Many cities have patron saints. In Palermo in southern Italy there is a story that a vision of Saint Rosalia, a young hermit, saved the city from a plague. In Berlin, you can see a black bear everywhere you look: on the city’s coat of arms, on street signs, as statues like teddy bears telling visitors they are welcome.
Around the world, part of living in a city is to believe in mythical creatures or visions that bring you salvation or protection. In Rome, perhaps most famously, there are Romulus and Remus, who were rescued by a she-wolf. One of the local football clubs, AS Roma, plays with a she-wolf on their badge, her teats clearly visible, just over the player’s hearts.
In Canberra, the teats come at you, 3 metres tall, from above. The Skywhale – without a doubt Australia’s most nippled public artwork – guards this city. She is 30 metres tall and beloved, plump with 10 long breasts hanging off her. She smiles with a human face, serene and beneficent, like a floating saint.
On Sunday morning she rose again. This time with Skywhalepapa, a companion piece making his world debut near the National Gallery of Australia. Described as “incredibly muscular” and as tall as a seven-storey building, he carries a bevy of Skywhale babies.
Both were created by the internationally renowned Australian artist, Patricia Piccinini, a Canberra native, who poured her love for the city into the whales. Even in the pitch-dark before dawn on Sunday, there were thousands of people waiting to see their launch.
It wasn’t always this way. Created in 2013 for Canberra’s centenary, the Skywhale was commissioned under the office of the Australian Capital Territory’s first minister Jon Stanhope, who hated it – telling the Canberra Times that if he had known what it looked like, he would have stopped it there and then. His replacement as first minister, Katy Gallagher, said her eyes “nearly fell out of her head”, even as she defended it.
But in 2020 Skywhale made her triumphant return to the city, and now the National Gallery has acquired both it and Skywhalepapa as the city’s own. For six years Skywhale has flown around the world: in Brazil, Japan, Ireland. Canberran hearts missed her. On Sunday morning both whales were inflated in a mystical dawn ceremony but windy conditions meant they could not take off. Still they are slated to take off at least twice more above Canberra before heading off for a two-year national tour.
Visitor from another dimension
Internationally, Piccinini is acclaimed for her hyperreal sculptures, made of fleshy silicon, in which humans are blended with new creatures. She uses them to hint at elaborate, alternate worlds, rooted in the nature and biology of something real. The Carrier, for example, is half-human animal that carries, quite happily, an average-looking, smiling old lady on his back. Both stare at you as though this is normal.
But instead of human-sized and intricate, the whales she has made for her home city are huge. Skywhale is about wonder, Piccinini says. She is still clearly natural, with mottled skin, but bright orange.
The whale is like a visitor from another dimension – a better version of Earth, really – and its appearance in the sky on these days is the rare kind of public art that has value simply because it exists. Love or hate it, it is a gift to get to experience a world in which this kind of creature takes to the sky.
Piccinini says she thinks sometimes about people seeing the Skywhale for the first time, not knowing what it is.
In Galway, in Ireland, they flew it so low over the suburbs on a quiet day, that they were able to speak to people on the ground from inside the basket. “It was a lot of people just coming out of their doors and going, what’s going on?” Piccinini tells Guardian Australia.
Kim Hyung is a balloon pilot, originally from Korea, who has piloted the Skywhale for years, longer than than anyone else. His relationship with the balloon mirrors the city’s.
When asked if it is tricky to fly, he says: “I have been flying balloons for 23 years, all the balloons fly exactly the same. But Skywale and Skywhalepapa, they are very, very special balloons. Some people hate them, but I love them.
“I am just a balloon pilot. I don’t really know about the arts or whatever. But I am one of the people who loves the balloon. There are only a few people who can fly this balloon in Australia. And I am so excited – I can fly a work of art.”
But Hyung admits that when he first saw the balloon he felt differently.
“Let me tell you the truth, I thought this was an ugly balloon. I thought why? Why such a shape for a balloon? I was one of those people. Then I saw it again, a number of times and slowly I started to like it. And now I just love it.”
