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suckling at the teat: MONA, the skywhale and contemporary tasmania

My hometown of Hobart, Tasmania, has been seeing red this month with globally-acclaimed contemporary arts awesome-machine, MONA’s (Museum of Old and New Art)new winter festival, Dark MoFo, giving the sleepy state capital a much-needed winter shake up. During what is usually the dead season in terms of tourism and, well, anything else, really, the contemporary art festival offered up a plethora of art, music, installations and food events that actually got people to put on their black Kathmandu puffer jackets and leave the house in their thousands.

Arguably, the highlights of the festival included Ryoji Ikeda’s Spectra, a massive beam of light that shone into the vast darkness of the nights throughout the duration of Dark MoFo, transforming the usually featureless Hobart city skyline into a mesmerising spectacle, embraced almost universally. (Except for a worker in an old people’s home who told to me that she couldn’t wait for it to be over because some of the more senile elderly clients were convinced it was the Second Coming).

Another highlight, which has caused controversy, was The Skywhale. A large-scale air sculpture (aka hot air balloon), designed by Patricia Piccinini, as a commission from the Canberra government to commemorate the centenary of the capital, features a whale-like creature with great, pendulous breasts hanging down either side, almost like wings. In the artist’s own words: ‘When I see an artwork, I am looking for something that moves me or challenges my ideas about the world. That’s what I hope The Skywhale offers people.’

Well, this seemingly simple concept has certainly done that.

The Skywhale flew briefly over the skies in Hobart and also in the northern population centre of Launceston. After her stint in Launceston, the whale met criticism from city alderman (alderwoman?) Annette Waddle, who claimed that the work of art was ‘suggestive and offensive to women’. Waddle is not alone in these negative views, which were echoed in letters to the editors of Tasmanian newspapers The Mercury and The Examiner. The main argument from these naysayers is that The Skywhale’s ‘grotesquely hanging breasts’ were ‘on display for all to see,’ and would ‘give children nightmares’.

When questioned on the controversial nature of her artwork, Piccinini stated: ‘I don’t know why anyone would find The Skywhale offensive or ugly. To me, she’s a figure of wonder.’ The negative response to The Skywhale’s breasts, which appear like elongated and multiple human woman breasts, complete with *Gasp* nipples, indicates a remaining cultural discomfort with women’s (real) bodies, particularly in their reproductive sense.  How can the depiction of natural, maternal breasts be ‘suggestive and offensive to women’? Alderman Waddle’s reaction would be fitting if The Skywhale were, in fact, a gigantic blow up sex doll. But this would probably be less subversive in contemporary culture than the depiction of a natural, unaltered breast. But I wouldn’t put it past MONA mastermind, David Walsh, to be on the lookout for a gigantic blow up sex doll. Maybe next year.

According to Piccinini, she included the pendulous, anthropomorphic breasts because she ‘wanted a benign, maternal figure.’ State Premier, Lara Giddings, known for her avid support of the arts (she was bopping with her girlfriends in the mosh pit just a few feet away from me at a previous MONA FOMA event), has disagreed with Alderman Waddle, arguing that The Skywhale is not obscene or grotesque, but ‘very maternal and very loving and just gorgeous’. Waddle then caused further controversy by criticising Giddings on her use of the adjective ‘maternal’ seeing as she is not herself a mother. Wow. Apparently childless women aren’t allowed to use certain adjectives, everyone! Hope you got the memo! Waddle later retracted her comments and (non)apologised.

In the aftermath of Dark MoFo, where the whole state is practically reclining in post-coital-cigarette-bliss over the whole thing, The Skywhale could be aptly viewed as symbolic of the cultural teat in the breast of the MONA Mothership that Tasmania is currently suckling. We have entered an era of Mona-Determinism where anything good that now happens or comes out of Tasmania is because of MONA’s influence and environment. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I can’t help but question: where do we go from here?

5 thoughts on “suckling at the teat: MONA, the skywhale and contemporary tasmania

  1. ‘Alderman Waddle’ is a great title.

    I guess people might be disposed to object to the Skywhale partly because restrictions on public nudity make the Skywhale look as if it’s flouting a convention. Also the fact that the Skywhale made a scandal earlier this year in Canberra probably helped to make this an issue.

    I agree it’s ridiculous to view breasts primarily as sexual when of course their main function is maternal. Personally I think the Skywhale is great. More of it please!

  2. I tend to think that, if the skywhale featured ten giant ‘paternal’ penises instead, the reaction would be much the same.

  3. I live in Canberra and I found the Skywhale ugly! And its more a turtle than a whale anyhow. I can’t defend or give a good reason for my dislike but being a feminist I hope its NOT because of the pendulous breasts – I don’t find it offensive … just damn repulsive! Sorry!

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