In defence of the skywhale

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Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

Alluring: The Skywhale looms over the the National Museum in Canberra.

Alluring: The Skywhale looms over the the National Museum in Canberra. Photo: Getty Images

A little over a week ago Our National Capital descended into civil war when reports were leaked that a 34 metre-long skywhale with a tortoise-shaped head and ten long, ponderous breasts was to be set adrift in the autumn sky. Beige roundabouts flared into technicolour battlezones. The city seethed with suspicion. Who likes this blimp with breasts, they asked. Is it beautiful or not? Should $300,000 worth of taxpayers’ money be spent on art when there are football games that need funding? How is a mutant mammal of a distinctly mammary persuasion relevant to Canberra? Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate the centenary of Canberra with a blue-bell flower or a cockatoo?

In case you missed it, world-renowned sculptor Patricia Piccinini was commissioned by Robyn Archer, the Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra, to create an artwork to commemorate Canberra’s 100th birthday. Ordinarily, like Canberra itself, this event would have slipped under the radar of national and global consciousness. Except that Piccinini dared to re-enchant our world with a creature of myth and marvel. She birthed an animal from the words, ‘what if?’ Our species has always been vulnerable to mutation, she said. So what if evolution went a different way? What if we evolved a nature that could fly instead of swim? And so she dreamed up the skywhale, a creation that shocked us out of the banal and into the strange. As the skywhale soared high above Canberra, many people did something we often forget to do: they wondered. They felt curious. They thought.

Of course, not everybody did. On May 10th when skywhale was launched, 62% of Canberra Times readers said that they would like to harpoon it. In fact, they had decided this long before they even saw it. Columnist Ian Warden wanted to know why Canberra couldn’t have had ‘a more festive, more accessible style of balloon?’ Social media was awash in its usual spit-flecked vituperation: ‘For gods sake, when will these idiots in government stop wasting money?’ was a typical tweet. Skywhale’s boobs were also a problem, given that very few people like boobs in public if they stray too far away from their socially-designated role as objects of sexual pleasure. ACT opposition leader Jeremy Hanson even said that the creation was ‘embarrassing’.

As someone who has a few smelly artists for friends, I’m used to complaints of Australian philistinism. The only way to gain art funding is through creating something non-controversial, they tell me. They whinge about festivals like Sculpture by the Sea which, in only selecting work that is aesthetically pleasing and whimsical, gives people the wrong idea of what modern art is. The Anish Kapoor exhibition reduced art to a family fun day of distorting mirrors, they wail. And local art festivals are only about art-tainment – easily consumable art that reassures rather than challenges. Given that the NSW gallery cordoned off its permanent collection during the Art and About Festival two years ago in favour of a jazz band in the foyer, I think they may have a point.

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But the interesting thing with skywhale is that government bureaucrats are clearly not to blame. Robyn Archer behaved with vision, bravery and intellectual majesty in responding to criticism. She could have easily commissioned a big boring blue-bell, but she chose instead to fund something genuinely creative. She enlivened what could otherwise be confined to the coffins of private galleries. She democratised an elite practice.

It’s not local council or government that can be accused of philistinism. In this case, it’s us, the public. And it’s not the first time we’ve behaved badly.  In 1973, Whitlam’s decision to purchase Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles was met with public fury, in 1980, Ron Robertson-Swann’s sculpture Vault was dismantled under moonlight after being dubbed ‘The Yellow Peril’ by art haters, and only a few years ago Bill Henson was branded a paedophile for his globally-acclaimed photographs of pre-pubescent teenagers.

From public art to everyday life, visual artists are held in suspicion. Few artists have escaped the indignity of being asked what their real job is. While the government is often enlightened, we – the public – live under the tyrannical rule of a spectral Tax Payer in a dreary, financially-obsessed, imaginatively-impoverished world.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with engaging in debates over artistic merit. If art is funded by the tax payer then it should be accountable – and debate is simply part of this process. The problem is that the debate is all too often knee-jerk, ill-informed and vitriolic. Yes, the skywhale cost $300,000. But as Archer pointed out this is about half the cost of 8 hours of international day-night cricket. No, the skywhale may not be beautiful. But why does visual art have to be beautiful anyway? We don’t expect this of other mediums such as film (where horror is one of the most popular genres) so why do we demand it of art? That many Canberrans were ready to slay the skywhale before anyone had even seen it is a perfect example of the kind of philistinism our country would be better off without.

If we accept that everybody can be an artist and, in turn, that everyone can be an art-critic then we need to start taking our job as reviewers more seriously. Let’s stop asking whether we like or don’t like something, and ask instead whether it nourishes the imagination or stimulates curiosity. Instead of crafting a 170 character torrent of abuse for Archer, let’s read a book about Piccinini’s vision. If you want to engage in debate then do so with moderation, modesty, reason and tolerance.

In a world that consigns monsters and miracles to infants and believers, let’s allow art to take us back to something ever-present in humanity’s history: the ability to marvel, to wonder and to imagine.

62 comments

  • I wouldn't say everything has to be beautiful. But for many in our society, everything has to be intellectually easy and socially safe. Films, books, music and art that challenge, that force intellectual hard work, are branded elitist, nonsensical, or wasteful. I encourage people to remember this: just because 'you' don't understand something doesn't necessarily make 'it' stupid.

