On my lunch break last week I walked past the No Vacancy Gallery in QV Melbourne. Lots of space, a surprising peace considering its location, and lining every wall were these creatures. Small, powerful, terrifying, cute, achingly sad. This was an exhibition of sculptures created by Shaun Tan, inspired by the Brothers Grimm collection of fairy tales. I had, in fact, just read about the book release, and here they were in the flesh. The Singing Bones is a beautiful hardcover book, collecting single thoughts and phrases from a fairy tale with a photograph, dramatically captured, of its accompanying sculpture.
It is hard to describe the discomforting power of the sculptures. Both in the book and the gallery, the creatures are abbreviated peoples, telling whole stories in a single still moment. They are beautiful, curious sculptures but because of the stories they tell, they are also malevolent, quietly threatening. I want to take them home, look at them, be daily delighted by them, but they are not safe. Like the fairy tales themselves, you can be deceived and think it is just a princess, a red fox, a dwarf in a forest, and when you look again you can see the threatening depth that Tan has captured in the still, physical presence.
Tan was originally commissioned to illustrate a collection of fairy tales re-written by Philip Pullman, who was shocked and delighted by the caricatural quality of what Tan wrought: “…nothing I had imagined came close to the power and strangeness, the sheer uncanny presence of the little sculptures Shaun Tan has created.” And it is this presence that makes The Singing Bones feels quite haunted and fragmentary.
There are 71 sculptures, captured in a fleeting, dramatic light, with the accompanying fairy tale title and a quoted moment. It’s unsettling and tantilising: we are in the middle of the action; a single sentence could lead to so many things; sometimes a whole story could be told in a breath, and in others we are just teased; we don’t know who this particular poor girl, or Queen, or farmer is. Some stories are instantly recognisable, others taunt. The entirety of plate 24, accompanied by a playful, beast-like, grey sculpture, is worth quoting in its entirety:
“If you won’t forsake me, I won’t forsake you,” said Lena.
“Never ever,” said Foundling.
“Then change yourself into a church,” said Lena, “and I’ll be the chandelier hanging in it.”
So when the three servants arrived to capture the two children, there was nothing to see but a church and a chandelier inside it.
“What’s there to do here?” they sighed. “Let’s go home.”
And plate 50, a small child, reaching its short arms up, seemingly made entirely of sand:
The Little Shroud
“Oh, Mother, please stop weeping. Otherwise I won’t be able to get to sleep in my coffin. My little shroud is all wet from the tears you’ve been shedding on it.”
That’s it. That’s all you get of the story. And yet, how much is evoked through that one quote, the title, the small, reaching sculpture, made of and surrounded by sand.
At the end of the book there are story summaries, further reading, and of course most of these stories in some version would be online in full; but turning page after page of these half-moment but completely timeless stories told in a breath, with sculptures made though hours of physical work and captured in a single moment by a photograph. Incredible.
Tan describes the air-drying clay he predominantly worked with as an earthy material in fused with weightless magical ideas, the result as a kind of “fossilised narrative”. The resistance of the clay and the scale of the sculptures – around the size and weight of an orange – encouraged an abbreviated simplicity in a way that suits the stock figures that populate fairy tales. What matters is the bones of the story – this is what makes it so timeless – and Tan’s sculptures are like momentary illuminations from an archeological discovery. Like odd objects from a dark gallery in our subconscious, “…they might brighten our imagination without surrendering any of their original enigma”.
On fairy tales’ timelessness, Tan writes
“…there’s such a strange mix of irrationality and logic, all wrapped up in a dream-like brevity (as if a more elaborate version might break the spell of sleeping reason)…it may be that all timeless tales and mythologies resonate through this kind of tension.”
I love fairy tales, not for princesses and magic but for the power of story. Fairy tales represent the aural history, the fable, the tales we were told growing up, the arcs that we see time and time again, the drive for humans to put meaning to narrative. They are just one way one culture remembered its stories. The Brothers Grimm wrote them down; Disney sanitised them into cartoons; Angela Carter extracted the latent dark content to write them again; Shaun Tan used his hands to make physical their essence. The sculptures are incredible, the tales are timeless; this is a beautiful collection.