Patricia Piccinini with her work Skywhale at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
The Skywhale has embarrassed the ACT government, damaged Canberra's image and given fuel to Canberra-bashers for years to come, according to former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope.
Centenary of Canberra creative director Robyn Archer hit back on ABC radio, saying Mr Stanhope’s criticism was a "knee-jerk reaction" from someone who hadn’t seen the work in person.
Mr Stanhope, who during his time in office was a relentless champion for public art and weathered endless criticism for the pieces he commissioned to be placed about the city, was speaking from his post as governor of Christmas Island.
Centenary of Canberra creative director Robyn Archer taking a look at the Skywhale. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
He said that although the controversial centenary balloon by Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini was commissioned while he was in office, he knew nothing about the end result until reading the news coverage last week.
''When I think about the process and the context in which this particular art was commissioned, and the fact that it was always going to be controversial, that it was always going to be divisive, and the fact that it was commissioned when I was chief minister, I have to say, had I been aware of the design, had I been aware of the detail of the proposal, I don't think I would have approved it,'' he said.
''I don't think I would, for the very reason of the controversy that it elicited, the division that it's created, the fact that it's actually fed this insatiable national Canberra-bashing that we suffer, and in the centenary year.''
The Skywhale's second flight in the capital
The Skywhale takes flight over Canberra. Photo: Jay Cronan
Mr Stanhope said the centenary was supposed to be about selling Canberra to the rest of Australia as a real and liveable city, but that it would instead be symbolised by ''a giant tortoise shape with pendulous breasts''.
''I fear that this particular incident, this particular expenditure, this particular piece of public art will come to symbolise the year, and it's divisive, it's controversial,'' he said.
''I don't mind that, I don't mind controversial public art, I don't mind investing in public art, I don't really mind the Skywhale, but I think in terms of time and place it's completely wrong.''
Mr Stanhope said Ms Archer, whom he had engaged as creative director of the centenary, had been self-indulgent in agreeing to go ahead with the commission, and that the ensuing negative coverage had been entirely predictable.
''I think it was a misstep, I think it was politically naïıve,'' he said.
''I hate to say it, because I admire Robyn Archer, and I was responsible for her engagement, but I have to say I think it was quite self-indulgent of Robyn and those around her that actually pursued this particular project.
''The response was so predictable, and it would have been better avoided, and it could have and should have been. It wasn't worth it.
''I just think it's selfish, I think it's self-indulgent, I do think that. It sort of smacks of arrogance, [the argument] 'It's art so it's fine'."
Ms Archer dismissed Mr Stanhope's comment that the work was self-indulgent.
“I would say in objective terms this is probably the most successful commission I’ve ever done,” she said.
“It was a major artist who was connected to the city where we commissioned it. It was supremely well executed ... In the manufacture it was less expensive than every one of the commissions that Jon Stanhope made in public art.”
Ms Archer, who described herself as having “both the back of a rhinoceros and the very, very soft skin of a bird [as an artist]” while speaking on ABC Radio on Wednesday, said Mr Stanhope’s criticism was a "knee-jerk reaction" from someone who hadn’t seen the work in person.
“What we know about the work is once people actually see it, how enormous it is and the craftsmanship that’s gone into it, most people just adore it,” she said.
“I think Jon’s wrong about this somehow proving that this will increase Canberra bashing … I think it’s simply wrong.”
Ms Archer said the overall coverage of the centenary had gone international and been “overwhelmingly positive”.
However, ACT Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Hanson disagreed.
“Not all publicity is good publicity and people outside of Canberra are laughing at us,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s helping Canberra’s perception ... The message about Canberra and our centenary isn’t getting out there.”
Mr Hanson also drew ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher into the debate, saying “she should have had the political judgement to say stop”.
Earlier in response to an outline of Mr Stanhope's criticisms, a spokesman for the centenary team said: ''We are disappointed that someone who has been a champion of freedom of speech and freedom of expression for all of his public life, feels as he does about a contemporary and thought-provoking artwork such as the Skywhale, from a celebrated former Canberra artist, who is now internationally acclaimed.
''This is especially so, as in April 2010, when Mr Stanhope was the chief minister of the ACT, he agreed to the Centenary of Canberra program as presented by Robyn Archer and her team, including a hot-air balloon sculpture commissioned from Patricia Piccinini.''
Mr Stanhope said the artwork, the cost of it, its ephemeral nature and the way it had been presented to the public had embarrassed the ACT government.
''There is no doubt that this particular episode has embarrassed, if not Katy Gallagher as chief minister, it has certainly embarrassed the government and it has certainly done the government political harm,'' he said.
Ms Gallagher said on Tuesday she disagreed with her predecessor's comments. ''There are no surprises in Jon's comments. He has always had strong views on public art, and I don't normally disagree with him, but on this occasion, I respectfully disagree,'' she said.
Mr Stanhope said that during his time on Christmas Island, he had seen nothing about the centenary outside of the Canberra media until the Skywhale was revealed.
''It's almost reinforced the stereotypes that they've been banging on about mindlessly for decades. It's given them all a boost, and because of that, over here, in the regions, for those of us who actually receive any news or have received any news about the Canberra Centenary, this is
it,'' he said. ''It is the great irony that Robyn has spoken so forcefully and wonderfully against Canberra-bashing and in support of Canberra, but I think she has unwittingly fed the voracious beast.
''Robyn has fed it and given it enough sustenance to keep it going for years.''
Mr Stanhope said the Skywhale controversy highlighted the need for more ministers in the ACT government, although there were times when the government had to be able to put complete faith in someone it had appointed to oversee a project.
''You don't employ somebody like Robyn Archer, with an international reputation, and then second-guess or micro-manage,'' he said.
''In retrospect, and everything's easy in hindsight, the greatest of analytical tools, I think I honestly believe, if Robyn were being 100 per cent honest, she must over this last week had moments that she regrets she went ahead with this project.''
The centenary team spokesman said the balloon would fly in Canberra a number of times throughout the year.
''We have said that publicly several times,'' the spokesman said. ''It is only fair the balloon is seen in other parts of Australia, too.
''Most other states have paid to help bring great theatre to Canberra for our centenary. We see no issue with our special centenary commission being seen in other parts of Australia to help promote Canberra's centenary year.''