an AHRC studentship award. The writing of this article was supported by the European Research Council, as part of the project ‘Knowing from the Inside’ at the University of Aberdeen (2013–2018).