Rising to the challenge
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Rising to the challenge

Skywhale has certainly got the Canberra community talking, Shane Breynard writes.

It's ours, both ''aargh'' and ''aahh''. Few of us will miss the emergence of something big and intriguing and new in our city this week.

Emerging first timidly on the shoreline of Lake Burley Griffin and then floating more self-assuredly out and over its milky waters, Patricia Piccinini's casually disturbing sculpture in the form of a hot-air balloon has drawn a collective gasp from Canberrans big and small.

Patricia Piccinini's Skywhale balloon.

Patricia Piccinini's Skywhale balloon.

I've got to admit I am a sucker for wonder. If it's the kind of wonder that gets me thinking, even better. And this balloon serves it up in spades.

Piccinini has created an evocative and politically charged hybrid for us, tailored for our place and our times.

Behind that beguiling sea-turtle grin, and beneath those pendulous protuberances, there lies not just hot air but some very serious intent.

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This is not The Monster that Ate Canberra, bouncing from the lake bottom 40 years on. Nor is it Sesame Street's Mr Snuffleupagus, beached up in Canberra, post-global financial crisis. And although it is tempting to believe, in this town of working groups, it is not even a platypus designed by committee.

Rather, this Skywhale continues Piccinini's long-running concern for contemporary issues around empathy between human and animal, genetic modification and threatened extinctions. It might even bump us into an entirely new dimension, just as a recent breakfast party did for me at Lanyon Homestead.

There I was, enjoying the serenity of the fields, the company of colleagues and the comfort of the old property, when I remarked on the haunting calls of the cattle arising from the mists of the hills around us.

''Do they always make that sound in the morning?'' I inquired.

''Only when they've just had their calves taken from them. They'll get over it,'' was the reply.

Suddenly, my empathy for those beautiful farm animals was awakened and I was silent, sharing their pain. Perhaps it is something of this response that Piccinini hopes to inspire.

But the issues play out in this made-for-Canberra work, in a very special way. Not least because Piccinini spent her formative years, through primary and secondary schools and at university, here. And she readily admits the city's influence, with its mingling of urban and natural presences. Hers was a childhood shared with Canberra's ubiquitous and raucous cockatoos, chirping cicadas, grunting possums and the mobs of doe-eyed kangaroos.

For me, the strength of the Skywhale arises from how it concentrates the wonder, awe and mystery we experience in nature, with an urgent insistence on social engagement. Its anatomy sits comfortably in this place, with its odd platypus-nesses and its choice of an Australian inland lake home.

And if we listen closely we can almost hear it mumble to us about the impact of our human activity on the natural systems we insist on using, without a care for the future.

Perhaps it notices us, as we remove the useful snags from our rivers and creeks, introduce new and invasive species, fiddle about with all that DNA and turn up the global temperature.

As in all the best art, I find that the Skywhale challenges me, quietly and on a personal level.

It challenges me to see what is happening to life on our planet from a new perspective. Its boldness inspires me to move forward into uncharted ways of being, even if I cannot surely translate the signs or accurately classify the species. This balloon speaks to me at an elemental level.

This is a brave and ambitious centenary commission, thanks to Robyn Archer, and, as it becomes the focus of conversations, both droll and serious, in supermarket queues, pubs, coffee shops and at family gatherings, it will fulfil its purpose.

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Whether our initial response is ''aargh'' or ''aahh'' (mine was both), our new party guest might have seemed strange at first.

But now, after just a few days of her image appearing, I wonder if she has not been here, quietly among us, all along.

  • Shane Breynard is director of Canberra Museum and Gallery and ACT Historic Places.