There's a statue you might know about on a pedestal outside of the St Kilda Town Hall. A naked guy, lolling about in the tentacles of a gigantic hydra-snake monster, while one snake-tentacle reaches up a into the sky and grabs a war plane. It's big, it's messy, it's weird as hell, and it's bloody ugly. It's Richard Stringer's Monument for a Public Building, and just about everyone who mentions it on the net seems to be puzzled: personally, I reckon as soon as Stringer got the commission, he just decided to stick it to the man (not particularly caring who the man was) and make something as weird and offensive as possible. It doesn't make much sense in the context either - hip and happening and with-it artists like to do stuff about the horrors of war, but attaching said horrors-of-war sculpture, in the '90s, to a local government building, is just bizarre.
Let us move on, then, from Richard Stringer's brainfart to the immense and bloated Sky Whale, which was commissioned to celebrate Canberra's centennary. Tim Blair doesn't like it, and so far as his criticisms go he is perfectly right: it's big, it's ugly, it is a "bloated, gaseous, multi-breasted monster feeding those who dwell in its poisonous shadow while leeching off the rest of us", and therefore "The perfect symbol of our capital city". He notes further how, in order to build the beast which has been constructed to celebrate the centennary of the Australian capital city, they had to send hundreds of thousands of dollars to England. I've got to admit the jokes just write themselves: "It's full of hot air", "It's monstrous", "It's all puffed up".
But, on the other hand, I kind of like it. It's totally out there; it's completely weird and undeniably bizarre: I can certainly understand the fastidious distaste many of the Canberra citizens might have when having this vast airborne breast-turtle looming over them in the sky while they try to sip on their lattes. But turning the whole thing into a gigantic balloon is rather clever - it recalls the days when hot-air balloons were cutting-edge science and a grand public spectacle. Just what is a hot-air balloon supposed to look like, anyway? Who is to say that the Montgolfier brothers didn't get it exactly wrong when they decorated their balloons? You might just as well prettify a balloon so it looks like a gargantuan biological freak. I admit, it appeals to my science fiction tastes and my enjoyment of weirdness; and you have to admit, the weirdness is very very well done. Plus, I like the implication of a backstory (where the hell did the Sky Whale come from? What do its parents look like?)
Poor old public artists can't ever get it right, really. If they make something abstract or minimalist or according to the conventions of this or that twentieth-century school, they'll get viciously attacked. Don't understand it, what's the point of it, it's ugly, who paid them for this? If they make something that's completely naturalistic and old-school, like a statue of a general or a horse, we'll still attack them, and if we don't, they'll attack themselves: unoriginal, derivative, what's the point in repeating something that's already been done anyway, etc. Sometimes an artist hits on a gimmick that people might like without thinking too much about it, and never does anything different: John Kelly and his endless, endless cows, for instance. For the Sydney Festival this year, they got in a gigantic bloody rubber duck, which was funny, see, because rubber ducks are small, right, and they're normally in bathtubs, yeah, but this gigantic rubber duck was.... and you don't have to think about the idea much more before you realise that there isn't anything else to think about: there isn't really anything else to a giant rubber duck than the fact that it writes its own headlines.
But this huge and bloated and ugly and bizarre and weird Sky Whale has a bit more to it. Really. You can't say it isn't well crafted; the technological difficulties alone in putting it together and floating it must have been immense. As for what it looks like - well, whatever it is that it looks like, I'm sure it looks like it in an amazingly accurate way. If ever a real Sky Whale with massive mammaries hoves into view, I'm sure it'll have no difficulty in recognising another of its kind.
But then again also of course not to mention, lots of public money, could have been spent on, what is the point of it, why couldn't they spend on, not very nice when I'm having a cup of coffee at my favourite cafe, and so on. We'll always be suspicious about taxpayer's money - our money - being spent on public art: but it will be spent; that's not going to change at any point in the future. No need to blame that on one particular artwork, especially poor old Sky Whale here.
Besides: maybe the Sky Whale could recoup its costs over time by being an entertaining show ride for kiddies.
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