Shaun Tan: ‘My factory setting is to draw weird creatures’

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

There’s a painting in Shaun Tan’s new exhibition of thousands of butterflies descending on the city. It’s incredibly beautiful, an absurdist imagining typical of the Academy Award winner’s art.

Shaun Tan surrounded by some of his paintings.Credit: Eddie Jim

Everybody in the city comes out and looks at these beautiful creatures and, for a moment, they are enamoured, swept away by this wondrous thing, Tan reflects. “But then they also start worrying about why were there so many butterflies, is there something wrong with the climate? That’s the human condition – that you can have these moments of beauty and feeling at ease that it’s hard to make last.”

The author and artist is speaking ahead of the largest exhibition of his work yet, which opens at Brunswick’s Beinart Gallery this weekend. Known for his books Cicada, The Rabbits and the stunning Tales from the Inner City, his film adaptation of his book The Lost Thing won an Oscar in 2011.

Called On My Way to Paradise, the latest show features original artworks published in the recent retrospective Creature, along with original paintings from the Kate Greenaway Medal-winning collection Tales from the Inner City.

As for the impact of that Oscar win, it’s not as significant as you might imagine. “It might be different if I was working in Hollywood – it would have more currency … I find that people still refer primarily to my work in books, which is a lot longer and more solid. It’s now 11 years since that happened, a lot of people are not aware [of it], which I kind of like because it’s a bit of a distraction,” he says, adding that it was a whole production team that won an Oscar, not just him.

Butterflies is one of Shaun Tan’s works that will feature in his upcoming exhibition.Credit: Shaun Tan

What does matter in the industry, he says, is what you can do and whether you are nice to work with. “People who don’t know me are interested in that, people who know me are not interested. That’s the difference.”

Now living in inner-city Melbourne, Tan considers himself lucky to have grown up in nature, in a part of Perth he describes as “Tim Winton environments in south-western WA”. “The suburb where I grew up was largely undeveloped at the time – there was a sense of wildness there at the edges and I realise there’s a lot of that [which] comes through in the paintings.”

He and partner and fellow artist Inari Kiuru had just had their second child when lockdown hit. His work project during that time was putting together the book Creature.

“I was trying to figure out why do I keep doing that? It’s like a compulsion. I have to draw imaginary creatures and I’m not even sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, but I observed that I was doing it all the time, especially in lockdown. It’s like my factory setting is to go and draw weird creatures.”

Much of the art in the show was created well before COVID. Coincidentally, one painting is about the need to wear masks to save your life. But the mask in question is actually a decorative facial mask, Tan says, and the idea came from India and related to tigers. “It was kind of an absurdist story about government advice that you really should wear a mask on the back of your head because there’s a rise in tiger attacks in urban areas. But nobody wanted to do it because of the social pressure not to,” he says with a laugh. “There was one line that said, ‘Why would people not wear a simple headcovering when it could save their life?’”

His book Tales from the Inner City, published in 2018, explored other ideas that would seem eerily prescient once the pandemic hit. One was the decline of human civilisation, which Tan says historically tends to go in cycles. The other was the constancy of animal life and animals starting to creep into urban spaces, like foxes and deer. “In the UK, they were seeing that in real life, and so they were incorrectly calling the book prophetic.”

Artist Shaun Tan says his “factory setting is to draw weird creatures”.Credit: Shaun Tan

The exhibition is named for a piece he’s been drawing for many years but couldn’t get quite right, of a rabbit-headed creature wearing a backpack, seen from behind, receding into the landscape. “It’s a very empty urban landscape, which feels desolate, but at the same time hopeful… There’s this little strip of hazy blue forest along the horizon, past the freeway overpass this person is very casually walking towards, like they have all the time in the world. And I guess it reflected that sort of moment in the lockdown where there was a sort of feeling of reflective silence.”

When looking at his body of work for the Beinart show, Tan realised the idea of paradise underscored a lot of it, but as a troubled notion, a slightly misleading idea. “With the general instability of life, both personally but also what is happening in Ukraine and the broader ecological decline, which overshadows everything else, there’s never really a state of equilibrium that lasts.”

Making art helps him make sense of the world. His main work is in books and film, but these are devised through the process of creating paintings and drawings. Some have a self-contained narrative, he says, while others demand more attention and evolve into bigger works. He has a new animated series underway, based on his book Tales from Outer Suburbia, produced with Sydney company Flying Bark, who also worked on The Lost Thing.

“Every time you put a bit of paint on a canvas, it’s like you’re setting down a feeling. And it might be right or wrong, but at least there’s something there that you can then respond to,” he says. “And before you know it, you’re mildly impressed with what you’ve done. There’s a sense of creating some kind of miniature order of feelings, which is maybe what literature and art is.”

On My Way to Paradise is at Beinart Gallery, Brunswick from April 30-May 21.

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. Sign up to our Culture Fix newsletter here.

Most Viewed in Culture

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article