    Commenter
    Simon Ng
    Date and time
    May 20, 2013, 6:14AM
    • Equally Simon, those who dislike or criticize something do not automatically fall into the category of "you just don't get it".

      My personal opinion - while I enjoy some of Piccini's work, this is less a question about good art v bad art, and more about the appropriateness of the commission. It is entirely baffling as to what the Hindenboob has to do with Canberra or Centennaries. And the stated subtext to the piece is vague at best. It doesn't surprise me at all that people are a bit miffed.

      While I'm dismayed when the truly vitrioloic hordes wind up, I'm equally dismayed at the dissmissive attitude of much of the intellectual and creative community, that amounts to little more than offence at being criticized at all. Responses are all too often haiughty, vague and disdainful. The above article uses the phrase "intellectual majesty". How that differs from pomposity is something I actually don't get. If such people love art and love that it creates debate and conversation as they state, they seem awfully precious when people voice an opinion that doesn't gel with theirs.

      Commenter
      Belligerent Man
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 12:56PM
    • I think that this is the key issue. Most people I have spoken to about it just don't understand what relevance it has to the Centenary of Canberra for which it was commissioned, out of Centenary funding. And we don't even get to keep it, even for the whole year let alone permanently as part of our history.

      Some hate it, some are OK with it, some are not sure what to make of it, that's what provocative art is about. However, the message is confused at best and people can't make a connection to the Centenary. On that point alone, it is a failure in my view. It's Centenrary art, its not ours and we can't see a way to make it part of the centenary.

      It should not be forgotten that Canberra is the most educated city in Australia and the city most focussed on arts and galleries per capita. It's absurd to suggest Canberrans are not intrested in or open to art, be it modern, traditonal, challenging or varied.

      As a piece of art I think it is whimsical, striking, engaging and could have been thought provoking if the message was better defined and sold. But relevant the Centenary- definitely not.

      Commenter
      Foresooth
      Location
      Caberra
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 2:29PM
    • What I found shameful was the cost of this monstrosity: $300,00.

      It is ironic that this was actually a fitting way to celebrate a Canberra's 100th birthday: blowing almost half a million dollars of taxpayers money on frivolity.

      If you needed a further tribute to Canberra's inefficiencies, you only had to look at the number of tits hanging from the thing: more than a handful was most definitely wasted public money.

      Commenter
      Malik the magic sheep
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 4:16PM
    • The relevance of the commission is to demonstrate the giant leap from sheep paddock to Nations Capital that has occurred in just 100 years.

      It is to demonstrate the level of thinking that was taken 100 years ago even just to conceptualise what we see today.

      If you think the Skywhale is controversial - do some research on the decision process that finally chose Canberra as the location for our Nations Political Centre.

      Without the level of thinking that in many ways creates the fanciful image that is the 'Skywhale' we would not have Canberra at all. That is the connection - dream big and with intellectual foresight!

      Commenter
      Kiff
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 7:55PM
    • "Robyn Archer behaved with vision, bravery and intellectual majesty in responding to criticism. "

      Robyn Archer behaved with disregard for the hopes of an emerging vibrant city, she acted with cowardice and intellectual mockery when she responded to criticism of her guidance of the C100 events. Sky whale is art I'm sure, but that in no way addresses the fact that C100 hasn't met the expectations of a community, and as peoples bewilderment turned to frustration then contempt at the narrow minded vision and poorly executed events, those that raised concern were called shallow thinking.

      At least we've held our heads high and asked for something better before it's too late, rather than burying our Turtle beak in the sand while inflating our feathered talons, holding aloft a mantra that all others are wrong and sky whale is the vision of a Centenary we all need to embrace.

      Alecia, Robyn and Jeremy your all missing the mark, C100 isn't about art, it's about the birth of the nation and should be celebrated as such. Sky whale is just another misguided distraction in what should be a wonderful community year.

      Commenter
      ekib
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 11:04PM
    • Simon, I would encourage you, in turn, to remember this: If people do not understand something, it might very well be because it IS stupid.

      Commenter
      Bluenose
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 21, 2013, 12:20AM
  • The implication in the first paragraph clearly suggests that these artists expect to receive public funding for works that nobody likes. The entitlement complex is rife throughout the arts community, often raising its head in the Australian film industry. I cannot comprehend the mind set that says I'm going to do something purely for my own self indulgence and I want other people to pay for it.

    Commenter
    JTO
    Date and time
    May 20, 2013, 8:22AM
    • Unfortunately, the same opinion pervades many people's thinking when it comes to the Baby Bonus, Family Tax Benefits and parental leave schemes. Having children is self-indulgent and we don't desperately need more people in a world with 7 billion of them. To ask other people to pay for them is another example of unrestrained entitlement.

      The sky whale makes no sense and has no relevance to Canberra's centenary. Maybe something involving parliament house and roundabouts could have been done that would have been humourous and thought-provoking. The sky whale is an ugly monstronsity parading under a false pretense of "imagination". Maybe even a giant bunyip would have made more sense.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 9:03AM
    • Bender - you won't get an argument out of me re. the expectation that the government will fund people's desire to have kids. We can argue about over population and the danger of leaving the breading to third wold countries while deliberately removing ourselves from the gene pool and throwing away centuries of social progress, but that's a different argument.

      Commenter
      JTO
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 10:35AM

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