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Regardless of one's increasing years, skywriting still evokes the same fascination and wonder as fireworks. Like all forays into the sky, skywriting represents a triumph of science where the sky's expanse is fleetingly occupied and defied; that space between heaven and earth is momentarily filled. According to Susan Stew art, "that most typical gigantic world is the sky-a vast, undifferentiated space marked only by the constant movement of clouds with their amorphous forms."1 Skywriting would hold significantly altered appeal if it was permanent, monumental rather than spectacular.
In Australia, as the country endured its longest known period of drought, the sky might be regarded as unrelentingly blue. Against this backdrop, clouds bring hope and the possibility of a fecund regeneration. What we wouldn't give for the power to make rain. On 24 November, 1995, the word 'could'—an anagram of cloud—was written in the sky above Brisbane. Prior to the event, artist, Sally Cox asked 647 people to donate one dollar each to help pay for the work. She also applied for some personal loans without checking credit history! She had originally scheduled it for 14 November. However, incessant rains which heralded the end of the drought caused the project to be postponed. The thought that these rains were caused by nuclear testing in the South Pacific crossed my mind. Maybe we do have the power to make rain. Clouds—such as mushroom clouds—can also have much more sinister meanings. I took cold comfort in the knowledge that the first three letters of 'could' mean ass in French, echoing not only Duchamp, but also Paul Keating's deprecatory remark that "Australia is the ass-end of the world". This timely setting posits a reminder that disasters are both 'natural' and 'technological' and that the boundaries between them are increasingly crumbled. The appearance of this word—one mile tall, 15,000 feet above—demonstrates how we are easily dwarfed and engulfed by the magnitude of not just our environment, but also our desires. As Stewart points out, the gigantic reminds us of our insignificance2 and I remember Wim Wenders' melancholy angels who are constantly pained by the competing woes and wishes of the mortal in Wings of Desire. Solace can be found in the belief that something is watching over us, weeping for us, when disaster strikes.
On that day as I looked up across the sky, squinting through my sunglasses at the word 'could' written in childlike cursive script, all that crossed my mind at that moment was 'could what?". I continued to watch, hoping that more words would appear. Instead, the letters gradually dissolved into white streaks and tiny puffs of cloud. Like Icarus's wings (for Icarus also had high hopes) they slid across the sky and melted into the morning sun, then nothing except that same empty blue sky.
The event was an exaggerated gesture which articulated the incompleteness and transitiveness of longing and which pushed us into the realm of the imaginary. It could represent unmet potential or a resolve to act, as in the proclamation 'I could...'. It could point to unfulfilled wishes in the way that a child might write a note to Santa Claus, "could you please give me... ". It could mark the beginning of a question or proposal such as "could you marry me". It could be that moment when we gaze blankly into the distance searching for that place which is not here and not now. However we consider this word, in Cox's work 'could' appears as the exteriorization of desire and its projection into the heavens.
- Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke University Press, London, 1993, p. 74.
- Ibid, p. 71.