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?
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.
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.
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.
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.