From his earliest drawings to today, Shaun Tan uses what he sees in the real world and throws it “far across a pond of weirdness in order to see some meaning in the ripples, moving as they do back towards the shoreline of normalcy.”
Creature: Paintings, Drawings and Reflections is Tan’s latest compilation of art from his published books as well as his personal sketchbooks.
In it, all manner of strange yet somehow familiar beings frolic, lurk, or just exist. What looks like a wind-up alarm clock has sprouted limbs with a tiny hand gripping a string that trails a colorful circle is called “Kite Boy.” A fish, multiple exhaust pipes out its rear, a number five on its side and a smaller fish head coming out of its open jaws, is “Coelacanth and Daughter.”
The meanings we draw from these creatures may shift over time — as do our instinctive responses to seeing them — but they lure me in regardless for the possibilities they hold, the stories that want to be told. Here is an invitation for my own imagination to yawn from its slumber, or perhaps, for my rigid, rational mind to soften into a dreamscape and allow it to unfold.
Tan, the artist, writer and filmmaker, is teaching me the value — actually, the necessity — of weirdness. He writes in Creature: Paintings, Drawings and Reflections:
“Any strange creature, wandering in and out of a myth, has the potential to resonate beyond the clarion call for moral humility, to something even more profound: conceptual humility, to realize that what you know is only what you know, a bunch of human presumptions, and probably not much to boast about in the scheme of things.
The most enlightening encounter may well be the one you haven’t yet had, a thing that might call your most dependable notions into question, scuttle safe definitions, and stretch your mind just that little bit further. This challenge to complacency isn’t necessarily a threat, but rather a welcome relief. A freedom from comprehension, a playful joy.”
Growing up in an immigrant family, I was submerged in a new environment and culture, taking it all in. I drew Snoopy and Woodstock over and over again. Later, Hello Kitty and race cars. Later still, it was androgynous figures — all angles, from asymmetrical hair to geometric clothes and pointy shoes — reflecting the New Wave fashion of the 1980s.
My childhood drawings were not expressions of my inner world. They reflected the America projected to me in newspapers, magazines, and TV shows. I took it all at face value and regurgitated it back on the page.
Even now, my artwork is mostly realistic, capturing in photography, illustration, or cut paper, the people and places I encounter. This fits my training as a journalist and documentarian.
Yet, as one who longs to work towards a more just world, I long to learn how to swim out to that distant pond of weirdness, to “let imagination run amok… to consider new ways of thinking and behaving altogether, to speculate about other possible selves.”
To ask, “What if?” rather than settle for what is.
Science fiction writers have done this for decades, but I find myself more easily captivated by worlds and creatures Tan renders in pencil, paint, or clay. I find a tenderness that goes beyond whimsical. There’s a complexity in the emotions and thoughts they evoke.
A four-legged being with chimneys running along head to tail, walking away from light, moving toward a smaller creature with arms up. Is the smaller one waving welcome or halt? It is titled “March of Progress.” A silhouetted human figure sits in a chair and faces off with a parrot head so large, it is as tall as the ceiling in “The Talking Room.”
“In art and literature, fanciful creatures are the natural conduits for expressions of profound fear and love, along with every emotion in between, including those we find difficult to name. Especially those we find difficult to name,” Tan writes.
I will turn to Tan’s creatures again and again and hope they convince whatever lies beneath the surface of my own distant pond to come out, extend their many limbs and play.