Skywhale. The Verdict?
by The Editor
Some ten days ago we had never heard of her. Moments later she was the talk of the town, and as of Sunday was much like the last dead of a species, splayed out on a post-mortem table and being dissected by all 300,000 of her funders.
Oh, Skywhale. What to make of you?
Few Canberrans knew of Patricia Piccinini prior to the debut of the latest (and perhaps most controversial) of the Canberra 100 events to date. Then on a Wednesday morning images appeared from rural Victoria of an in discernable airborne creation which – through a mixture of timing and secrecy – had pundits asking, “Is this the Centenary balloon?”
With word leaking quicker than helium, the media strategy kicked in to full swing. By Friday we had a website, a schedule, a Facebook page and a Twitter account (inevitably followed by a parody equivalent). Skywhale had arrived.
By Saturday she was at the National Gallery growing quickly in the morning chill to reveal her full scale. Amazed dawn- risers took in amazement and disbelief as they struggled to decipher her anatomy. Still, that gently smiling visage and deca-maternal breasts offered a soothing effect that drew forward delight.
If social media hadn’t been in a frenzy thanks to the leaked images two days before, much of Canberra had now joined the fray as up-close images and far flung opinion combined with local media coverage to fan the fires of conversation across the city. And the cost? Well, as the days went by, the final figure seemed to take off with every launch of the product.
So, what was the point?
Firstly – and this can’t be stated plainly enough – Patricia Piccinini is a local girl. Sure, she’s a local girl who has gone on to develop an international reputation in her field (though much less lauded than the Webbers or the ‘Campo’s). Much of Canberra’s public art is subject to derision (rather than criticism in its true form) and has a permanent place within our community. Skywhale was a guest – albeit one everyone was free to engage without additional cost – and will go on to amaze and confuse audiences across Australia she will undoubtedly refer to it as the ‘Canberra Centenary balloon’.
$300,000 was the capped cost for ‘Hindenboob’ (see ACT Legislative Assembly Hansard here – yes, they said ‘Hindenboob’) to float across our landscape. As many have pointed out the cost for a struggling Sydney AFL team (can you name them, or who they played?) to visit Manuka four times a year comes at a cost almost ten times that of Skywhale. By comparison, she is a bargain – and we haven’t even mentioned the cost of Manuka’s lights – although flow-on benefits from footy or balloons are difficult to measure. We simply play the initial-cost numbers game as it appears a popular sport this week, but keep in mind Skywhale represents a mere 11 days of the Centenary’s $31.6 million budget.
Regardless, cricket and AFL are provincial games at best. Literally ‘out-of-the-blue’ Skywhale was big news, featuring on one or two global design blogs and appearing in renowned papers such as the International Business Times, UK’s The Daily Telegraph and The Cootamundra Herald. Let’s not forget the Wikipedia page. Who knows how much free publicity was garnered for Canberra – a city so keen to shake a conservative reputation while seemingly afraid to take risks.
It seems Skywhale was as loathed as she was loved. Dinner parties featured extended debates on her assets and merits. At Manuka last week we marvelled at her girth before turning to witness the delight on the faces of all those in attendance. Let’s face it, there is no more beautiful sight on a crisp, clear morning than balloons reflected in the still surface of Lake Burley Griffin. Had we marked our centenary with a regular shaped device, simply whacked the Canberra 100 logo beside the (rather clever) VH100 registration we would have shrugged our collective shoulders before flashbacks of Kate Carnell’s disastrous ‘Feel the Power of Canberra’ plane came flooding in.
Did we love her? Certainly. Did you? Perhaps not – the point being you talked about Skywhale. Public art does not have to be universally liked, merely broadly discussed. In this way we progress our community through the development of argument and the exchange of ideas. In years to come Skywhale may become as much a part of Canberra’s artistic landscape as Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles – an expenditure that was as bold as it was fruitful.
Regardless, we’re still talking about her. Bless.