Shaun Tan: Urban Myths
For over two decades, Australian illustrator and fiction writer Shaun Tan has been creating intricate picture books that weave their narratives as though they were created under the hospices of urban folklore and mythology. As with any urban myth, these narratives exceed their often allusive, fanciful nature to deliver profound messages of an otherwise complex human experience thus making them infinitely accessible to a wide audience irrespective of age. For anyone thinking in architectural terms, however, standing out amongst the many core recurring themes to be explored in Tan’s works is the idea of urban alienation—the human experience of being positioned as an outsider to an urban environment. The fact that Tan’s own father was an architect goes some way towards explaining the exceptional sensitivity towards the illustrations of urban places in his books and of which go well beyond mere background scenery. Although this imagery often borrows heavily from the Australian vernacular, Tan’s 2011 Academy Award for the filmic adaptation from literature of The Lost Thing demonstrated that ‘urban alienation’ is a subject matter that transcends worldly boundaries. What is being explored and exposed are the somewhat universal spaces where there is a tangibly tacit relationship between the facets of alienation and the urban architecture around us.
Often reading more as a sammelband, the narratives in Shaun Tan’s books are typically minimal but demonstrably whimsical—so it’s often the vivid imagery of the urban settings that engender meaning. Equally common is stumbling on to parts of a plot illustrated as a collage of scrapbook evidence—as though they have come from a secret detective scouring the city for clues. Moreover, there is the emotive migrant story of The Arrival (2006) where there is no written narrative to be found whatsoever. Even the city signs and other language pertinent to illustrations here are deliberately written in a cipher.
The cityscapes are vividly detailed, however. So the intention is clearly for the reader to inherently experience the city as a lone, alienated outsider—to feel as disorientated by its semiotics but also remain as astutely observant of the surrounding environment and its people’s behaviors as much as the lead character might.
In this sense, the visual ties take on an uncanny likeness to the investigative still shots photographed by the distinguished, architect/urban designer Jan Gehl and landscape architect Mark von Wodtke throughout a single day to demonstrate how a mere public bench was being utilized along Copenhagen’s central Strøget pedestrian shopping strip.1
It is here that Gehl famously curated and used the images to illustrate the civic virtues of the Sidewalk Ballet; “the art form of the city…in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts” that Jane Jacobs so eminently discussed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). However, where Gehl and Wodtke’s images are imbued with a lyrical quality elevating an otherwise everyday urban object, the virtues of the ‘sidewalk ballet’ have deliberately gone astray in many of Tan’s imaginary worlds.
In the tongue-in-cheek ‘Alert but not alarmed’ narrative of Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008), residents are each supplied with a uniformly grey inter-continental ballistic missile to be placed in their yards. The pretense of this is a government-funded scheme intended to “protect our way of life in an increasingly dangerous climate.”2 This type of rhetoric is, of course, recognizable to us as a contemporary audience familiar with political news streams of similar tone. Any sort of invasion by an unknown alien outsider never actually transpires. In fact, it’s more likely that any real threat may have never actually existed in the first place. Thus, Shaun Tan’s architectural imagery of the suburban skyline wittily becomes filled with chimneys and somewhat overscaled totemic missiles that have been whimsically painted and individually repurposed by their residents.
As the narrative goes on to more optimistically suggest, “After all, if there are families in faraway countries with their own backyard missiles, armed and pointed back at us, we would hope that they too have found a much better use for them.”3 One of the more thought-provoking sides of this parable is also a reminder that threats to personal and national security undoubtedly alter the architectural fabric of our cities.
Writers and urban theorists such as Mike Davis wrote about the militarization of city space as early as the 1990s. As with such theorists and architects, Tan appears well conscious of the fact that the aesthetics of civic design responses to ‘ideas’ of public security in an increasingly anxious geopolitical climate can often be implemented entirely irrespective of any known evidence of efficacy. The consequences of this, conscious or otherwise, is a built environment consistently evolving towards becoming comprised of what Davis describes as an ‘inward facing’ urban architecture. In fact, not dissimilarly, the opening lines of Tan’s aforementioned ‘Alert but not Alarmed’ are:
it’s funny how these days, when every household has its own intercontinental ballistic missile, you hardly even think about it.
At first they were issued randomly. Back then it was exciting: someone you knew might get a letter from the government and the truck dropped off their missile the following week. Then every corner house had to have one, then every second house, and now it would look strange if you didn’t have a missile….4
In most of Tan’s narratives, this urban ‘militarization’ has already been played out to its inevitably Orwellian ends. The ‘everyday’ city illustrations within The Lost Thing (2000) for example is largely imagined through a cacophony of nonsensical signs, state monuments of glorified but equally perplexing meaning, dark grey street lamps resembling the shape of long-handled sickles, monolithic buildings of muted tones, calamitous freeways and an implicit relationship between allegorical creatures and a Fritz Lang-like urbanity (Metropolis (1927)). The idea of ‘public space’ is tacitly denied. Likewise, Tan’s illustrations reference the stylistic cues from Australian painter John Brack’s seminal 1955 work Collins St., 5pm in the way no life is implied in the city, post working hours.