In an interview with the ABC in 2018, Piccinini said this is the effect she sought. “My ideal viewer would experience an emotion. An emotion we don’t even have a name for – a feeling of being aware that you are warming to something that you were originally averse to.”
In the years since Skywhale’s 2013 launch, the cartoonist David Pope has started using her as a symbol of Canberra. In gift shops now they sell Skywhale merchandise: pins and badges and temporary tattoos. Something unique and fun, for a city often known for serious, federal monuments that point outwards to the whole country rather than to itself.
In the week up until Sunday’s launch, Piccinini has been to a local brewery, Bentspoke, that made a Skywhale ale, and tried a batch of Skywhale croissants, made by local Three Mills bakery, which are blue and have a honey custard in the middle to represent the whale’s milk. (“It is great. And it has got nutrition in it, it’s not that sweet.”)
The launch has become a mass event that bonds the city together. It brings pilgrims. It pays for itself. People come down the Federal Highway from Sydney like stormchasers.
A vision of modern masculinity
On Sunday the gates opened at 4.15am. People trickled into the park at John Dunmore Place and the speakers played a soundscape of burbling animal sounds. As the Skywhales slowly inflated, this became kind of a low holy drone. On Skywhalepapa, a kind dolphin face rose up, twitching in the breeze. His head was the last to inflate, all his children arrived first.
If Skywhale is about wonder, then Skywhalepapa is about care, Piccinini says. He is a vision of modern masculinity, a towering male figure who looks after the children. There is an important vagueness to this – Skywhalepapa is not necessarily the Skywhale’s husband. But he is a representative of a species where the males take care of the children, not necessarily of individuals, but of the whole species.
“Care is a really important value in our society today,” Piccinini says. “This is a pretty undervalued way of being.
“My dad and the generations of those dads … It wasn’t seemly for those dads to be nurturing. They cared, but it wasn’t in the construction of contemporary masculinity at that time. But now I think the contemporary ideal is that you can be and you should be involved in the raising of the children. And it’s good for kids.”
Skywhalepapa carries one of his children on his shoulder, which Piccinini says she observed as a uniquely male way of showing love. “It is very intimate, you know, two heads together. Let’s celebrate it, and lets’ see it, and let children see it and go, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be that kind of male.’”
Every new launch means that people can have an opportunity to have another moment of pure wonder.
Piccinini tells Guardian Australia that she wishes more people could see the launch.
“I would love for there to be 20,000 people there,” she says. “And when it’s not Covid, that will happen … Just being together with other people, and witnessing something, is very galvanising. Sharing a moment.”
On Sunday, they were. Families and groups of friends sat around outside the fence, along the water’s edge, or arrayed outside Old Parliament House, the spike of new parliament visible behind them. There were more people outside than in.
At 6.20am, they news came through that the Skywhales would not be flying. They did not get the clearance they needed from air traffic control – the balloons needed an easterly wind but the morning’s was a westerly, meaning they would have been pushed towards the airport.
Still, the sun came up, and you could see all the Canberrans there in their different forms of devotion. The Skylab was there – an obediently trained golden labrador – who wore a belt of party balloons to look like the whale. There were people wearing Skywhale hats, and pins on their clothes made by a local artist. Dads carried their children around and held their hands. Piccinini walked through the crowd, saying hello to people and handing out Skywhale patches that a man called Adam – who she says is the Skywhale’s biggest fan – made for her to give out.
A group of children waiting in line for the toilets talked to each other. One said: “Wow, it really does look like a whale”. His friend asked: “Which one is the mum and which one is the dad?” “That one’s the dad because he’s got the babies,” came the reply.
Piccinini’s art always shows her creatures next to, or with humans. The creature in The Carrier is carrying an old woman. In Big Mother, a strange creature is breastfeeding a human child. They are somewhat monstrous but they all always part-human, or clearly live in the human world.
Skywhale doesn’t. Her humanity comes from the places she flies over, and the people who watch her. That, in a word, is Canberra. On Sunday the whales did not fly, but they were still there, nodding to each other as they lived above the crowd, big as gods, floating tethered near the people who love them.