Some Thoughts on Art or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Skywhale

art magpie

Though many Canberrans hate the art scheme, magpies on the other hand are huge fans

In Canberra we have a penchant for statues. There’s publicly-commissioned bronze on every street corner, from sheep showing you their bits to creepy parcels: if there’s a patch of spare land we’re not developing, you’ll bet we’ll be putting art on it. But some residents aren’t fans of local government spending on this kind of thing. If art is often a case of “you love it or you hate it”, it seems Canberrans more often fall on the “hate” side of the coin. I myself distinctly remember a time when I used to complain about our use of public art funding. I supported it ideologically, but used to worry that we were paying overseas artists whom our Chief Minister(s) admired, while Canberran artists missed out. I would moan about the fact that the Belconnen owl seriously looks like a penis. When art + Canberra came up in conversation I’d roll my eyes at the thought of another statue. That time was last week. So what changed?


Such a cutie!

Well, we got a freaking Skywhale.

Commissioned as part of Canberra’s Centenary celebrations this year, The Skywhale is a many-mammaried chimerical hot air balloon, designed by controversial and world-renowned ex-Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini. Let’s let that sink in for a sec. OUR TOWN MADE A MAGICAL BREASTED SKY CREATURE POSSIBLE. IN BALLOON FORM. When my friends and I went to see her launch at the NGA, I felt like an exuberant child. I was literally skipping.

Ok, so I personally dig the majesty and awe of Skywhale. It comes from a combo of being a previous fan of Piccinini’s work, which always challenges ordinary conceptions of humanity and life, and the fact that I get really excited about hot air balloons (it’s a Canberra thing). But a lot of others have been outraged, and apparently it’s now being referred to as “Hindenboob”. People have been complaining that the artwork is too obscure / ugly / irrelevant / expensive / big / arty / offensive… every ire-filled rejection you can imagine.

Though a lot of the unfolding debate has been pretty amusing, it’s hard not to get down when a lot of people seem to draw the conclusion that art is a waste of money and time, or is just a big joke. I decided to ignore this depressing aspect of the discussion, and instead revel in the delight I found in Skywhale.

skywhale cake

Like the real Skywhale, the cake was both temporary and delicious

I was so enthused I made a cake version of her, with delicious boob-cupcakes on the side. I thought, well, the haters might be able to express disdain, but they probably won’t bother to get inventive with their complaining. They’re not exactly going to bother baking something with anti-Skywhale sentiments if they don’t dig creativity. And we all know cake speaks louder than words.

But while I am obviously a massive Skywhale fangirl, I think my personal preferences are fairly irrelevant to the general debate. While I may never be able to convince those who think public money shouldn’t be spent on art (though there are good arguments to be made in response), I can say something to those who say we don’t need art that’s too “weird” or seemingly superfluous to your average resident.


Eating the Skywhale treats

The thing is, spectacular art is often whack. If it wasn’t, it might not get us feeling, thinking, or talking. If it was just another stone in the pavement, we’d walk right over it. Had Skywhale been a big ordinary-looking whale balloon, would the despair over her cost have been so great? Would we feel at ease if there were only a singular transparent layer of meaning; comforted knowing that we wouldn’t have to deal with feelings of horror, fantasy, lust, confusion, distaste or joy sparked by encountering something strange and difficult to comprehend? Art can change us, our minds, moods, perspectives on the world – if we’re open to it.


Image source: P.S. Cottier

When I first heard about Skywhale I couldn’t believe my eyes. Had our little town truly gotten behind such a peculiar and wondrous artwork that would now be part of the contemporary art cannon?! I started looking around me at all the public art I’d previously complained about. I noticed that actually, there is a lot of work by local Canberra artists. There’s also a huge range of installations, sometimes in the strangest places, so that everyone – not just public servants or inner-city dwellers – can enjoy it. But you might say, these works are there 365 days a year, Skywhale is just fleeting hot air right…?

While Skywhale is relatively ephemeral, she’ll float through the imagination of this place for time to come. It’s just how we choose to respond to this artful memory that matters.

35 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Art or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Skywhale

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  2. Just last week I had my elementary aged drawing students combine two unlike things such as a watermelon and a bear. The kids came up with some very intriguing drawings. Skywhale is a great example of divergent thinking, and as such is an inspired piece of art. It definitely pushed some boundaries! I would have loved to have seen it in person. Thanks for sharing the photos! Loved your cake too!

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  4. This is awesome. I love the turnaround in your thinking about the art (and who knows what art pieces you don’t particularly enjoy, but have had a similar impact on others who really love it?) and I especially love that you baked a cake, with complementary boob cupcakes, in honor of this art piece. Bravo.

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  6. Puccinni is wonderful but your Skywhale cake is truly brilliant! Public art is like broccoli for kids, they don’t know how much they need it but will thank their parents one day for the enrichment. Very much enjoyed this post!!

  7. I’ll be honest, I don’t really understand most art, and I don’t really understand funding most of it – mostly because I think hard science and mathematics already takes a backseat to it, and that’s wrong. But this comment right here: “The thing is, spectacular art is often whack. If it wasn’t, it might not get us feeling, thinking, or talking. If it was just another stone in the pavement, we’d walk right over it.” has caused a crack to form in my thinking, and that’s… that’s a good thing. Not entirely pleasant, but shifting one’s opinion rarely is.

