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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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ACT taxpayers are paying at least $100,000 more than the territory government had indicated for the  Skywhale hot-air balloon.

Official documents reveal the balloon is costing at least $334,000, not the $170,000 figure quoted by ACT government officials.

The official line on the cost to taxpayers of the balloon had been $170,000, with some extra costs for piloting and educational materials.

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.

FirstFlight_73.jpg

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

Jeremy Lasek, executive director of culture for the ACT Chief Minister’s directorate, gave Fairfax Media the figure on Thursday morning.

‘‘The balloon itself was in the vicinity of $170,000. We’ve also created a website, educational kits, piloting, a bunch of other things that were on top of it. So, I don’t have the total number, but the balloon design and construction and the testing was around $170,000,’’ he said.

But Chief Minister Katy Gallagher told an Assembly committee on Friday afternoon the cost to ACT taxpayers was $300,000, with one of her top officials saying the price would be capped at that level.

The Canberra Centenary balloon... a sky whale.

The Canberra Centenary balloon ... our Skywhale.

Philanthropic funding of $50,000, provided by the Aranday Foundation, would make up the rest of the cost.

On Friday afternoon, Mr Lasek confirmed the Skywhale, although paid for with ACT taxpayer funds, belonged to Melbourne company Global Ballooning.

The Skywhale would be good for about 100 flights, although there was no guaranteed minimum number of flights in the capital.

Patricia Piccinini's <i>Skywhale</i> on its test flight over Mt Arapiles in western Victoria. Click for more photos

The Centenary of Canberra Skywhale

Patricia Piccinini's Skywhale on its test flight over Mt Arapiles in western Victoria.

  • Patricia Piccinini's <i>Skywhale</i> on its test flight over Mt Arapiles in western Victoria.
  • The Sky Whale Balloon for the Centenary of Canberra Commission Commission. First flight of the Balloon.
  • The Sky Whale Balloon for the Centenary of Canberra Commission Commission. First flight of the Balloon.
  • The Sky Whale Balloon for the Centenary of Canberra Commission Commission. First flight of the Balloon
  • Sky Whale hot air balloon flies near Mt Arapilies, Western Victoria.
  • The Sky Whale Balloon for the Centenary OF Canberra Commission Commission. First flight of the Balloon.
  • The Sky Whale Balloon for the Centenary OF Canberra Commission Commission. First flight of the Balloon.
  • Artist Patricia Piccinini  with the balloon.
  • Artist Patricia Piccinini  with the balloon.
  • Artist Patricia Piccinini  with the balloon.
  • The Sky Whale Balloon for the Centenary OF Canberra Commission Commission. First flight of the Balloon
  • The Sky Whale Balloon for the Centenary OF Canberra Commission Commission. First flight of the Balloon.
  • The Sky Whale Balloon for the Centenary OF Canberra Commission Commission. First flight of the Balloon.

The giant artwork, which was revealed on Thursday morning, has divided opinion on its aesthetic qualities and reignited the sometimes acrimonious debate on taxpayer-funded government art.

Ms Gallagher said when she first saw diagrams of the balloon her eyes ‘‘nearly fell out of her head’’, but she had since become quite fond of it.

‘‘It shows us as a cosmopolitan city. Too often we are talked about as a boring place where nothinghappens ... it challenges those beliefs about Canberra,’’ she said.

Speaking on 2CC Friday morning, Centenary of Canberra creative director Robyn Archer also defended the cost of the hot-air balloon.

‘‘This is the cheapest piece of public art. Almost every piece of public art in Canberra cost more,’’ she said.’’

Aranday Foundation chairman Rupert Myer AM said he was excited by the work of Canberra-raised artist Patricia Piccinini.

‘‘In a glance, her works spirit us away to another type of universe where life exists differently. Without judgment,’’ Mr Myer said.

‘‘She makes us think deeply about how we respond to the unfamiliar and unknowable. And she does it with wit and candour.

‘‘It is a privilege to have supported the commission.’’

 Piccinini’s Skywhale is nearly 23 metres high and took 1880 hours of work to make.

It used more than 3500 metres of fabric and weighs 500 kilograms with fuel, a pilot and two passengers on board.

The Skywhale will be revealed to the Canberra public on Saturday morning at 8.20am outside the National Gallery of Australia and will  shortly thereafter make its first flight, weather permitting, at 9.20am. The first official flight was originally scheduled for Monday morning, and a flight then will still go ahead if the weather remains favourable.