Six years ago, the huge and bosomy figure of the Skywhale – one of Australia’s most bulbous yet memorable public artworks – made its debut in the air above Canberra.
To see the Skywhale – 100 feet tall, smiling serenely – was to experience a variety of emotions: wonder, shock, hate, delight – and a not small amount of confusion. The then-chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Katy Gallagher, said her eyes “nearly fell out of her head” when she saw the first blueprint.
“I think the reaction comes down to the breasts,” its creator, artist Patricia Piccinini, tells the Guardian now. “People seem to be amazingly freaked out by breasts.”
They hang, made of hectares of tough nylon, 10 in total, pendulous and nippled. On her face, the whale wears “a calm benign expression”, as described by her 2013 official website.
“She’s a maternal figure,” says Piccinini. “I was often asked where the babies were.”
Next year, as part of the National Art Gallery’s 2020 program, announced on Wednesday, that question will be answered.
Skywhale will fly again from March, this time accompanied by her partner: a new, “taller and more vertical”, yet similarly knobbly balloon called Skywhalepapa.
“Skywhalepapa is quite different from the Skywhale,” Piccinini says. “He has these bulky arms that he uses to gather and protect the babies.
“He is taller and more vertical. I’m not sure if he’s traditionally masculine but he does have a certain strength I think, but also gentleness. He is surrounded by a group of Skywhale children … being looked after by the male.”
The acclaimed Australian artist, who grew up in Canberra, is celebrated around the world for her uncanny, hyper-real sculptures. Since it launched in 2013 for the city’s centenary, the Skywhale has flown above Ireland, Japan, Brazil and Victoria’s Yarra Valley. It’s mystique has grown – and so too perhaps the whale-shaped absence in Canberran hearts. Piccinini has said it was always her dream for Skywhale to return to the nation’s capital.
“I see Skywhale as an amazing and beautiful creature,” the sculptor says. “Certainly she is unusual but no more so than so many of the wonderful creatures that we share this world with.
“It’s never my intention to shock in my work. I understand that sometimes it is quite intense, but that’s not Skywhale.”
As she says, a large part of the confusion came down to the breasts – particularly because they were “not presented in a sexualised way”.
“Skywhale was always about maternity and care, and I believe that care is a value – and a responsibility – that should not confined one gender,” she says.
Skywhalepapa builds on this idea. “He is a celebration of care. It’s not clear if the children are all his or if he is caring for all of the children in the pod.
“Similarly, his relationship with the Skywhale is unclear. I am not trying to say what a family looks like, but I am trying to show what care looks like, and how care and caring is valuable and vital.”
Piccinini wants to celebrate the role fathers are beginning to play in raising children. “As a feminist, I think that patriarchy tends to dismiss and devalue caring, but when you actually care for another is much easier to care for the rest of the world.”
Piccinnini is one of many women featured in the 2020 program, a renewed commitment led by the Know My Name initiative: the gallery’s response to longstanding gender imbalance throughout Australia’s major galleries. At the NGA, only 25% of works in the Australian art collection are by women-identifying artists.
The director of the NGA, Nick Mitzevich, has described the 2020 program as “the first major step to ensure gender parity, equity and inclusiveness across all facets of the National gallery”. It will feature a large scale exhibition of Australian women artists from 1900 to the modern day, an installation by Indigenous women collective the Tjanpi Desert Weavers and a digital project, In Muva We Trust, from multi-form artists Bhenji Ra and Justin Shoulder, also known as Club Ate.
There will also be works from European masters on show in Australia for the first time, including work by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer and Botticelli; and the first solo exhibition in Australia by Chinese artist and activist XU ZHEN.
In October, the now-iconic balloon was donated to the National Gallery of Australia, with Mitzevich describing it as “one of the most talked about artworks in the history of Australia”.
From March, the iconoclastic, busty shadow of the Skywhale and her babies’ father will once again loom over residents.
“One of things about these works is that you need to be lucky to see them,” Piccinini says.
“The wind and weather must be right, essentially nature must allow us to see them and we cannot control that. We are lucky if we get to see them, just like we are lucky if we get to see so many of the wonders of the natural world.
“It reminds us that not everything is just for us whenever we want it. And that we should be grateful. I really love that.”