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Opinion Piece

Skywhale symbolises our bold, imaginative city

Sunday Times  Crowd taking a look at former Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini's work Skywhale at the National Gallery of Australia.  11 May 2013 Canberra Times photo by Jeffrey Chan.Patricia Piccinini’s work Skywhale at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

I love the Skywhale. After living in Canberra all my life until I moved to Brisbane this year (not because I don’t like my home town), I am rather upset I wasn’t able to see its launch at the weekend. For me, it is a true representation of what I think of Canberra. It is a bit bold, strangely thought-provoking, very imaginative, and a bit quirky. That’s how I want Canberra to be seen.

But, at the same time, I can also get people who aren’t big fans of it. It is also odd, somewhat grotesque and doesn’t represent Canberra in a traditional form.

But that’s the point about art though, isn’t it? We all have our different perspectives. If you’ve watched the debate about the SkyWhale you can see directly how this has played out.

But there has been something more to this debate that I don’t like. One theme has stuck with me – that spending so much money on this art is ”outrageous”, ”disgusting” and a ”waste of money”.

This is not about whether the art is good or not (although I suspect a lot of people wouldn’t be complaining if they liked the piece developed) – but a question on the value of doing it in the first place.

Now, of course, I think it is worth having a debate about how we spend our public money. I also think there are many ways in which we waste public money. But for me the debate about the Skywhale represents something greater than just a simple debate about the use of the public purse.

There is something within much of our psyche that seems to repulse at the idea of spending money on big, bold, ideas. We cringe at the potential costs of infrastructure projects that could have the capacity to transform our nation and cities – whether it is a high-speed rail link, or a light-rail link in Canberra.

Spending European-style amounts of money on renewable energy investment is not even thought about. And even what have been considered some of the biggest social changes of the last years, the Gonski review and the national disability insurance scheme, are not necessarily that bold at all, and even the debates around them have focused around cost rather than the schemes’ qualities.

We have lost our capacity to be bold, to be exciting, and to take chances in our public policy.

And you may be happy with that, but I’m not. One of the great things about our society is its capacity to be bold – to think outside the box – and to create something exciting that is truly our own. If our societies hadn’t been bold we wouldn’t have had the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, or if you think about it, Canberra itself.

And as a lover of Canberra, that is something I could never imagine.

I guess, in the end, this is what Skywhale has the capacity to represent. It is not the boldest of all projects, and I understand that it may not be your cup of tea. But for me, it represents a debate about whether Canberra, and Australia, wants to be a bold, imaginative place, even if we don’t like it all the time.

The Centenary of Canberra is a celebration of a bold decision made 100 years ago. The Skywhale isn’t quite that bold – but maybe it could push us to think about what we could take on next.

Originally published in the Canberra Times, 14 May 2013



About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.


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