The Red TreePhrases such as these are too whimsical, too absurd, to thrive as cliches – as far as aphorisms go, they are probably fairly unsuccessful. Yet the melancholy ichthyoid and the circling mollusc are among the images that Melbourne illustrator Shaun Tan uses to give unhappiness and isolation a physical form in his picture book The Red Tree. Ostensibly a childrens book – a classification that Tan openly questions – the story can, at its most basic level, be read as an impressionistic account of a little girl having a bad day. However, as with much of Tans work, the deeper connotations of the message lie in the decidedly idiosyncratic artworks that accompany the skeletal storyline. In The Red Tree, the otherworldly element peculiar to Tans illustrations is often invoked by reality out of place (the everyday taking on strange new forms and meanings) as well as the presence of the authors signature creations, quirky creatures of the tentacular variety.
The image of the little girl walking in the shadow of a giant, mournful fish is effective because of – rather than in spite of – its inherent strangeness.Tans artworks are characterised by the warped logic of dreams and the blurry elisions of half-light; as such, they elude plain verbal description. They transcend, subvert, and in some instances simply defy rational interpretation, heading straight for an unvoiceable truth on the boundary of understanding. For The Red Tree, a collaboration between the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Gondwana Voices created by Michael Yezerski and Richard Tognetti, this is potentially the very quality that could allow the project to go beyond word painting to become a whole work, one that is truly interdisciplinary.