Life

Eight years after Skywhale first took flight, it is joined by Skywhalepapa – mesmerising in its gentle weirdness. By Karen Middleton.

Skywhalepapa joins Skywhale

Skywhale in Canberra.
Credit: Martin Ollman Photography

Confession: a pile of nylon has touched my heart.

The revelation came on a cold Saturday morning when a huge brown-and-grey patchwork of fabric was unrolled on a suburban school oval in the nation’s capital, after a dawn race across town trying to get ahead of the wind.

A hot blast to the nether folds wafted the material off the grass and, while I watched it billow and fill, we were both transformed.

It became a giant inflated creature, a massive ephemeral whimsy, mesmerising in its gentle weirdness, with a strangely calming smile and 10 absolutely enormous, drooping boobs.

And I, ambivalent and barely awake at stupid-o’clock, suddenly laughed my head off and could not have loved it more.

This weekend, eight years on, the magnificently silly Skywhale is back, now joined by a partner, Skywhalepapa, also 10 storeys high and with a brood of babies tucked at his sides. The debate about it as a piece of public performance art and sculpture is back too, though more muted than when it first ascended to mark the centenary of Canberra in 2013.

Since then, the kooky balloon creature with the bloated glands has been around Australia and across the globe. It has amassed critics over both cost and character, but a good many have come around to the idea that it’s not so bad and even pretty great.

Skywhale was designed by Melbourne-via-Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini and commissioned by Robyn Archer, the creative director of the centenary festivities, at a total cost of about $300,000.

Its funder, the ACT government, never actually owned the balloon – a fact also subject to political and public criticism at the time. The haters hated it for being created and then hated the fact that it wasn’t theirs to keep. So very Canberra.

Skywhale arrived like, well, a fart. While some tut-tutters wrinkled their noses and deemed it an offensive imposition that hung in the air and reflected poorly on all around, a lot of people couldn’t help laughing. Whether they saw it as an audacious outburst or just an unexpected presence that was hard to ignore, many Canberrans liked what Skywhale said about their oft-maligned little city – an up-yours to its buttoned-down image.

The bright-eyed floating sea mammal creation looked so hilariously out of place, hovering over urban rooftops and backyards, daring observers to doubt themselves when they opened the curtains, that it was somehow absolutely perfect.

Perfect that this mad thing had been made to mark the centenary of the nation’s capital, home of big skies and political controversies, with its reputation for dullness peddled by those who just can’t be bothered to look for the fun.

Surely, in the city of spin, even the sceptics could have figured out how to twirl this one to their advantage? “From nothing to something extraordinary with just a few puffs of hot air.” How better to celebrate the seat of government?

But for the detractors it was all about the cost and not a little about the embarrassment.

At the time, Skywhale was the subject of largely good-humoured questioning during estimates hearings in the ACT legislative assembly. Even the initially dubious Katy Gallagher, then chief minister, couldn’t help herself.

“I would point out that the centenary program is bigger than the Skywhale, although not as well endowed perhaps,” Gallagher told her political opponents.

Skywhale was made for its visual impact and power to provoke, and as a strange totem to take Canberra to the world. On those measures alone, it was considered a good investment, with its international media mentions overwhelmingly positive.

Not keen to bear the cost of storing and maintaining the balloon and its associated equipment, the ACT government selected a Victorian company to take ownership of Skywhale. In 2019, an anonymous benefactor donated it to the National Gallery of Australia.

With support from the Balnaves Foundation, the gallery subsequently commissioned Piccinini to make Skywhalepapa. The balloon family was due for launch last year, and then Covid-19 struck.

After three scheduled appearances in Canberra over the next two months, it will go on tour across nine Australian locations for two years, supported by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation. Then it will head overseas again.

Back in 2013, as the stupendulous original bobbed and dipped in a perfect cornflower sky, I was reminded what complete joy there is in the grandly ridiculous, and of the inexplicable magic of art.

I was also reminded, briefly and disturbingly, of that ancient Woody Allen movie, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, the one where a massive, inflated breast breaks free from its moorings and bounces across the landscape. Unlike Allen’s offering, Skywhale’s design wasn’t meant to be about sex. But its new addition, Skywhalepapa, is an observation on gender that the gallery says reflects the changing role of male caregivers and celebrates a father’s capacity to love and support.

“With a single Skywhale figure we have a character, but with the two we have a relationship and a narrative,” Piccinini says.

Her concept of the original Skywhale was to reflect Canberra’s ambition as a planned city to “blend the natural and the artificial” and to contemplate what might have been if whales, as mammals that should be on land, had evolved to the air instead of the sea.

She describes Skywhale as “art that has strayed outside of art’s natural habitat”.

“In many ways, I wanted to create something ‘wonderful’, in the sense of a thing that invokes a sense of wonder,” Piccinini wrote of the original creation. “Something ‘remarkable’ in the sense that you might remark on it. The Skywhale is something that you might not expect to see in the sky on the day that you see it, and it might make you smile or think, or both.”

Canberra artist and musician Hannah Beasley responded by composing a vocal homage.

Beasley was riding her Vespa to work across the Kings Avenue Bridge in 2013 when Skywhale floated into view over Lake Burley Griffin. She’d missed the public kerfuffle surrounding its creation, so it came as a complete surprise.

“I thought, ‘What is that?!’ ” Beasley recalls. “That is the most magnificent thing.”

By the time she got home that night, she had the bones of a song. Public performances of her a cappella “Ode to Skywhale” followed, with Beasley joined by Canberra musicians Bec Taylor and Chris Endrey:

I’ve seen love before but never a whale
tit-spangled or so easily floating or so blue.
I’ve been worried about so many things
that just don’t matter now.
I’ve seen something in your tiny eyes that’s true.

The unofficial anthem – with improvised whale song interlude – captured the sentiment of those bewitched, and it became a wonder of its own.

I’ve seen happiness but a whale sky high
with giant breasts is something mysterious and fine.
In a world obsessed with making sense
and no time for silliness, the Skywhale is a renegade of style.

Like the rest of the creature’s devotees, Beasley celebrates the balloon’s return to Canberra this week, with its new family.

“What a glorious contribution to our world,” she says. “When you see so much drabbery and then seeing that someone has gone and spent that much money on a boobed whale. The only thing it does is spark joy and conversation. It’s not doing anything else.”

There’s a new song marking the launch of the whole Skywhale family, which is produced in conjunction with the NGA’s Know My Name exhibition of women artists. Piccinini has commissioned Canberra musician Jess Green, also known as Pheno, to create “We are the Skywhales” to accompany her work.

It is being performed as part of Skywhales: Every heart sings, the family’s public debut alongside the National Gallery of Australia this weekend, weather permitting.

The free-of-charge public event for 2000 enthusiasts was fully subscribed; Covid-19 considerations required it be ticketed.

Two more liftoffs are also scheduled: on Canberra Day on Monday, March 8, as part of the annual balloon spectacular, and on Easter Saturday, April 3, both with ticketing to come. There are many other public vantage points around the adjoining Lake Burley Griffin that will also cost no more than the price of setting the alarm for a 5.30am liftoff.

I asked around this week for views on the original Skywhale.

Fun. Bold. Brave. An atrocity. Unworldly. Unsightly. Beautiful. Grotesque. Provocative. An abuse of our taxes. Free for all. Misunderstood.

As Katy Gallagher told her interrogators in June 2013: “It is unusual. It is different. It is art.”

It certainly is. And while I’m more than happy to hear the arguments against – because, after all, that’s what it’s here for – they’ll never convince me.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Balloon animals".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.