So 2013 is Canberra’s 100th birthday. Centenary, whatever. A lot of stuff has been going down, some of it regular, some not so much. Firmly in the latter category is a little thing called the Skywhale. I kind of want to see if I can put off showing you the picture for as long as possible, to more accurately convey just how much this thing defies description. It’s a hot air balloon, which is not abnormal for the ACT, most weekends a dedicated crew of balloonists take off from around the slightly toxic sludge puddle that separates the North Side from the South Side and do a pretty good job of making the sky look pretty (weather permitting.) This hot air balloon, however, was commissioned by the ACT government and made by expatriate artist Patricia Piccinini. A fairly innocuous concept, so far, so good. Until you see it. In deciphering a statement made by the artist, I learned that the balloon is based upon Piccinini’s idea of what whales would look like if they’d evolved differently and taken to the sky.
‘”My question is what if evolution went a different way and instead of going back into the sea, from which they came originally, they went into the air and we evolved a nature that could fly instead of swim,” she said.’ (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-11/skywhale-makes-maiden-flight-over-canberra/4683382)
Well, I think that’s what she was trying to say. I had to think about it for a while and replace “nature” with “whale,” but I got there in the end. You probably hate me a little right now for holding back on the picture, but if you haven’t already seen it, trust me, it’s worth building up to.
So anyway, it’s basically what is says on the tin. It’s a Skywhale. The fins have become wings and the tail is wider and kind of articulated-looking. And it has has breasts. On its wings. 10 of them, to be precise. 5 on each. The longer I look at it, the more I’m inclined to think that the tail has breasts as well. Oh, go on then. Have a picture.
I told you it was hard to describe. The same abc.net.au article that quotes the artist seems to be struggling with description as much as I am now, but is nonetheless responsible for my favourite sentence on the internet right now.
‘Hanging from its giant whale-like body are ten huge pendulous breasts.’ (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-11/skywhale-makes-maiden-flight-over-canberra/4683382)
That single sentence is the closest any human is going to get to accurately describing the Skywhale to another human without bizarre hand gestures and facial expressions, and I think it sums it up pretty well, don’t you?
As weird as it is, I can see how it ties in with a lot of different artistic ideals- the detached and dysmorphic body parts that the Surrealists loved so much, and the complete appropriation of an unexpected medium in the best Modernist tradition. Good on you, Patricia. How many artists can say they made a sculpture that weighs 500 kgs and was actually designed to fly? From an artistic perspective, sure, it’s awesome. I just can’t quite get my head around how it fits with the Centenary. Mind you, if it was launched at any point in time I’d probably think it was a little bit of an oddity. As wonderful as it is to have a mutant whale floating in the sky, maybe a hot air balloon wasn’t the best medium for this particular concept? The fact that it is so enormous might be what makes it so off-putting. That, and the ten huge pendulous breasts.
More than anything else, I feel a little bit weird about the Skywhale because, well… basically I had this moment where I imagined Canberra as a person. Specifically, a person opening presents on his/her 100th birthday and finding a Skywhale with a big red bow on top. I think it would be like getting a really ugly pair of socks, and having to open them in front of the person who gave them to you. Think of that feeling, multiplied by the approximate cubic meterage of the inside of a hot air balloon.
Canberra: “Oh, look! A Skywhale… How kind, you shouldn’t have!”
Canberra’s Mum: “You should at least pretend to be grateful, Canberra. It’s the thought that counts.”
The other thing that I can’t stop thinking about is how the children of this oddball city will react when they see it. I have a lot of young siblings/cousins, and my old job was at an after-school care set-up, and I have this nagging feeling about how it’s going to go down.
Option 1: the Skywhale will completely terrify any child witnesses.
Option 2: The kids will be completely transfixed by its mammicular appendages.
Trust me, it’s going to go one of these two ways. Children don’t really get the concept of a ‘middle ground.’ Either way, folks, you’re going to want to pack a spare set of clothes for your kids if you’re looking to be out and about in the ‘Berra over the next little while.*
Jokes aside, there are worse things the government could have spent $300 000 on. But in light of Canberra’s extensive history of awkward and embarrassing public art, I would have thought they’d be motivated to fund something a little less… divisive. At least Canberra Milk wasn’t put in charge. I don’t think I could cope with a flying, 23-foot carton of lime milk.
*In my experience, very young children are a lot like puppies and the very elderly. Emotional extremes make them want to pee. Either way, better safe than sorry, right?