Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Tales from Outer Suburbia, Bird Kings and other things- Dianne Hofmeyr

If you've never seen a water buffalo giving directions, or had a strange visitor who's questioned your ideas and opinions, or had toys disappear in a garden visited by a faceless, barnacled diver, or discovered a dugong on your lawn, or heard a chorus of dogs howling at the night, or found that maps actually can lead you to the edge of the world, then I'll direct you (not with a pointy hoof I must say) to go immediately to a certain secret door to a cupboard that is marked The Illustration Cupboard at no 22 Bury Place in St James, London where you'll be 'surprised, relieved and delighted' at what you find.

Last Wednesday 30th August Shaun Tan appeared inside The Illustration Cupboard as quietly and mysteriously as his character Eric and left behind a trail of signatures and delicate bird drawings and magical red flowers that blossomed from his thumbprint inside the covers of the books that were piled everywhere. If you hurry and get there before the 10th September you'll still be in time to see his incredible pencil sketches and prints from Tales from Outer Suburbia, The Bird King, The Arrival, The Lost Thing and The Rabbits - an exhibition that is a magical celebration of quiet mysteries.
Shaun Tan himself seems a quiet and mysterious man. He says 'My stories generally begin with images rather than words. One of the joys of drawing is that meaning can be constantly postponed, and there is no pressure to 'say' anything special when working privately in a sketchbook.'

In The Bird King and other sketches we are given access to these private drawings that stem from things as varied as Columbian clay vases, undersea life, the workings of cogs, vistas of trees and aqua-sapiens creatures... all proof of his superb draftsmanship. He is one of those unusual artists who seems able to capture the same spontaneity in the finished work as in the sketch. In the Gallery they hang side by side for this comparison. His work appears free from binding content. He leaves his images and stories open to the viewer's imagination. And like his character Eric looking under a stamp to see what holds it, there's an invitation to ask questions. What's going on here? Or to draw conclusions. Is this plughole actually a flower?

From the age of 6 I walked to school alone, crossing roads and railway tracks, watching chameleons, stopping off to see the tethered elephants in an open field when the circus came to town. Unlike the little girl in his drawing being directed by the water bufflao, they didn't direct me anywhere but they left me curious and asking questions. I'm absolutely convinced Shaun Tan walked to school every day and wasn't ferried in the back of a car. His powers of observation are those of a child's open to every nuance. His stories are not so so much about 'telling' a story as about a curious child asking questions about life. Utterly refreshing and different, he says they are about 'casting loose lines into a random sea trying to hook something substantial.'
And although there is a strong vein of fantasy in Shaun Tan's work, it's grounded in reality. This perfect mesh of both fantasy and reality is obvious in the wordless book The Arrival - a story of being alone in a strange place where everything is nameless and unknown, at times wondrous and at times frightening - where the faces of the people tell you all.
So you might be too late to have a little red burgeoning tree flower inscribed into your book but there's still time to catch the magic of Shaun Tan's work. He might suggest that he casts lines into a random sea, but what you'll find is subtle, amazing and thoroughly substantial.


Stroppy Author said...

I love Shaun Tan's work - and the Illustration Cupboard is a great place. 'My' illustration MA students had their exhibition there each summer - it's wonderful.

adele said...

I think Shaun Tan is marvellous and I love your post! Those cats!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I love his work! Thankyou Diane, as always, a great post!!

Anonymous said...

My interview with Shaun is up today. What a coincidence!


Wish I could have got to the exhibition, though.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Stroppy Author, didn't realise those are your students I go to see every year! Amazing work! Thks Adele and Anonymous and read your interview Bookwitch. What I loved there was that he enjoyed the fun bits at the start and end but it was the middle bit that was hard... I guess like writing a novel!!! What I failed to mention in the blog is how many followers he has at student level. If someone making a video clip of your work is the litmus test then Shaun Tan's work is currently spot on and perfectly reflects what the young feel about the world right now... which makes me feel very positive.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Forgot to say... missed a comment from you, Catdownunder. It would've been good to know what you thought of a fellow artist and also those 'strange' cats were specially for you!!!

Penny Dolan said...

A lovely and thoughtful post about a thoughtful illustrator. Thanks! Am now popping over to Bookwitch for MORE.

Paeony said...

The trouble is, when I've visited The Illustration Cupboard, I've wanted to buy everything but can afford nothing! However, after reading your blog, I'm still going to try and visit on Saturday (wish I'd booked a later train, darn it).

Paeony said...

The trouble is, when I've visited The Illustration Cupboard, I've wanted to buy everything but can afford nothing! However, after reading your blog, I'm still going to try and visit on Saturday (wish I'd booked a later train, darn it).