In recent times, more than ever before, it is quite clear that the world as we know it is rapidly changing. The reasons for such an aggressive shift are numerous, but if we are to exclude the most dominant ones, these would be digital technology and the climate crisis. Dystopian visions from the sci-fi movies from the 1980s seem more and more realistic every day.
Visual artists on the global scale are exploring these subjects through a variety of media, and one of the leading ones dealing with the liaison between humanity, nature, and technology is the Australian interdisciplinary artist Patricia Piccinini. Best known for her chiseling, yet charming hyperreal sculptures, she devotedly investigates the inter-species interaction, biopolitics, and the environment as well as the emotional relationships our bodies have with others.
In 2013, Piccinini launched an outstanding project called The Skywhale, an enormous sculpture of a hybrid in the form of a hot air balloon. The floating nature of this object practically turned it into a site-specific installation in motion that had flown across Australia and the world.
This year, a new piece commissioned as part of The Balnaves Contemporary Series will be presented; it is called Skywhalepapa, a male skywhale holding its children, and, and together with The Skywhale, it will form a skywhale family that will be launched near The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra seven times during the exhibition period.
The first, apparently motherly creature was designed by Patricia Piccinini as part of a commission required for the centenary of the city of Canberra. The hot air balloon was built by Cameron Balloons in Bristol and flew in Australia for the first time in 2013. When Skywhale was revealed it caused mixed response, but it quickly gained quite a fame and was displayed around the world. It was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 2019.
Namely, in 2010 the creative director of the centenary celebrations, Robyn Archer, commissioned Piccinini to develop a hot air balloon due to her strong connection to Canberra and the fact other prominent former Canberrans were also asked to participate in the centenary celebrations. By that time, the artist had already gained international acclaim for her hyperrealistic sculpture of human-like living creatures, but she had never designed a balloon before.
Interestingly so, in a short while Skywhale gained popularity outside of Australia to such an extent that a couple of songs were written about it, cakes made in its shape, while a few people contacted Piccinini to report that they tattooed the creature onto their bodies.
Together with and her studio, Patricia Piccinini developed a 3D model of the balloon, and during the process, the team dealt with the technical issues regarding the safety of a balloon while in the air, as well as adjusting design visually. Five specialist balloon manufacturers were invited by the Australian Capital Territory's government to submit proposals for the construction of Skywhale, and the Bristol-based company Cameron Balloons was finally elected.
After the initial design was complete, it was taken over by Cameron Balloons which extended the plans in consultation with the artist. The final result was a hot air balloon 34 meters (112 ft) high and 23 meters (75 ft) long able to carry a pilot and two passengers to a maximum altitude of 3,000 feet (910 m). It weighs half a ton and was made of more than 3,500 square meters of fabric. Skywhale is slower to ascend and descend than regular balloons due to its large size; however, it has a lifespan of about 100 flights.
In 2013, Skywhale arrived in Australia and made its initial test flight with the balloon flying from the grounds of the National Gallery of Australia to the National Museum of Australia on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin. Piccinini was a passenger on this flight and delightedly she reported not feeling safe because of the low walls of the balloon's basket. The stitching came loose during this flight as well, so Skywhale had to be transported to Bristol at the expense of Cameron Balloons for a repair.
That same year, Skywhale was flown in two other Australian cities as part of the Dark MoFo festival and was showcased in Melbourne as well. In 2014 it went international and was exhibited at the Trans Arts Tokyo festival in Japan. The following year, Skywhale was flown for sixty hours out of estimated flying life of six hundred hours, while in 2017 it was displayed in Ireland and Brazil. In 2018 it was shown in the Yarra Valley, and the Hunter Valley in 2019.
In November 2019, the NGA announced that it had acquired Skywhalepapa. In a brief statement, Piccinini emphasized the symbolic of the balloons:
Skywhale was always about maternity and care, and I believe that care is a value – and a responsibility – that should not confine one gender. Skywhalepapa builds on this idea. He is a celebration of care. It’s not clear if the children are all his or if he is caring for all of the children in the pod. Similarly, his relationship with the Skywhale is unclear. I am not trying to say what a family looks like, but I am trying to show what care looks like, and how care and caring is valuable and vital.
Although large-scale, the mentioned projects seem quite innovative in the context of the media - the balloons are not quiet sculptures, neither they are public works in the traditional sense of the word. Alongside the apparent feminist intervention in the (post)evolutionists terms, Piccinini’s benevolent giants hovering in the air reflect the possibility of the artwork to be at the same time participative, emotional, slightly puzzling, and easy to connect with regardless of the media and the technique.
In the contemporary moment, saturated with screens, devices, and fast transportation, the balloon stands as a representation of the past time, a romantic vision of sightseeing and enjoying the landscape while contemplating the future. By creating Skywhales and presenting them in this form, Piccinini apparently wants to present a brighter image of the day after tomorrow and to empower spectators to rethink the gender norms, acceptance, otherness, and solidarity.
Skywhalepapa will be launched at John Dunmore Lang Place, Parkes on 6 February 2021 at 5.30am. Online bookings open in mid-January. See the dedicated event page for more information on the COVID Safe Event. Other dates are scheduled for 8 March and 3 April, 2021, both at 5.30am.
Featured images: Patricia Piccinini - Skywhale 2013. Nylon, polyester, nomex, hyperlast, cable. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of anonymous donor 2019. Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program; Artist Patricia Piccinini standing in front of Skywhale 2013. All images courtesy The National Gallery of Australia.