Six observations about The Skywhale

by Patricia Piccinini ( 2013 )

The Skywhale is a sculpture rather than a balloon.

When I was approached for this commission, I made a very conscious decision to approach it as a sculpture rather than as a special shape balloon. I felt it had to fit in with the rest of my practice, both aesthetically and conceptually. I wanted it to be an artwork that took advantage of the opportunities that the balloon form offered. I was thinking about the way that Canberra is this very planned city but very focused on the landscape, and in its ideal it aspires to blend the natural and the artificial, and this really fits with the ideas in my work. So it seemed that some sort of colossal, airborne creature would be perfect. I was also thinking about the way that we can see very different animals occupying equivalent ecological niches in different environments. Like whales, which are mammals and should be on land but somehow have adapted themselves to the aquatic world of fishes. But what if those same mammals had somehow evolved to take to the air? What might something like that look like? From there the idea of the Skywhale seemed just perfect. It is something so strange but at the same time almost conceivable.

So I designed this creature which was my ideal form, with no real regard to it being balloon but certainly thinking about it as something which might fly. I sent it off to the people at Cameron's to look at and discuss. It was pretty extreme: much more complex and detailed than any balloon I'd seen, so I was expecting that they would come back and say that it was too hard, and that it had to be pared back and simplified. I was bracing myself for compromise but to my great joy they came back saying that they could so it. I got the impression they were really keen to test the limits of what they could do, which is amazing. They made a few requests for some minor design tweaks due to the reality of the fact that a balloon is actually a registered aircraft but they were really pretty subtle. Cameron's then went ahead to develop their patterns and technical designs. I visited the factory in Bristol to discuss the details of the design last December and to work out some details about the colors and I got a chance to see what they had to do, and it was pretty amazing. From my designs they created a complex pattern with literally thousands of unique pieces of fabric that are cut out and sewn together. The result is almost exactly what I drew, which is truly extraordinary.

The Skywhale floats into our lives, she appears to us.

I used to live in an apartment with this amazing view over the city of Melbourne. On my first morning there, I woke up and looked out the window and saw a bunch of hot air balloons floating over the city. I’ll always remember that, because it seemed auspicious. I felt like I had been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of something amazing. There is something really special about the way a balloon floats into our lives; This is something that I wanted to capture with the sculpture.

The Skywhale is this benign presence - massive but not threatening - that moves through the world. Although she is sometimes tied to one spot, her natural inclination is is to wonder. You can’t be sure when you’ll see her and she won’t be around for long. Spotting her is an auspicious event.

In many ways, I wanted to create something ‘wonderful’, in the sense of a thing that invokes a sense of wonder. Something ‘remarkable’ in the sense that you might remark on it. The Skywhale is something that you might not expect to see in the sky on the day that you see it, and it might make you smile or think, or both.

What is the Skywhale anyway?

I don’t really want to tell people what the Skywhale is. I have a lot of ideas about what she might be and about how she might have come to appear in our lives, but I don’t want to put out some sort of ‘official’ narrative. Perhaps it is some long lost species that has evaded discovery for millions of years. Perhaps she is some sort of genetically modified animal, the product of cutting edge research. Perhaps she is some sort of mythical beast. Perhaps she is something else altogether.

One of the wonderful things about the project is that the majority of people who see her won’t necessarily have a context for her; they will approach her completely fresh. As such, ‘what is it?’ will most likely be their first question. Obviously she is some sort of creature, but beyond that it is very much up to them. I am much more interested to hear their ideas anyway. On one level, this is very much a work about wonder, about showing people something extraordinary that floats in and out of their day and leaves them pondering over what they just saw. I hope she might be the basis of conversations between friends at work or strangers at the bus stop. If she she can be a catalyst for conversation I would be very happy with that.

The Skywhale is Art that has strayed outside of Art's natural habitat.

