the art & science of embodiment

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As Professor of Anatomy for 20 years at Flinders University, Ian was privileged to access, explore and explain the intricacies of the human body. The study of human anatomy has a long and complex social history, some of it confronting, some controversial and some occasionally criminal. Even now, the ways we understand our feelings for our own body and those of others are full of mystery, notwithstanding the astounding advances made by modern neuroscience in this area.

For several years, Ian has been collaborating with artist, Catherine Truman, to document how we appreciate the body and communicate our representations of embodiment to others. Both the not absolute exhibition and The Microscope Project evolved from this collaboration. But Ian and Catherine also worked together on a series of studies, funded by Flinders University (2010) and the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT Synapse Residency, 2011), exploring the relationships between external and internal representations of anatomical knowledge, the teaching and learning environment, and roles of touch, movement, and the felt experience of the body.


translating the body – the choreography of representation in anatomy teaching, 2010

the filtered body – the uncertainties of embodiment, 2011

Understanding the body and its representation is a problem spanning diverse domains including cognitive science, philosophy, social sciences and the creative arts. The Anatomy Teaching Laboratory & Museum in the School of Medicine at Flinders University is a unique, multi-dimensional learning environment highly valued by students.  However, learning detailed human anatomy is a very complex and, at times, reductive task. Each student must absorb and retain vast amounts of information and then construct his or her own idealised model of the body, derived from their interaction with multiple specific examples: the anatomical specimens, the models, radiographic images, the textbook diagrams, the living body of the instructor and the students’ own bodies.

These projects by Catherine Truman and Ian Gibbins examined the process of knowledge acquisition and transfer during the teaching of functional human anatomy in the medical course at Flinders University.

The projects used video recordings of the classes, questionnaires, and video-cued recall interviews with students to examine:

  1. how students use, interpret and ultimately internalise different representations of the human body that are used in the anatomy classroom;
  2. how the movement of the instructor through the classroom and the collection of anatomical representations influence the students’ ability to engage with and learn functional human anatomy.

Catherine and Ian found that direct physical interactions between students and forms of representation involving touch, gesture and language often are incidental to formal learning, yet they can reveal much about the intensity of the learning experience. Learning processes are highly personal yet, due to the vast amounts of facts to learn, there is little time for registering, let alone communicating, subtle shades of difference and meaning of the body

Catherine and Ian then focussed upon an exploration and creative interpretation of ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in this embodiment process, epitomised by the filtered learning experiences not only of the students, but the researchers themselves.

The outcomes of these projects informed a re-analysis of the anatomy teaching and learning environment where multiple representations of source material are used, with potentially significant implications for classes in which material is presented primarily on-line. They also led directly into new modes of practice in art-science collaborations resulting most dramatically in The Microscope Project.

Read Catherine’s extended account of the 2011 project on the ANAT Synapse Residency blog here.

Read some of Ian’s anatomy poems here.

A collection of Ian’s poems about the body was published in 2018: A Skeleton of Desire.