While the Skywhale and Skywhalepapa only enjoyed a tethered flight on Sunday morning for what was to be their debut public flight together, the mood on the ground amongst the thousands who turned up was buoyant.
With a sunrise party atmosphere on the ground, it was truly a family affair as children danced with glee to local musician Pheno’s live performance of commissioned companion art pop song, We are the Skywhales.
Selfie skills were pushed to their limits to accommodate the two behemoth balloons, budding photographers took vantage points from as far away as Mount Ainslie, and some Skywhale superfans even dressed up as the Canberra icon.
After having been rescheduled from Saturday due to rain, Sunday morning was set to be the first public flight of Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhalepapa hot air balloon sculpture, commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia as a new companion to the artist’s famous 2013 Skywhale.
The duo was to fly together as Skywhales: Every heart sings.
While Gallery staff had hoped up until the last minute the Skywhales would fly, after some tests prior to the 6.26am scheduled sunrise lift-off time, it was determined the conditions weren’t quite perfect.
Having undergone a test flight just outside Canberra in late January, the seven-storey tall Skywhalepapa takes approximately 30-40 minutes to inflate in two parts: cold inflation, and then hot inflation.
The long-awaited work was first announced as part of the Gallery’s 2020 program and initially scheduled to fly between March and May last year.
Piccinini said Skywhalepapa is a figure of strong, masculine fatherhood, and continued the concepts around nurturing, caring, nature and evolution that began with Skywhale.
“I’m really moved by nature. The idea that all creatures, not just humans, are perfectly evolved for their environment blows my mind,” she said.
Adding the companion piece also builds the story surrounding the works, adds intrigue, and opens them up to broader interpretation.
“With one skywhale you have a character, with two skywhales you have a relationship … It changes the entire narrative,” Piccinini said.
A distinguishing feature of Skywhalepapa is the fact he carries nine babies, “ranging in ages from toddler to newborn”.
“I don’t know if they are his children, or her children or their children. All that matters is that they are looking after them together,” Piccinini said.
Dubbed “the most ambitious commission by an Australian woman to enter the national collection”, Skywhalepapa and Skywhale became part of the National Gallery of Australia’s national collection in 2019.
Gallery director Nick Mitzevich, who commissioned Piccinini to create the second hot air balloon sculpture, said these works exemplify the idea of bringing art to the people.
“You can literally look up in the sky and see the skywhales flying by,” he said. “Audiences don’t need to go to a gallery to see the skywhales – this is art that is accessible and democratic.”
The $1.3 million performative exhibition project will have the skywhales take to the skies of Canberra on two other occasions in March and April, weather permitting, before heading off on a two-year national tour.
From there, they could possibly be seen in flight across the world, with a few international destinations currently in negotiation.
For each of the 2,000 early birds inside the Gallery’s official event space, local business Three Mills Bakery had created a specially commissioned Skywhale croissant cone.
Three Mills Bakery brand and marketing manager Belinda Armstrong told Canberra Weekly their culinary coordinator had designed the croissant cone to resemble the Skywhale’s breast.
“The single origin purple wheat is high in fibre and low in sugar, which is very important to Patricia,” Ms Armstrong said.
Filled with honey milk mustard that’s “nurturing and thick like whale milk”, the croissants were filled with nostalgic plum jam and topped with freeze-dried raspberry and puffed amaranth meringue.
Three Mills Bakery had taken a big batch of the signature Canberra pastries to the EPIC farmers market the day before and had sold out in an hour. Due to demand, they intend to continue making them.