Shaun Tan is an acclaimed Australian narrative artist known for illustrated books that deal with social and historical subjects through surreal imagery. I became aware of his genius for blending fantasy with wit while judging a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book competition, where his now-classic The Arrival was unanimously selected for the shortlist. I always wanted to work with him when I was art director of the Book Review, and regret never having the opportunity.
The next best thing? An interview, which I conducted prior to the Nov. 1 release of his first anthology/monograph, Creature: Paintings, Drawings and Reflections (Levine Querido). This much-anticipated volume is an engaging collection of essays illuminating Tan’s methods, and includes advice for writers and artists. Drawing upon 25 years as a picture book and comic creator, painter and filmmaker, Creature explores the central obsession of Tan’s vision, from casual doodles to oil paintings.
Tan was generous with his insights. They follow below.
My first question has to do with one of my favorite drawings, it was the cover of your book The Arrival. It triggers so many associations. What does it mean to you?
That image was the starting point for a longer graphic novel, which occupied me for a number of years: a man in late 19th-century clothing holding a suitcase, pondering a strange animal that seems to have taken an affectionate interest in him. Originally it was an iguana, a favorite go-to animal when I’m trying to think of something very different to a human, neither cute nor scary, just hard to relate to. But over several drawings it became stranger, with elements of parrot, tadpole, shark and octopus, while still feeling like its own thing. What does it mean? I wasn’t entirely sure, and just [thought about] early European visitors encountering “weird” Australian animals such as a kangaroo or platypus, or something as inconceivable as a black swan. So this image, and the greater story of The Arrival as it unfolded, was really about that central feeling of encountering something incomprehensible, but still wanting to reach out and connect with it on an emotional level. To even befriend a strange animal as a household companion, and come to see their equally strange world as a new home, to make a life within it.
You fit neatly into a few genres of fantasy art. I see symbolism, surrealism, and sci-fi. I see Alfred Kubin, and a whole slew of Eastern European fantasists from prior to WW2. What are your inspirations and who are your influences?
The mention of Alfred Kubin is interesting, as I only discovered his work quite recently, finding something tonally similar to my own, albeit much darker and far more disturbing. I’m often drawn to Eastern European illustration, such as the work of Roland Topor in the very trippy Fantastic Planet (1973), where blue giants keep wild humans as pets. I think it was the first video I ever saw as a kid, when VCRs became a thing in the suburbs of ’80s Western Australia, and it left an unsettling and lasting impression. Stasys Eidrigevicius, a Lithuanian artist known for haunted-looking figures in metaphorical landscapes, is another I remember seeing and being impressed by when a small exhibition came to Perth. But there must be 10,000 other influences, and not very culturally specific, as far as I can tell. I’m influenced by pre-Columbian sculpture from Central America, Inuit carvings, African sculpture, Australian Indigenous stories, British and American cartoonists, impressionist painters, Japanese printmaking and animation, you name it. I’m also intrigued by “outsider art,” works by people who are not part of any self-conscious movement or establishment, untrained, non-commercial … which I would say is most art that gets made, and also most of the art that gets overlooked. I guess the thing I’m always looking for, as most people are, is authentic expression. In strange, dreamlike work, I see a kind of authenticity I can relate to personally. It taps into something deeply felt but hard to explain, something very old. Actually, I can’t help seeing the vast majority of art history as fantasy art of one kind or another, magic realism, surrealism, religious vision, from the Chauvet Cave to the Sistine Chapel to the suburban cinema complex. In a broader historical context, fantasy is mainstream. Realism is a sub-genre.
I also sense a bit of Bosch’s madness (or sanity) about the horrors of his age. Do you respond to your feelings, intellect or both?
Yes, I was just about to add that a lot of those artists like Kubin and Roland Topor draw from a shared well, which probably includes artists like Bosch and Goya, who also have this nightmarish “authenticity” about them. It’s as if they were compelled to paint something, regardless of whether it was likable or popular, or even mentally safe. Goya’s images in particular are a real dive into the horrors of any human age, repeating themselves over and over, like Orwell’s face-stamping boot.
I think my own work is not nearly as penetrating, and always in the service of a more accessible narrative, for better or worse. But I suppose I have similar aspirations, a reach that always exceeds the grasp. That reach is mostly emotional to me, a feeling I can’t explain, but nevertheless profound. I would not say it involves madness, but certainly a feeling of incomprehension, which I think can be quite a positive thing in a healthy mind. That fleeting realization that the world is not as it seems, that there’s much more to it than you’ll ever know. I love that elusive sensation when drawing, painting and writing. I know an image or story is finished when it feels strong and true, even as the meaning remains unclear, hard to pin down, a bit unfinished.
You create nightmarish visions that have a witty or acerbic quality, like the one-eyed creature on the cover of your book. Do you lean towards high or comic graphic depictions?
