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The Skywhale's first flight

In May this year, sculptor Patricia Piccinini took her art to the skies, constructing a hot air balloon in the shape of a whale to honour Canberra's centenary. Vision supplied by Blueboat.

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Darth Vader (the hot-air balloon) was always going to be a hard act to follow and now Patricia Piccinini's Skywhale hot-air balloon must try to follow that act.

The balloon shaped like Darth Vader's famous and instantly recognisable head was a popular presence in our skies during March's Balloon Spectacular. No one who looked up and saw it gasped - "What's that meant to be?" - because professors of popular culture say that the helmeted head of the sociopathic cyborg is, after the Mona Lisa, the most famous, most instantly recognisable image our species knows of.

By contrast almost everyone who looks up and sees Piccinini's Skywhale certainly will gasp, "What's that meant to be?".

The Centenary of Canberra has launched its largest commission ? a sculpture by internationally renowned artist and former Canberran Patricia Piccinini.

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The Skywhale?is at least twice as big as a standard hot-air balloon, weighs half a tonne and used more than 3.5km of fabric. It took 16 people seven months and more than 3.3 million stitches to design and make.

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It will be tethered near the National Gallery of Australia on Saturday morning as part of an international sculpture symposium.? On Monday it will make its first flight over Canberra.

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Internationally renowned artist and former Canberran Patricia Piccinini in front of the Skywhale.

Lots of Canberrans will as well, because they have a morbid and anal-retentive obsession with the cost of things and especially the cost of works of art (the theme of half the angry letters to the editor), be gasping, "How much did that cost?".

Interviewing Piccinini earlier this week and asking her about the balloon, it didn't occur to me to ask vulgar questions about its cost. This was not only because I don't suffer from the psychological condition just referred to but because so much of my time with her was spent on the more important newshounding business of trying, in vain, to find out what the balloon looked like and what it was going to say. But she remained what the tabloids call "tight-lipped" on this.

But I suspect that those who care about costs will be left what the tabloids call "ashen-faced" if ever they find out. Piccinini is a famous and celebrated artist in her field of sculpting and installing (although this is her first balloon) and will have been properly paid. And then there's the fact that the balloon was made in Bristol in England by, methinks, one of only two companies in the world that know how to do such things. The balloon, then, is a kind of Stradivarius among balloons, and cannot have been on ''special''.

The skywhale.

The Skywhale.

One tries not to be a philistine in this (how unfair by the way that the uncouth Goliath has given the philistines such a bad name when modern archaeology shows them to have been a civilised and arty civilisation) but perhaps Centenary creative director Robyn Archer could have commissioned a more festive, more accessible kind of balloon? My mind is still ajar but Skywhale seems (though I may have changed my mind about this by next week) an esoteric and indulgent thing.

Now I remember there was what turns out to have been an ominous moment in my conversation with the artist (whose keen mind and terrific craft I admire enormously) when I asked I her if Canberrans seeing the balloon in our skies would instantly notice something essentially Canberran about it. Ominously she said that, no, there wouldn't be.

Now whole classes of Canberrans (like, say, the Summernats classes, and their children) who know and care nothing about art and who don't want to have to give anything to do with the centenary any deep analysis, have a right to be disappointed by Skywhale. It is no fun. Perhaps in thinking of the best balloon for the centenary messrs Archer and Piccinini should have done the demanding work of imagining something that had mass appeal, that gave delight rather than a challenge.

Just a few festivals ago there was a balloon that was made up of two figures holding hands. I have even imagined (but I am keeping this to myself lest I be called a philistine) a Walter and Marion balloon, gliding together above the place in which the real Griffins invested so many of their dreams.