CASS alumna Patricia Piccinini debuts Skywhalepapa

Patricia Piccinini Skywhalepapa, 2020, Commissioned with the assistance of The Balnaves Foundation 2019. Purchased 2020, 'Skywhale', 2013, Gift of anonymous donor 2018. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program © Patricia Piccinini

By Evana Ho

Pioneering artist and CASS alumna Patricia Piccinini has debuted the companion to her famous Skywhale.

The mammoth work, a hot air balloon commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Canberra, aroused delight and astonishment worldwide when it was unveiled in 2013. Now, the mammoried Canberra icon has been joined by Skywhalepapa: an equally ambitious feat of engineering and creativity.

Skywhalepapa had its first official showing in early February on the grounds of the Parliamentary Triangle in a sold-out event that attracted thousands of spectators. Patricia’s latest creation is even larger than Skywhale, measuring more than 30 metres tall. The “papa” in “Skywhalepapa” is emphasized by the nine babies carefully tucked under his fins.

“Skywhalepapa is a massive, ten-storey high father but he is not threatening,” Patricia says on the National Gallery of Australia website. “Instead his strength is comforting. One of things that I love about Skywhalepapa is that it is a sculpture, but it is also a performance—an event.”

Patricia, who grew up in Canberra, has become one of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary artists for her daring and imaginative works in a range of mediums. She graduated from ANU with a Bachelor of Arts (Economic History) in 1988 before going on to study painting at the Victorian College of the Arts.

In speaking about her practice, Patricia says that she’s interested in relationships: “the relationship between the artificial and the natural, between humans and the environment. The relationships between beings, within families and between strangers. And the relationship between the audience and the artwork.”

“My work is never about one thing alone, it is always about a family or an ecosystem,” she adds. “Even when a creature is alone there is a relationship with the viewer.”

Fittingly, her Skywhales are now part of a broader collection of affiliated works and resources under the banner of ‘Skywhales: Every heart sings’. The collection includes a children’s book penned by Patricia, online learning materials for students, and a song by ANU School of Music alumni Jess Green (B. Music (Jazz Studies) ’01), which was commissioned by Patricia.

“We are the Skywhales”, released under her artist name Pheno, is a rousing pop song that’s a medley of vocals, electronic beats and traditional instruments – including one that occasionally emits whale-like sounds in the almost 6 minute long track.

"[Patricia] has a rich mythology and landscape behind these sculptures," Jess told The Canberra Times.

"So I would have these really long chats with her and then I'd get off the phone and make notes."

Jess is an acclaimed musician with multiple recordings to her name. In the two decades since she graduated, she has amassed a long list of credits performing for and alongside bands from The Catholics to Katie Noonan.

“We are the Skywhales” is just one of a number of commissions Jess has produced. In addition to being a working musician, she has taught music at a range of institutions in Canberra and Sydney, and is currently Girls Jazz Coordinator at the Open School of Music at ANU.

In another ANU Music connection, The Luminescence Children’s Choir performed “We are the Skywhales” at the Skywhalepapa launch. The choir is conducted by Jess’ fellow alumni AJ America (PhB  (Hons) ‘18), who is also Artistic Director of the Luminescence Chamber Singers.

Skywhale and Skywhalepapa will next take flight on 8 March, Canberra Day, again in the Parliamentary Triangle.