In Defence of the Skywhale - Canberra's Wonder of the World
THOU still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
-Ode to a
Grecian Urn Canberran Skywhale - John Keats
Disclosure: the author has never been to Canberra and is grateful to the help of ex-resident, born and bred Canberran, and Skywhale lover, Virginia Mannering.
Today marks the second flight of the Skywhale, a gentle creature with a kindly face, whose benevolent, hovering presence offers so much promise to our sterile capital city. This depends on the weather of course, and it doesn’t look good at the time of writing. But a bigger storm faced by the Skywhale, with its sweet smile and fulsome, pendulous breasts, is coming in the form of a dull-minded Australian public that would rather hate, criticise and despise, than open their eyes to wonder, imagination, and strangeness.
Nothing like the Skywhale has ever existed before. And things that are unique and isolated are always vulnerable to the opinions of the majority. The idiots have spoken: 60% of readers of the Canberra Times would do as the Japanese whalers do, and plunge this noble beast into extinction.
There is a toilet of negativity that is rabidly flushed by a section of the Australian public, small-minded politicians and media every time a piece of art challenges them. The tedious controversy always generates the same complaints, but tailored to the specific artwork's peculiarities. The naysayers decry its irrelevance, its ugliness, its pointlessness, its uses of taxpayer funds in place of helping the needy or just that it is kinda funny lookin’. From the Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock, now the celebrated prize jewel of the National Gallery of Australia, to Melbourne’s peripatetic Yellow Peril, the kneejerk reaction is depressingly predictable. It even happens when the art isn’t publicly funded; we saw it with misplaced hysteria over Bill Henson’s 2008 series of teen nudes.
It’s frustrating that sports funding is never subjected to this sort of questioning, despite it arguably being more pointless, less varied and certainly less imaginative, than the steady parade of wonders and cultural creations put forth by our artists (if you want to see the definition of Aussie battlers, look no further than the majority of this maligned group). Just recently, a coalition of delegates spent $45 million of Federal grant money on a bid to host the 2022 World Cup. A campaign that was mired in corruption, wasteful spending and, ultimately failure. All we got out of it was this irritating campaign video.
So, the $340,000 toward a premier Australian and Canberra-raised artist, Patricia Piccinini, for the creation and ongoing delivery of this floating sculpture is small bickies in the scheme of national funding. As Centenary of Canberra Creative Director Robyn Archer pointed out, ‘‘This is the cheapest piece of public art. Almost every piece of public art in Canberra cost more.’’ Art generates more value than simple economic trade like the sale of goods. It wakes people from their slumber. It has brought attention to the Centenary of Canberra celebrations, which the majority of people likely had no idea about before, it has employed 16 people for 1880 hours over its seven months gestation, and it’s a world first - a professional artist has never before been commissioned to produce a hot air balloon.
And the result has got people talking. Not always nicely, if you look at the gallery of social media comments at the top of the article. Perhaps yours is in there. People’s attention and critical engagement, whether they like it or hate it, or are articulate or abusive, has been captured by this strange, nipply, grotesque figment-of-the-imagination-made-real. In an age of CGI, Piccinini has produced something tangible, yet as impossible and otherworldly as the most creative efforts of modern cinema. The mammaried behemoth produces both horror and affection, we want to reject it but we also are drawn to those signifiers of benign life - its sweet smile, soft flesh, non predatory gentle eyes and graceful movement.
It’s double the size of a standard hot air balloon at 23 metres high, and uses 3,500 metres of fabric. When fueled up with three people on board, it weighs half a tonne. And it flies, serene and seemingly oblivious to the barbed comments being hurled at it from below. But for every hater, there is a passionate defender. It’s clear that the Skywhale has quickly developed a cult following. As I was writing this, a Twitter user @HannahKy announced she had baked a cake of it. 55 people retweeted this achievement in a seeming chorus of approval.
Image via @HannahKy
Patricia Piccinini, who has represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, describes the Skywhale as the highlight of her career. It continues the artist’s long running interest in the boundaries of life, playing with fears of change and the instability of existence in an age of genetic modification, and our species’s vulnerability to mutations like superbugs and the h1n1 virus. “Don't take life for granted”, her artworks seem to say, “don't take anything for granted; the irrepressible forces of change, like evolution, will take life down unexpected corridors.” That’s frightening, exciting, and real. The Skywhale is real.
Apart from the ballooning costs, another stodgy, oft-repeated complaint is that the artwork doesn’t represent Canberra, that it’s ‘irrelevant’. Like American evangelists who take the Bible as facsimile account of history, this complaint is a dead-end of textual engagement and reflects Australia’s small-minded obsession with literalism. Despite our country’s endearing, long-standing love for 'big things' in the form of tourist traps across Australia, like the big banana, the latest addition to the oversized canon has raised the ire of an easily confused section of the Australian population. “What does a massive, imaginary, ten titted-whale have to do with the political heart of our young nation?” They cry.
Well for one, you could argue this ten-breasted clement brute does symbolise Canberra, as Canberra is the mammaried creature at which all the other states and territories suckle. It can also be read as warning of what we are facing: a world of change, of difficult choices that will create a beast that can harm or help. The future will be uncomfortable, alien and frightening when placed side by side with the here and now.
Alternatively, you could see relevance, when narrowly and strictly defined, as a barren destination. Would we have seen this level of controversy over a giant floating roundabout or a boxing kangaroo? Would you want that, Canberra? Because, that is the cost of ‘getting it’. No inspiration, no wonder. What I’m saying is: if you’re looking at art, don't worry about being confused, you're not under threat. There is a freedom, a hallowed tenet of Australia’s federated monarchy, in non-literal thinking; it’s a freedom worth embracing. And the skywhale is freedom’s prescient symbol.f
I say prescient because the Skywhale and the Canberra 100 celebrations are about the future, not just what has already been achieved. Relevance? Relevance is the past. Look to the future. Don't be stuck on the roundabout of circular thinking. Head to the skies, to freedom, to the impossible, the fantastic, the unique, the unknown, and the unfathomable.
When Walter Burley Griffin won the international competition in 1911 to design Canberra he said, "I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any government authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city – a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future." Ordered sterility didn't achieve this, so why not inject a bit of home grown, world-class strangeness into the city. Burley-Griffin would surely stare in happy awe at Piccinini’s artificial creature drifting tranquilly over his eponymous, fabricated lake.
So look up to the skies and marvel, Canberra. I look forward to seeing the Skywhale myself as it begins its tour of Australia. Happy birthday ‘bra, I hope you can learn to love your present. It might not have been what you expected, but it's very special.(Images via FDC)