I suppose I hover in between, or try to fuse, as there’s no reason a thing can’t be both. I think of Philip Guston’s paintings, for instance, or a film like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which was very influential for me as a teenager, or the comics of Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware—which can be simultaneously funny and painful—the stories of Kelly Link. In fact, I love anything that exists in that space between scary and funny, or serious and frivolous. I suppose I’m interested in figuring out the difference, why we react to some things as creepy and disconcerting, and to others as delightful and amusing. I think the one-eyed creature you mention is a good one for that kind of emotional litmus test. It is both disquieting and inviting, cool and warm. A lot of the work at the easel is about striking that balance, and it is a very precarious balance that can take days to get right. For me it comes down to a backlit feather, the obscured parts of a face, the movement of shadow on stems of grass.
I also love your painting of the beached whale on a suburban lawn. You may be prescient, given recent global climate catastrophes, but what was your motivation for this image?
There was a house at the bottom of our suburban cul-de-sac which always had a negative vibe (I think we all know the kind). Nothing clearly violent or abusive, but trapped in some kind of sad, dysfunctional inertia. As a kid I would always see a boy who lived there endlessly hitting a tennis ball against the front wall. Literally always. To me this was a form of expression, a cry for help, albeit one that was silent and ignored. For some reason, years later, it made me think of a beached whale, or in this case, a dugong, a less familiar sea mammal. At the time, I’d enjoyed a rare sighting of a dugong mother and calf in the seagrass meadows of Shark Bay, a very remote and ancient coast in Western Australia. I find my visual and narrative ideas typically come together that way, perhaps not unlike dreams. The subjects and objects are quite unrelated—a beached dugong and a boy forever hitting a tennis ball against a wall—but the feeling of it resonates, the emotional wavelength is the same, and together they amplify something. When that happens, stories become very easy to write and draw. I guess they are all about displaced emotion, being able to see things more clearly through a strange metaphor.
I feel the same way about many global catastrophes, getting back to your question. I find it difficult to think about them directly; the subjects are so overloaded with media impressions, politics and other processed information. But approaching them through the right metaphor almost relieves difficult topics of such a complex burden, and lets me think about them differently. Big global issues, scaled down, tend to rhyme with small domestic ones. I believe fiction can make difficult subjects human-sized that way—not to solve them, but to think about them with new imaginative energy instead of feeling helpless and compassion-fatigued.
What kind of storytelling do you enjoy most—totally absurd, or sly fantasy?
That’s an interesting expression—”sly fantasy.” I suppose I’d opt for it. I’m a fan of totally absurd fiction, such as Gary Larson cartoons, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, or the comics of Jim Woodring, surrealism and Dadaism, Monty Python and its crazy legacy in film and TV. As a creator, however, I find that pure absurdism leaves me a bit too rudderless, that I need to drop anchor in something more prosaic, concrete and real. Conversely, when things are too straightforwardly realistic, such as painting a landscape or portrait exactly as I see it, there is a pressing need to transform, to add something a bit weird or off-kilter, as if the work would be more truthful that way.
If by “sly fantasy” you mean a kind of story that, as I find with good magic realist writers, sneaks up on you quite gently with its unbelievable elements, then yes, that’s exactly what I enjoy the most. It’s like a frog put in cold water that’s slowly warmed. It doesn’t jump out, it just stays there. But put a frog straight into hot water and it will recoil. I believe the world around us is a strange and weird place, but we can only pause and see this if presented in a gradual way, peeling back the layers carefully. Dive straight into that weirdness, and a reader may tune out, not being given the opportunity to acclimatize. Perhaps that’s where an artist and writer’s real skill lies, in acclimatizing the reader to ideas that are difficult to otherwise imagine, through words, paint, film. The skillful storyteller will make them feel normal, even familiar.
Having made a film, what is your current or next big project?
Raising kids! It doesn’t get much bigger than that. But within that tangled project of family life, I’m working with a team to develop Tales From Outer Suburbia as a children’s TV series—which will include a beached dugong, you’ll be pleased to know—a kind of Twilight Zone for kids. We’ll see how that goes, film and television being such a fraught business that doesn’t invite much risk or egg-counting. I continue to write and sketch, and there are some pieces in Creature that present the beginnings of ideas I would like to develop further, as picture books or graphic novels. I’m thinking at present about a story involving an adopted girl who is the only human in the place where she lives, but doesn’t know it. Which would be another story of mine that questions belonging and what the idea of “home” means, what’s normal and what isn’t. That’s more or less the same story I’ve been telling since I began illustrating books in earnest over 25 years ago, like exploring different sides of the same enduring puzzle. That age-old “who am I and what am I doing here?” question. If nothing else, such stories rephrase this question in interesting ways, even as the answer seems elusive—which is maybe not such a bad thing.
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