Visual tropes of security and bureaucratically driven social order proliferate Tan’s works too; collages made up of city ordinances, television sets blaring with the latest current affairs, stark clock faces, security cards limited to the bare essentials of a barcode and photograph, so forth and so forth. Davis contextualizes such iconography in other similar film media works depicting prisoner-like cities:
Such dark dystopian visions show how much the obsession with security has supplanted hopes for urban reform and social integration….5
The universal consequence of the crusade to secure the city is the destruction of any truly democratic space.6
So, rather than present a world that is entirely fictitious, what actually makes these images all the more visceral and often unsettling are their visual references to familiar elements of more everyday urban architecture and environments.
Although Shaun Tan’s images of suburbia are undoubtedly nuanced with an Australian vernacular iconography, they also interrogate localized adoption of more universal aspects of the ‘American dream.’ The aesthetic references are contained, for example, within the representations of low-slung suburban bungalow houses with red-pitched roofs and imported stylistic details, fenced-off from one another and directly contrasting the grey-green hues of the remnant native bushland vegetation. Overlaid onto this streetscape are the interminable lines of exposed suburban power cables rhythmically propped into the foreground as a sort of temporary urban scaffolding. As Shaun Tan describes,
As kids my brother and I once walked home across two or three suburbs, having no other means of transport due to a bus strike. It seemed to take forever, and really made me think about the scale of suburbia, not just its size, but its relentless repetition of ideas—housing styles, parks, shopping squares, and identical roads that seemed to have no end.7
The shadows and perspectives often leverage the metaphysical paintings of twentieth-century artist Giorgio de Chirico, too, thus exaggerating and distorting our sense of time and place.
Pertinently then, these cues are reminders that even the orderliness of our own suburban fabric is also an ‘alien’ in itself, with tenuous links to an otherwise ancient natural landscape.
Digging a little deeper (both literally and metaphorically), there is a telling motif used by Tan on more than one occasion of a whimsically illustrated suburban boundary (or, in architectural terms, an ‘edge condition’) that comes to an abrupt halt at an exaggeratingly high 90-degree retaining wall. It complements the aforementioned quote and appears in Tales from Outer Suburbia (within ‘Our Expedition’) and The Lost Thing, for example.
As Tan describes it, this imagery also speaks of a type of embedded suburban alienation:
This [‘Our Expedition’] is the story that best captures for me the feeling of a suburban childhood, and the psychological boundaries that can be created by spending a long time in any one place (I did not really travel outside of Perth until I was a teenager). When everything you need is locally available, and experience is routine, it can be hard to imagine other places or ways of living—the whole world becomes small and shrink-wrapped.8
Moreover, it is worth adding that as with any technical cross-section drawing this imagery somewhat exposes what would ordinarily be hidden from view—in this instance, the underground pipes servicing homes otherwise oblivious to emptying their waste into the abyss below. Arguably, an image that captures a sort of latent indifference to not only the enormity of contemporary civic infrastructure generally but also the contrived distancing of ourselves from understanding where our day-to-day (but equally finite) resources come from and go to. Equally, this development of meaning through a tectonic aesthetic is very much an appealing part of what makes Tan’s work so compelling and legible for an architectural audience.
The physical characteristics of something such as the giant snail carrying a cityscape of machines on its back or the lost thing in the titled book itself are reminiscent of artist Max Ernst’s 1921 painting The Elephant Celebes. Moreover, to an architectural eye, there are also parallels that could be drawn to the French Neoclassical architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s eccentric creations for an Architecture Parlante made up of colossal building structures resembling safari animals.
When illustrated in detail, Tan’s domestic homes can also be seen in guises analogous to literal Corbusian machines for living in—exaggerated by exposed boilers, plumbing and pressure gauges. In effect, however, they deliberately appear less futuristic and more akin to something from Victorian London’s industrial age of ubiquitously capricious mechanical inventions documented in the form of technical patent drawings. In past interviews, Shaun Tan has also relayed his experience in this regard of growing up in a home designed by his architect father and constructed over a seemingly endless number of years10—even drawing on the same paper of discarded architectural sketches.9 Equally, for anyone familiar with Tan’s own childhood city of Perth in Western Australia, there is also inspiration taken from the peculiar, centrally located but long decommissioned East Perth Power Station with its dilapidated interior of seized generators alongside an exposed network of bewildering pipework.
