License article

Skywhale's 'probing emotionalism' makes it a successful artwork

REVIEW: Whenever you bring art into the public sphere you inevitably stir the possum of popular indignation.

Show comments

Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  It certainly isn’t Superman.  It’s a Skywhale!

The name itself evokes wonderment, the sight bewilderment.  It is an anthropomorphic whale, that is flesh-coloured below and grey on top, possesses bright button-like eyes and ten dangling appendages that seem to be a cross between testicles and breasts.  Realised on a scale of about 23 metres and circling Canberra almost silently like a huge Zeppelin, the Skywhale asserts an enigmatic presence in the skies over the nation’s capital.

Its effectiveness as an artwork lies in its ambiguous nature, the shape is strangely familiar, but at the same time distant and slightly eerie.  Its gender is uncertain.  It has a friendly smile, but at the same time it is possibly menacing and slightly absurd.  A whale certainly does not belong in the sky, but it is palpably there and with every flight asserts its presence.  By adopting this emotional no man’s land and realisation with a considerable degree of realistic detail, it seems to become a challenging enigma which each one of us sets out to resolve.

Patricia Piccinini is one of Australia’s most recognised international artists.  She studied at the ANU and then at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne and was widely applauded for her work at the Venice Biennale.  Her art champions forms of hybridity, the uncanny and questions the whole process of cloning.  A few years ago she wrote about her practice “the empathy that might arise when we imagine ourself in another’s life, in their shoes.  The idea, experience and possibilities of empathy are important to me.  My work is not dry, cool and rational; it is wet, warm and emotional.  Much of the context that underpins my work is medical or environmental; many of the technologies that I comment upon are aimed at saving lives, easing suffering, protecting biodiversity.  It is one thing to calmly opine on ethics but another to cling desperately to their possibilities as you see something or somebody close slipping away.”  It is this fiery passion and probing emotionalism that makes the Skywhale into such an effective artwork.  It says something about our future, about whales, about the threatened environment and about the brave new world which is peeping in at us over the horizon.

Whenever you bring art into the public sphere you inevitably stir the possum of popular indignation.  It is a difficult path to negotiate.  Is this is a provocative artwork or an overpriced blimp?  My dog found it annoying, but he hates fireworks even more, and they cost more than the Skywhale and some would argue that fireworks are a total waste of money, they pollute the environment and go up in a puff of smoke.