Skywhale comes home for good

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Youthful Skywhale in 2013. Photo: Martin Ollman.

SKYWHALE is returning home and this times it’s for good.

Following a recent gift to the National Gallery of Australia, the gigantic hot air balloon, created by sculptor Patricia Piccinini for the Centenary of Canberra in 2013, will come to rest in the national’s capital.

Piccinini is known for creating hyperreal “beings” out of silicone and plastic, but in this case the fact that Skywhale is a balloon creates specific conservation challenges for the gallery which, director Nick Mitzevich says, is in discussions about keeping her in good health.

It comes at a good time for the NGA, which is keen to draw attention to its focus on female Australian artists, and Piccinini, as a 1992 ANU graduate, counts as one of Canberra’s own.

Built by Cameron Balloons in Bristol, UK, Skywhale first flew in Australia in 2013, immediately inspiring both love and hatred, but with most Canberrans taking her into their hearts.

Patricia Piccinini with Skywhale

An experiment in putting a seaborne mammal into the air, the udders which a few people found offensive served as the aerodynamic solution to “floating” the whale.

Creative director of the centenary of Canberra, Robyn Archer, told a gathering at Strathnairn Homestead, at the time of the appearance of the Skywhale, that the Skywhale ensured that millions of people around the world knew Sydney isn’t the capital city of Australia – one of the Centenary secretariat’s key objectives.

Jeremy Lasek, centenary CEO at the time, agreed, saying: “We’re receiving independent reports that the coverage Skywhale has received is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Skywhale was expensive. Initial estimates of $172,000 rapidly rose to nearly $300,000 when contingencies were added in. But then, as Archer explained to press in 2013, she cost considerably less than a huge “sun” balloon in Melbourne, priced at nearly $800,000.

Piccinini has always insisted that Skywhale is a serious piece of major art, saying: “I didn’t want it to be a kitsch work… I wanted it to be part of my overall practice… Canberra is a planned city that aspires to blend the natural and the artificial… that’s what my work is about.”


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