In his inspired and unique take on the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, Shaun Tan presents seventy-five of their stories, each with an accompanying sculpture. He has photographed each of these interpretations beautifully, with light and shadow coming into play almost as much as the objects themselves.
The Singing Bones includes an introduction by fantasy aficionado Neil Gaiman, and an insightful essay by Jack Zipes, entitled ‘How the Brothers Grimm Made Their Way in the World’. Tan himself adds an afterword, which, despite its brevity, demonstrates his passion for his interpretation. He has chosen to take extracts from Zipes’ 1987 translation of the Grimm tales; his text feels fresh and modern, whilst still getting across the horror of many of the stories.
Tan has focused upon both well-known tales – for instance, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and ‘Snow White’ – as well as the more unusual. Tan’s accompanying sculptures are beguiling and strange; some of them are even creepy. Despite their differences, there is a marvellous coherence at play here; details have been followed from one sculpture to another, from the set of the eyes of particular characters, to their absence in others. He has a style all his own. Of his work, Gaiman says: ‘His sculptures suggest; thy do not describe. They imply; they do not delineate. They are, in themselves, stories – not the frozen moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be. These are something new, something deeper. They do not look like moments of the stories: instead, they feel like the stories themselves.’
In his introduction, Gaiman writes: ‘People read stories. It’s one of the things that makes us who we are. We crave stories because they make us more than ourselves, they give us escape and they give us knowledge. They entertain us and they change us, as they have changed and entertained us for thousands of years.’ This sums up Tan’s achievement perfectly; he has worked with a slew of stories which we are all familiar with, but has managed to make them entirely his own. The way in which Tan has managed so seamlessly to translate his distinctive style from illustrations and graphic novels into the three-dimensional form shows that he is an incredibly talented and versatile artist. The Singing Bones is a marvellous choice for all fans of fairytales, or for those who want to see how the same story can be so differently presented.