Skywhales take flight over Melbourne in a celebration of life

Legend has it that if you look into the eye of a whale your life will never be the same again. That was the starting point for artist Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhales, which launched into the Melbourne sky on Saturday.

Piccinini wants her art to be transformative, at least for a moment. And so it was for anyone witnessing these massive sculptures in the form of hot-air balloons as they came to life. At dawn in a park in Fairfield, they were wondrous, a celebration of life and possibility.

Crowds gather to view the Skywhales by artist Patricia Piccinini at Corben Oval in Fairfield on Saturday.Credit:Wayne Taylor

They look like something from a natural history museum. “A lot of my work is about the natural and the instinctual, that’s at the root of what I do,” Piccinini says. “The reason why they are hyper-real is so people can suspend disbelief, did they move, could they be real?”

Created in 2013, the 30-metre-high Skywhale is a symbol of fertility and Skywhalepapa, who came later in 2021, is a nurturing partner, looking after their nine babies. “What he tells us is care is not just for women, it’s not just for humans… care is the hero in our society,” the artist says.

While a whale in the sky seems bizarre, Piccinini says it’s not so outlandish, given “they evolved from small, hooved animals that went into the ocean”.

“They are conscious breathers: they can’t sleep for more than 20 minutes and when they do, they are slightly conscious. That’s an amazing adaptation. It seems quite improbable that they travel this incredible distance. It’s also just as improbable for them to go in to the sky but not impossible because they did go in to the water.”

Patricia Piccinini on Saturday.Credit:Wayne Taylor

She plays with the idea that while evolution went this way, it could have been different: “We are lucky to have evolved with them.”

The whales are a celebration of the natural world and act as a reminder of its fragility.

“It all reinforces the idea that we are fortunate to be alive, to be part of this slightly ritualistic event when they inflate,” Piccinini says.

“One of the functions is to bring people together as a catalyst for social meaning, that’s what art does. It’s a shared experience; we look at these values and ideas and concepts and we reflect on them together, think about the world in slightly different ways.”

This was the first flight in Piccinini’s home town for the whales.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Part of MPavilion’s 2022 program, the Skywhales are the biggest and most public work Piccinini has made, taking her art out of the gallery and into the public domain. They have inspired an array of spin-off merchandise: BentSpoke Brewing in Canberra made a Skywhale pale ale, there’s a knitting pattern online for crocheted Skywhales and a recipe for cookies they’ve inspired. Some people come to see them in whale-inspired costumes, while others have had them tattooed.

Canberra-based singer Jess Green, aka Pheno, who wrote We Are the Skywhales in collaboration with Piccinini, performed the song after the inflation on Saturday.

Piccinini is accompanying the whales on a national tour called Skywhales: Every Heart Sings, with Ballarat next on the agenda.

Every location is different, she says. “In Maitland, we had this most amazing sky. In Albury, it was really quiet, they could hover just above us … it felt like you were looking into the eye of the whale, it felt like they were a living creature.”

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