High flyer

skywhale horizontal

First came Skywhale, the gloriously odd creature that took to Canberra’s skies in 2013 before travelling the globe. Now Australian artist Patricia Piccinini has given her a companion.


It’s dark, passing 4am, and Patricia Piccinini is running through a field in a flowy floral dress, pulling at the fabric flippers and billowing breasts of her creations – first the hot air balloon (and aeronautic artwork) known as Skywhale, then its gargantuan new counterpart (and levitating life partner), Skywhalepapa.

Through thick fog Piccinini dashes between them, clearly not feeling the chill here, 40 minutes north of Canberra, on the first Friday in December. The pilots have matters firmly under control, yet Piccinini stays near: tugging at a tail, smoothing out a fin, fretting like a mother.

Skywhalepapa’s first Australian flight – this test launch – is being held on the expansive farm of entrepreneur Dick Smith ahead of its anticipated public debut in Canberra next Saturday. And so roughly two dozen of us, mostly people from the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and Piccinini’s studio, mill in this natural amphitheatre, stamping our feet to stay warm, awaiting this sneak peek. At 5.56am, the project co-ordinator appears: “Thirty seconds to the sun!” he yells. “Three minutes ’til flight!”

The balloons puff and swell, then they’re aloft, floating upward, making no sound whatsoever. The aural vacuum is swiftly filled with whoops and cheers and applause, and a startled stock horse gallops through a nearby paddock.

Someone tells Piccinini she must be freezing now, but the 55-year-old just smiles. “My Italian friend, she got married in Italy one freezing winter, wearing this strapless thing, but she said she didn’t feel the cold because she was the bride,” she says. “That’s how I feel…”

Click here for the full story from Good Weekend on Saturday January 30, 2021.

Cover image by Alex Ellinghausen