Monday, 6 February 2017

The Bird King Shaun Tan

The Bird King
and other sketches
Shaun Tan
Windy Hollow Books 2010
ISBN 9781921136580

I realise that I’m seven years late mentioning this book but I have only just discovered it in one of my
favourite libraries, the Papanui Library – world-class service, there from Christchurch City Libraries - and I want to recommend it for all Shaun Tan fans.

The Bird King is a collection of his preliminary drawings, sketches, doodles, exercises and ‘half-baked story ideas.’ In his perceptive Introduction, Shaun Tan calls these ‘compost,’ using Paul Klee’s metaphor of the artist as ‘a tree, drawing from a rich compost of experience.

 What follows is 123 pages of visual genius, including what Tan calls the artist ‘allowing the tip of a pencil to wander through the landscape of a sketchbook.’ Tan sees drawing as its own form of thinking, so that his images are ‘conceived as they are drawn.’ The images are imaginative, funny, thought-provoking and charming, often all in the same sketch.

My favourite is a pencil sketch of a procession of amazing creatures, including a floating rabbit, a clockwork bird, a tap-headed lizard and a mechanical device writhing with tentacles. The leader of this Bosch-ian parade is a brush-wielding boy, his loaded palette providing the only touch of colour on the double-page spread. The title is ‘portrait of the artist as a young man.’

Even more inspiring is his poster design – a sketch of a group of people happily seated on the back of a cheerful mechanical monster, soaring over a suburban landscape. Colourful flames and fireworks leap from its horns.  Its title explains everything: Reading. All the happy fliers are enthralled in books.

Other pages have doodles, page roughs, exploratory sketches, preparatory drawings and paintings, many of them easily linked to books like The Lost Thing, The Rabbits and The Arrival. Each of them is striking.

A List of Works helpfully identifies each sketch, so we know which comes from Tan’s visits to Mexico City, Dublin or even New Zealand. Of the pencil drawing on the cover, 'Innocence (the bird king),' which gives the book its title, Tan writes, ‘I have no idea who the bird king is or what he represents, but enjoy the suggestion of an unwritten mythology.

I’m sorry this review is too late to help you buy The Bird King, but pop down to your library and borrow a copy; it will double your enjoyment in reading any Shaun Tan title.

 - Trevor Agnew

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