Fundamentally, Tan is also a trained and practicing artist, so in this sense it shouldn’t be a surprise to find that his images are often taking direct inspiration from a myriad of other artworks and cult films of similar genre studies.
Apart from the aforementioned artist John Brack, Shaun Tan also cites influences such as Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch and contemporary film director Terry Gilliam. For example, the ‘Federal Department of Odds & Ends’ (with its wry motto of ‘sweepus underum carpetae’), a foreboding centralized agency building filled with endlessly high walls of dark filing cabinets in The Lost Thing, draws direct comparison to the ‘Ministry of Information’ in Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil where bureaucracy is equally overwhelming and dysfunctional.
Likewise, the powerful story of Tan’s 2018 book Cicada is constructed around the central character of a lone, green, anthropomorphized cicada that has performed the same job role for 17 years in an office of bullying, pitiless human beings (“17 years being the number of years some cicadas can live in the ground before emerging to come to the surface”). The perspectives of the austere workspaces here could easily be read as akin to those in Jaques Tati’s eminent 1967 film Playtime.
In that film, the profusion of Modernist architecture was not only absolving Paris’ identity but also, as with Cicada, alienating the lead character within it. Pertinently, however, Tan almost always offers salvation to the likes of the austere urban environments inherent in Cicada and The Lost Thing and this is where the references made to the whimsical yet mysterious landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch are most illuminated.
The Red Tree (2001) as Shaun Tan explains “is about the strangeness of an individual’s inner life,”11 whereas Rules of Summer (2013) could be considered more about the ‘strangeness’ of any close relationship. Equally, Eric (2010) could be taken as the alienation born of not feeling a belonging to any outside life at all. In all of these works, the urban landscapes are typically somber and muted, seldom forgiving to the central characters. At the point to which Tan’s books cease to possess these visual qualities, it’s to the complete surprise of the reader. He therefore often uses this as a device to create a luminous, full-page color spread of hope towards the end of his books. This appears in Cicada when the protagonist emerges from his outer shell and takes flight to join a heavenly sky of other cicadas. Likewise, in Eric, The Lost Thing and Rules of Summer, even something as simple as the inside of a kitchen pantry cupboard, an otherwise anonymous city laneway or spread of fresh seasonal fruits and sweets on a dining table becomes something as fantastical as Hieronymus Bosch’s sixteenth-century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights or even a scaled up version of a Spanish Bodegón still life painting.
They therefore also deliberately avoid any of the clichés attached to what a paradisiacal garden utopia is or how it has been constructed, both literally and artistically throughout history. Instead, as with the central panel of Bosch’s Garden triptych, these illustrations are equally astounding in their detail, obscure in their meaning but at peace in the freedom of a shared, albeit calamitous identity of their own urban environments.
For Shaun Tan there is an implicit relationship between the facets of urban alienation and urban architecture—both of which are realized in different forms. In The Arrival (2006) the reader is forced to silently comprehend the multitude of disorientating signs and customs of a foreign urban place that alienate the central character study. Unlike that example, which is largely predicated on exposing the undercurrent of a city, in the analogy of ‘Alert but not alarmed’ Tales from Outer Suburbia the urban environment is deliberately constructed at its own detriment to protect an ambiguous modality of life from an equally ambiguous ‘alien.’ This holds lessons for the sorts of ways in which urban theorists such as Mike Davis have come to interpret the growing influence that security is having on the architectural fabric of cities and our experiences of them as well as how the sci-fi media genres, of which Tan references, are exploring the potential outcomes of this influence. Persisting with this line of reasoning it would be very easy to fall into overwhelming despair about any number of subversive elements underlying the architecture of our cities and suburbs. However, even if there is a sort of secret knowledge that needs time to unravel itself in Shaun Tan’s picture books, as with real life, invariably there is almost always a safe place to found in the city too—so long as you are still young enough at heart to look for it.
1. Jan Gehl & Birgitte Svarre, How to Study Public Life (Washington: Island Press, 2013) pp. 6-7
2. Shaun Tan, ‘Alert but not alarmed’ in Tales from Outer Suburbia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2008)
5. Mike Davis, ‘Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Public Space’, in Variations on a Theme Park, ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill & Wang, 1992) p.155
7. Tan, “Comments on Tales From Outer Suburbia”
9. Peter Robb, “The view from outside” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 14, 2013, 3:00am AEST, https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/the-view-from-outside-20130909-2tes9.html
10. Michelle Pauli, “Shaun Tan’s unexpected details” The Guardian (Australian Edition), July 27, 2009, 20:19pm AEST, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jul/27/shaun-tan-unexpected-details
11. Shaun Tan, “Comments on Rules of Summer” Shaun Tan, http://www.shauntan.net/books.html