In Conversation with Patricia Piccinini on the Skywhale
7am is mighty early but it didn’t deter art lovers from heading to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) Forecourt to see Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhale. Sadly though their dedication was not rewarded, and the 23 by 34 metre hot air balloon was nowhere to be seen. A little disappointed, but still eager to hear from the artist, we made our way into the gallery to watch her in conversation with Robyn Archer AO (the creative director of Centenary of Canberra – the organisation that commissioned the artwork). Takeaway coffees and complimentary pastries in hand we were informed why the Skywhale was absent. Pilot Kiff Saunders explained it was much too hot and windy for her to fly but he was confident she would be out later in the week.
It is difficult to think of the Skywhale as a delicate being – she is so big, and bold, and otherworldly – but Piccinini and Saunders both speak of her affectionately, like proud and concerned parents. After all she is made of nylon and her ten huge boobs that tend to “flop around” cause her to be quite weather sensitive. Perhaps they feel particularly protective because their Skywhale has been picked on in the past. When pictures of the creature were leaked before its first flight in Canberra some residents called the artwork ugly and said it misrepresented their town. Admittedly it’s not immediately apparent what Skywhale’s connection to the city of Canberra actually is, but Robyn Archer was quick to fill us in. She was inspired by Canberra’s love of hot air balloons and their annual event the Balloon Spectacular. She said a Piccinini designed balloon makes sense if you think about Canberra’s origins. An artificial city built in the middle of a natural landscape – it is something of a Skywhale itself.
Still, that the Skywhale made it into the world at all remains something of a miracle. When Piccinini was asked to design the balloon her initial response was “gosh, that’s big” and after considering something she had never conceived before she simply said she’d love to but only if it could be “part of her practice.” Given the nature of Piccinini’s previous works – sculptures that walk the line between interesting and grotesque – asking her to create a public artwork must have been a risk and even Piccinini expressed surprise that getting her design accepted wasn’t a whole lot more difficult. Archer, however, simply reminded us that if you want to get good work out of an artist you have to let them do what they want.
But where did Piccinini’s idea for a huge flying whale come from? Her explanation sounded like the prologue to a fairy tale: Once upon a time before the blue whale had evolved its ancestors grew hooves and walked on land. After a while this same creature returned to the sea in order to become the “gigantic and intelligent” blue whale we now know. Piccinini imagined that if the blue whale could decide to inhabit the depths of the ocean then it could have just as easily taken to the sky. Whales are living, breathing mammals after all and it makes no more sense for them to live underwater, right? The result of her speculations is what she describes as a nurturing and maternal being (hence the many mammaries) but even the artist recognises she cannot have the last word about a public artwork. Since the Skywhale’s first flight, she said, there have been many myths circulating about its origins. There’s even a Twitter hashtag (#skywhalemyths) where you can contribute your own theories, and perhaps even give her a first name.
The Skywhale hot air balloon will live for ten to fifteen years, as long as it’s cared for and maintained correctly. But how long could the Skywhale exist if it was real? Would we have caged her by now? Or rushed to shoot her down? In a world where strange creatures are not expected but thanks to genetic engineering may be closer to existence than we think, could we accept a massive flying whale? Piccinini describes a Skywhale flight as an “auspicious event”; she knows such a weird creature has the potential to be feared but she wants us to take ownership instead. She says, “If you look into the eyes of a whale your life changes” and this week in Melbourne you can give it a try. Head to the ACCA’s Forecourt to see her tethered, or just keep one eye on the sky.
Words by Alix Palmer