    I still feel the lack of utility from most art, and I think that’s what makes me dismiss most art so easily, but I know that “art” itself is going to be different for different people, and I assume that they get something out of it, that I just don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  8. I think you’ve made a wonderful case for Sky Whale. That said, I think it’s a total waste of money. For that price, the government could have funded extra beds for homeless people (granted, not many – but there are so many people turned away each night) or a new piece of hospital equipment, or given it to the Salvos, or..or…I’m not against art, as such. I do think that if people like and want art, they’ll pay for it – so I guess I’m not a fan of government-funded art. Or, at least, only when all the sick kids, dilapidated schools, penurious old people and homeless youth have been attended to.

    • I agree to a point, but also, disagree. Sometimes yes, basics need to be seen to, especially in truly dire circumstances. A skywhale is not likely to be built in a war zone for example. But the argument that ‘there are better things to spend government money on’ is a common argument all non-essential government organizations have to hear, and it is, in my opinion, often a false-dichotomy.

      I don’t know how much art institutions have to put up with it, but I know that it is an absolute constant struggle to get funding for science organizations, like NASA. We’ll spend hundreds of billions of dollars on public education and the military no matter HOW badly they perform, no matter how expensive they are, no matter what the tradeoff is, because it’s easy to convince people that they are necessary. I’m so glad (<— sarcasm!) we spend almost 100 billion dollars on public education every year – and who cares how and who it helps? Not enough educated kids? Just throw more money at public schools that have done such a great job in the past! Meanwhile the Kepler spacecraft, which costs a grand total of 20 million a year (or .03% of this year's Dept. of Education budget) was almost scrapped – even though it's only, you know, totally changed our understanding of the entire universe, and brings not just education, but actual discovery – discovery humans as a species weren't capable of knowing a decade ago – to anyone who can figure out how to use Google.

      My point is, while basic needs are important, they still cost something to society, and if we can't allow any spending on "unnecessary things" such as art or science until every child's belly is full.. well, their bellies may be full, but won't their spirits be empty?

  9. I think Patricia Puccinni has been incredibly creative with Skywhale. This lovely creature put a smile on my face and I am sure on a lot of other faces too! It brought back the child in me and that is a lovely yet elusive feeling. Isn’t that what we want? A more fun-filled, happier, carefree life for all.

    Oh joy! She created a fleeting moment free from the swirling chaos that is my life.

    PS the pic of the cake has a lovely aesthetic, the colors and shapes work so well! Thanks for your great post!

  10. Viva l’art!
    I think the “creepy parcel” would be even better if they turned it upside down. The sheep are fantastic 🙂

  11. How odd yet beautiful! People really might want to learn to lighten up and enjoy life and the strange beauty that is art in all it’s facets! As for the funding….I’m a little mixed on that. Would need all the details, but art is good for people and their psyches. I happen to have a penchant for balloons of any kind, I’m with you Go Skywhale!

  12. I understand misgivings about art selection. Before my college become my alma mater, some new science buildings were being erected–all very large, very imposing, and very sterile. (This was predominantly an engineering school, and I was only there to pick up a handy B.A. in English before moving on.) One percent of the budget was allocated to art in each building. Except there was one problem: engineers were going to be doing the choosing.

    When everything was near completion, a massive foyer of pinkish-grey granite greeted visitors when they walked through the front doors. Several stories tall and expansive, the interior space was open to the eye and mind, a virgin canvas. So, naturally, they rammed a giant, eight-foot-tall penis right into the middle of it.

    A disturbingly phallic column rose straight up from the floor eight feet high right in the middle of the foyer. Made of the same pinkish-grey granite it was, shall we say, convincing. They called it an obelisk. Public uproar exploded almost immediately but I only shook my head: you people put a gaggle of stereotypically socially repressed male computer scientists in charge of art for their new man cave. What did you think they were going to select, Georgia O’Keefe originals?

    As a result, some friends of mine who were seniors in Comp Sci took it upon themselves to become art critics in the most brilliant way imaginable. They snuck into the building at night, wrapped what became to be known as the Rock Cock in clear plastic wrap, took a photo, and submitted it anonymously to the college newspaper with the suggested caption Safe Art.

    • Well they succeeded in at least one thing…they inspired art in others. We have quite a few modern art installations in and at our airport, I have heard a huge range of complaints since they decision to commission them was made. I love them. Some of them are not beautiful, they are not Rembrandt. No kidding? the statement, material, reason, and aesthetic is different. I love that they use the materials of a modern world and showcase lines, shadow, and inspiration.
      No single art piece will ever be appreciated by everyone, but it would be nice if societies (even transient college ones) could see the beauty and benefit to their community of having a varied selection of public art displays.

  13. I guess you haven’t lived until you’ve stood under a giant nipple of a skywhale.

    Art needs to shock treatment people back to life. Imagine a life full of perfectly reproduced landscapes? We have photog for that… No. We need $10,000 dresses made of meat, ugly disturbing fat women balancing on a tight rope held by small tiny skinny men and in-your-face stand-ups. Art is our wake-up call because people have hypnotized themselves to constant non-feelings of just breezing through life.

    I love this article. Loved how you put it, loved how I could picture you skipping merrily towards you love-at-first-site.

  14. We have a number of completely inoffensive pieces of public art decorating our public transit stations here. I’m envious of your Skywhale. But I do know some of the artists who made the art for it, and I suppose I am happy to see their work on a regular basis, even if it neither troubles me nor makes me think. Maybe I’ll just need to visit. But it does seem we could have the occasional sheep with dangly bits instead of work that never bothers anyone.

  15. Yes to this!!! I’ve been thinking a lot about arts funding and the trap of utility — Skywhale just about sums it all up. Go Skywhale!

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