Artist Profile: Shaun Tan

Written by: Fiona Gruber, Writer, producer and radio broadcaster
Photos by: Mike Baker
Today’s culture is saturated with images, says Shaun Tan, and the sensory overload we experience has made us more visually literate. The downside is that we’ve lost a lot of our visual sensibility.
Readers look for an average of eight seconds, says the world-renowned picture book artist, “and I’m always trying to get them to look for more than that.”
There are various ways of making readers stop and scrutinise;
“If I draw a dog playing with a ball I’d never write ‘the dog was playing with ball’ I’d write ‘the cat was hiding nearby,’” he says. ‘There has to be a visual and contextual discrepancy between words and pictures…surrealism helps because people aren’t sure what they’re looking at,” he continues, “and details get people to go on a journey.”
Tan tells stories that blur the line between child and adult fiction. Where there’s written narrative it’s often sparse, or in some cases, as with his tale of migration, The Arrival (2006), there are no words at all. It’s the pictures, full of foreignness and an otherworldly aesthetic, that hook you in and keep you hooked.
Success, he adds, is dependent on the imagination of the viewer. “My role is to provide strange but compelling elements that draw narratives out of the reader.”
Tan, 43, grew up in Perth and by the time he was 16 his first illustrations were appearing in science fiction and fantasy magazines.
After university he thought of becoming a painter, but says he found the gallery culture “intimidating.”
The straightforward and financially dependable world of illustrating proved a better fit and Tan’s haunting and playful works have won him a mantelpiece full of awards including the highest accolade an illustrator can aspire to, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which he won in 2011.
That was the year he also won an Academy Award for the animated film version of his book The Lost Thing first published in 2000.
Winning an Oscar really didn’t make much difference to his career, he explains, as he’s not a film-maker. Much more importantly, it was around this time that he had his first exhibition of paintings in Melbourne.
Unlike his illustrations his stand-alone art works are taken from life and veer towards the semi-abstract.
“At the start of my career the idea of making a living from painting freaked me out. But I love singular images of things I see everyday,” he says.
Tan’s book career is also flourishing; Tales from the Inner City will be published next year. Like many of his other works, it confronts the way we treat those less powerful; in this instance, animals. He’s an uneasy carnivore, he says and the dismay he feels is centred not on the fact that animals are killed but the way in which they are treated in the modern world.
“There is a fundamental lack of respect for another creature and it corrupts your own species,” he says.
Tan’s picture books are often tinged with nostalgia for a world we’ve left behind.
“I’m interested in cultural amnesia,” he explains. “My stories are trying to hold on to stuff that’s fading and I try to nail truth to the page.”