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29 November 2001



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Shaun Tan: Out of Context December 2001

Shaun Tan is an award-winning artist and writer who lives near Perth, Australia, and who is rapidly becoming known in the US and Europe. Mostly self-taught, Tan was 16 when his SF illustrations first appeared in Australian magazine Aurealis in 1990. In 1992 he won the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Contest, the first Australian to win this prize. His works include collaborations with Gary Crew in The Viewer (1997) and Memorial (1999), and with John Marsden in The Rabbits (1998). The Lost Thing (2000) was the first picture book he wrote and illustrated. His newest book, The Red Tree, was published in August 2001. His honors include the Spectrum Gold and Silver Awards, the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards for Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, and most recently, the 2001 World Fantasy Award as Best Artist.

for books by Shaun Tan

Photo by Karen Haber

Excerpts from the interview (conducted by Karen Haber):

‘‘Everything is really fundamentally mysterious. In learning to recognize meaning and familiarize ourselves with our everyday world — to make sense of it all, and manage our lives — we tend to overlook this basic fact. Things become familiar, obvious, self-evident. For me, the practice of drawing and writing is an opportunity to consider what is otherwise, to look at certain objects, qualities, and situations at length and interrogate them to the point where you can appreciate their fundamental strangeness, or uniqueness. Art is about getting to that point of stopping and examining something for long enough that you actually see how unique and weird it is.’’


‘‘There is nothing quite like the acute consciousness of being alive on a very strange planet. This is what attracts me to science fiction, because everything to me can be seen as science fiction. Going to your local supermarket, for instance, is a mundane experience only because we are so used to it. But when we pause and think about what we are seeing and doing, the strangeness of it, it’s not unlike a science fiction story.

‘‘My picture books are essentially an attempt to subversively re-imagine everyday experience along these lines. I’m particularly attracted to realizing fictional places and events that are metaphors for our own, on one hand surreal and on the other strongly resonant and recognizable.

‘‘I don’t think I’ve ever painted an image as a reproduction of what I’m seeing, even when I’m working in front of it. I’m always trying to create some kind of parallel equivalent, a serious caricature that emphasizes a particular idea or feeling about the subject. All drawing and writing is, after all, one kind of abstraction or another.’’


‘‘When I was about eleven I discovered reruns of The Twilight Zone on TV late at night and became hooked. I wanted to read these sorts of stories, and found in the library one of those ‘Interested in Science Fiction?’ bookmarks that listed about two dozen writers in every genre, in alphabetical order. Ray Bradbury was up the top, and I didn’t get much further, ending up reading virtually everything he wrote during my teens. I loved his intriguing fairytale places, at once sensual and sinister, as convincing and unbelievable as dreams. I read a lot of other writers I could find in bookstores and libraries, and began to write my own short stories — quite prolifically — in the hope of one day getting published. I have a small pile of rejection letters as testament to this ambition!’’


‘‘ I’m pretty omnivorous when it comes to influences, and I like to admit this openly. Readers of The Lost Thing often notice my parodies of famous paintings by artists like Edward Hopper, or slight references to the medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch. I could list hundreds of illustrators, writers, cartoonists, photographers, filmmakers, and artists (both ancient and modern) who influence me by virtue of the fact that I’m interested in their work, but it changes from time to time. (At the moment, for instance, I’m quite interested in Raymond Briggs, Edward Gorey, and Polish poster art.) I would also have to include equally important influences like streets, clouds, jokes, times of the day, people, animals, the way paint runs down a canvas, or colors go together. And there’s always something to discover, usually in the same old stuff you’ve been looking at every day. As I’ve said, everything is fundamentally mysterious.’’

The full interview and biographical profile is published in the December 2001 issue of Locus Magazine.


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