The exquisite course

The creators of the Exquisite Corpse course (l-r) Alexandra Webb, Krisztina Valter, Elisa Crossing. Photo by Rafael Florez, CLT Art work by Bronte Funnell Art work by Charlene Zheng Art work by Edward McFarland Close up of art work by Edward McFarland Art work by Harry Carr
24 August 2021

Written by Barb Corapi

An award winning, one-of-a-kind, interdisciplinary undergraduate course known as The Exquisite Corpse is as distinctive in content as it is in name.

At its core, it is the study of the human body through visual arts, but in practice, it is much more. It has been designed to combine educational philosophies from both the sciences and humanities, and is taught collaboratively by experts in these fields.

Although other universities in Australia have run similar one-off workshops, The Exquisite Corpse – Insights into the Human Body has been an established, ongoing offering at the Australian National University (ANU) since 2016.

Its uniqueness is a drawcard for some students, including psychology student Ed McFarland who said, “I decided to come to ANU for this course. I did art in high school and wanted to get back in touch with my creativity. This course offered that opportunity.”

Associate Professor Krisztina Valter, one of the creators of the program, explains, “We challenge students to break down their preconceptions about the learning process and provide them the opportunity to explore ideas, practice new skills and dig deep into what makes them tick as a person.”

The course is focused on the process rather than the outcome, which leads students to tackle tasks very differently. For students who are driven by grades, the course can be uncomfortable at first but over time, they find it liberating. 

Bronte Funnell, a biomedical engineering student noted, “The process made me feel very comfortable that I didn’t have to be the best at art to do well. As long as I engaged, tried new things and improved my work, I could learn from that experimentation and I knew this would help me in future tasks.”

Harry Carr, another biomedical engineering student said he developed as a person during the course. “The teachers gave us permission and encouraged us to push the limits with our creativity and to inject our personality into the work. They also made me consider ideas that hadn’t crossed my mind. Listening to them, taking on their advice and having their support made me develop my skills but also myself, taking me to a place I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise.”

Students undertake the intensive three-week course during the winter break, allowing them to immerse themselves in the experience, and as the course is open to all undergraduate students, participants benefit from connecting with students from various disciplines.

“Having a diverse mix of students from different backgrounds and different subject specialities brought unique and varied perspectives to discussions,” observed Charlene Zheng, a health sciences student. “Hearing other people’s views helped me to produce the work I did. There was a definite sense of camaraderie between students and teachers.”

Using confectionary to construct skeletal sculptures, wearing specially designed goggles to see the world through the eyes of a vision-impaired person, and drawing objects using only the hands to ‘see’, are just some of the unexpected activities that challenge the students to approach their learning in ways they didn’t anticipate and in many instances, builds confidence to take on new challenges. 

“The course ignited my creativity and allowed me to access previously untapped skills. I also realise I need to trust myself more and take more risks, because when I do that's when I produce my best work,” Harry noted.

“I was able to think more deeply about what I was learning because of the hands on nature of the tasks. We made clay models of individual vertebrae to learn about the spinal column.  Doing that made me think about how the vertebrae are shaped, how they connect with each other, and how they function in the human body. I came away with a much deeper understanding than if I had looked at a picture in a book,” adds Bronte

As a final task of the course, the students exhibit their major art work at the ANU School of Art and Design Gallery. This year, students were able to invite two guests to view their work - a culmination of all they’ve learned.

“I don’t want to sound clichéd but this course takes our students on a personal journey, and I couldn’t be prouder of how far they’ve come,” Associate Professor Valter expressed. “Having your work on display takes courage and each and every one of them has risen to the occasion.”

The final art works exhibited by students are catalogued on the ANU Arts Medicine website.