The Skywhale is an artwork that exists very much outside of the context of the gallery space, both literally and on a deeper more structural level. In most cases, people will see The Skywhale passing overhead. They will not know where it has come from or why it is there. There is no label nearby to alert them to the fact that it is an art project. It is just something in the world. Even beyond that, it’s form - the hot air balloon - is itself located very much outside the traditional media associated with art. A bronze sculpture in an unexpected place remains a sculpture and will usually be read as an artwork of some sort, but a balloon is more usually the product of the commercial world. People get that it’s a balloon, but wonder what is it for and why it looks like it does?

This is very challenging for a work of art. On one level it is a challenge faced by ‘public’ art but even more so, because it lacks even the various contextual clues that normally make public art’s ‘art-ness’ obvious. Not only is it outside the gallery space, it is outside the institution of visual art. For the very same reason, this challenge is also an amazing opportunity. The Skywhale has the chance to be a truly enigmatic object. It can be a presence in people’s life that they have no preconceived notions about.

For me, the Skywhale is my reflection on nature and evolution.

Obviously, as an artwork, the Skywhale does reflect some very specific ideas that motivated me in creating her. For me, the Skywhale is a work that celebrates the wonder of nature. This might seem weird given that the Skywhale doesn’t actually exist in nature, however for me it captures those qualities of nature that I find most amazing. The thing about nature is its extraordinary capacity to find ways to adapt to any environment. There is no place on earth without life, and that life will be perfectly adapted to that place. There is no creature that I might think of that will be as extraordinary or unlikely as a real one living somewhere. The Skywhale may appear fantastic but think about the Blue Whale – an air breathing mammal that lives in the ocean – and it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The Blue Whale is the biggest creature that ever lived, as far as we know. They are far bigger than any dinosaur we know of. In fact, no one has ever even weighed a Blue Whale whole because they are just too big. However, 50 million years ago whales were small dog-like mammals with hoofs called Pakicetidae. Somehow they went back to the sea and became huge and intelligent. That is just amazing to me. Of course, Pakicetidae are descended from the first creatures that dragged themselves out from the ocean. So, we have this amazing journey over millions of years from the ocean to the land and back. In that context, the idea that the journey could have ended in the air, with a creature like the Skywhale is almost plausible.

I think that when we look up at the Skywhale and wonder what it is ‘for’, it might remind us that nature is not necessarily ‘for us’. It just ‘is’ and we’re just lucky enough to be around to see it.

How does the Skywhale fit into the other work that I have done?

The Skywhale is one of a number of recent works of mine that reflect on the idea of evolution. Evolution is a process whereby things change in order to survive better in changing environments. Natural selection is where these changes happen ‘by accident’; whereas ‘breeding’ is when people deliberately select the organism that suits them best. To this, our generation has added the possibility of ‘genetic engineering’. Looking the relationship between these engines of evolution is very interesting and not as easy as it sounds. Is there a difference? Is one ‘better’ than another? Is the only difference between ‘natural selection’ and ‘genetic engineering’ the fact that one is slow and the other fast? Could something like the Skywhale evolve ‘naturally’ or would she have to be engineered? And if she could be engineered, would she actually be something people might choose to create? Would that be an OK use of the technology?

These are the sorts of questions that arise from my work, although they are often not the questions I begin the creative process with. I am just as interested in relationship. What kinds of relationships do we have with the creatures that we ‘share’ the planet with? What kind of relationships might we have with creatures that we might create in the future? How tolerant are we are of beings that are different from those we are used to? These are questions that interest me.

In many ways, I use the idea of genetic engineering as an excuse to look at these kinds of issues. Certainly the creatures I create are different, perhaps strange, even unsettling. But are they dangerous? And what if they did exist? Would the world be a better place or a worse one? Would we learn to love them? Could we? Should we? In order to look at these kinds of questions, we need to create a relationship with something new, something that challenges us, something like the Skywhale. Ultimately, the answers are really up to the viewer, but my personal hope is that I hope people will delight in the Skywhale as much as I do.