The Fantastic World of Shaun Tan

The ArrivalI realize that I have a recurring interest in notions of “belonging”.

The Arrival is a migrant story told as a series of wordless images that might seem to come from a long forgotten time.

A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean.

He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment.

He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.

According to Shaun Tan, the Australian author and illustrator of the book which was four years in the making: “One of my main sources for visual reference was New York in the early 1900s, a great hub of mass-migration for Europeans.”

The Arrival“A lot of my ‘inspirational images’ blu-tacked to the walls of my studio were old photographs of immigrant processing at Ellis Island, visual notes that provided underlying concepts, mood and atmosphere behind many scenes that appear in the book. Other images I collected depicted street scenes in European, Asian and Middle-Eastern cities, old-fashioned vehicles, random plants and animals, shopfront signs and posters, apartment interiors, photos of people working, eating, talking and playing, all of them chosen as much for their ordinariness as their possible strangeness.”

“Elements in my drawings evolved gradually from these fairly simple origins. A colossal sculpture in the middle of a city harbour, the first strange sight that greets arriving migrants, suggests some sisterhood with the Statue of Liberty. A scene of a immigrants travelling in a cloud of white balloons was inspired by pictures of migrants boarding trains as well as the night-time spawning of coral polyps, two ideas associated by common underlying themes – dispersal and regeneration.”

‘‘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.”

The Arrival

Shaun Tan is an award-winning artist and writer who lives near Perth, Australia.

Mostly self-taught, Tan was 16 when his SF illustrations first appeared in Australian magazine Aurealis in 1990.

He has received numerous awards for his picture books. He is the illustrator and author of The Red Tree and The Lost Thing; and in 2006, his graphic novel The Arrival won the “Book of the Year” prize as part of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards.

Shaun Tan’s website

Illustrations from “Arrival” at New York Magazine

Shaun Tan illustrations at Papertigers

Interview excerpts in Locus Magazine

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