The Exquisite Corpse of the Unknown Veteran is a project organized by Jeanne Dunning and Aaron Hughes. The project began as part of the Surrealism & War exhibition which was curated by Aaron Hughes for the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago from May 26 through October 30, 2014. The second iteration of the project was part of Not Alone at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery in the War Memorial Veterans Building in San Francisco from November 9, 2016 through March 4, 2017; as we continue to organize the project in different cities and countries, more exquisite corpses will be added to the site. 

About the Project

By Jeanne Dunning 

The Dadaists (who we might think of as proto-Surrealists) used to play a word game that worked like this: someone wrote an adjective on a piece of paper, folded it so that the word he or she had written was hidden, and passed it to a new player, who in turn wrote a noun, folded the paper again, and passed it to a third person, who contributed a verb, etc.  This continued until, with the addition of a few articles and prepositions, they had collectively written a sentence. That this sentence would not make much logical sense, and would be characterized by non-sequiturs and inexplicable juxtapositions, was the point; by ceding control and intention in the creative process the Dadaists hoped to facilitate the emergence of a poetry that none of them individually could ever have dreamt of. 

The Surrealists took up this game, and after 1924 it came to be called by the name of the protagonist that emerged in the first sentence the Surrealists wrote when they played it: "The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine." The Surrealists also adapted the game to drawing. In its visual form, one person draws the head and folds the paper over it to hide it from view before he or she passes it to the second player who draws and hides the body and then in turn passes it off to a third player who contributes the legs and the feet. The name exquisite corpse seems marvelously descriptive of the strange, chimera-like bodies that inevitably emerge. Eternally playful and exploratory, the Surrealists engaged in many variations on the game; there are even exquisite corpse landscapes. 

Aaron Hughes and I have asked artists to participate in a variation of the exquisite corpse game that is suggested in part by the name of the game itself. Specifically, we asked the artist who initiated each corpse to begin by choosing a veteran whose body the drawing would represent. We told the artists that their corpse could be the corpse of anyone who served in the military, whether they served in a war or not, whether they are alive or dead, whether the artist knows them or not. It could be the corpse of someone who died or was injured, someone who the artist is grateful did not die or get injured, someone the artist is close to or a historical figure or someone famous, someone who served in the U.S. military or in any other military. We hope that asking people to make their corpse the corpse of a specific veteran draws attention to the fear we have for the life of every veteran that is implicit in their service. If someone we know, someone we care about, is serving in the military, we inevitably imagine that they could die, and we dread the thing we have imagined.

Yellow ribbons, military recruiting advertisements, combat-themed video games and movies, and controversies about the role of the military and whether we should be engaged in certain wars at all have become an ever-present background to our daily lives. Yet it is strange how many Americans have no contact at all with those who serve. The military may be on our minds but too often the individuals who serve are not. For far too many people, veterans—what they have gone through, what challenges they face now, even simply who they are—truly are unknown. These corpses, and the varied past and present veterans represented in them, are an acknowledgement of the way those who have served have touched our lives. 


The Exquisite Corpse of the Unknown Veteran organized by Jeanne Dunning and Aaron Hughes. Within a highly structured set of guidelines, the curators asked 90 artists (both veterans and non-veterans) to play the Exquisite Corpse game: Three artists each worked on a total of 30 drawings, each one illustrating a different part of the same human image. The critical point here is that each artist was tasked with drawing the body parts of a real person, someone dead or alive who had been in war. The results are visually beautiful, but once you understand the details of the game, a chill runs up your spine. They are literally exquisite corpses.Melissa Stern, Hyperallergic

Peace and Grief in the Art of US Veterans by Melissa Stern, Hyperallergic

Veterans, the Exquisite Corpse, and Our Unquiet Dead by Nan Levinson, Huffington Post

Review: Surrealism and War at the National Veterans Art Museum, Newcity

NVAM Show Displays the Surrealism of War by Lori Waxman, Chicago Tribune

Surrealism & War, Art @ War, Altervista

About the Organizers

Jeanne Dunning's photographic, sculptural and video work explores our relationship to our own physicality, looking at the strange and unfamiliar in the body, gender and notions of normality, and death. Her work has been shown extensively throughout the United States and Europe since the late 1980s. It has been included in major group exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial, the Sydney Biennale, and the Venice Biennale. She has had one person shows at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Konstmuseet in Malmö, Sweden, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Wattis Institute.

Aaron Hughes is an artist, activist, teacher, and Iraq War veteran. His multidimensional creative practice operates in a diversity of spaces and media as he seeks out connections, poetics, and moments of beauty in order to construct narratives and meaning out of personal and collective traumas. He uses these narratives in the development of projects that expose and deconstruct systems of oppression and dehumanization. Hughes works collaboratively with a range of artists, veterans, activists, and art organizations and projects including Iraq Veterans Against the War, Warrior Writers, National Veterans Art Museum, Justseeds Artists' Cooperative, emerging Veteran Art Movement, Dirty Canteen, and Prison & Neighborhood Arts Project.