30 Jan ‘A wonderful thing’: what inspired Patricia Piccinini’s biggest creation yet
Published by The Sydney Morning Herald
January 31 2021
First came ‘Skywhale’, the gloriously odd creature that flew over Canberra in 2013 before travelling the globe. Now its Australian maker has given her a companion.
It’s dark, passing 4am, and Patricia Piccinini is running through a field in a flowy floral dress, pulling at the fabric flippers and billowing breasts of her creations – first the hot air balloon (and aeronautic artwork) known as Skywhale, then its gargantuan new counterpart (and levitating life partner), Skywhalepapa. Through thick fog Piccinini dashes between them, clearly not feeling the chill here, 40 minutes north of Canberra, on the first Friday in December. The pilots have matters firmly under control, yet Piccinini stays near: tugging at a tail, smoothing out a fin, fretting like a mother.
Skywhalepapa’s first Australian flight – this test launch – is being held on the expansive farm of entrepreneur Dick Smith ahead of its anticipated public debut in Canberra next Saturday. And so roughly two dozen of us, mostly people from the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and Piccinini’s studio, mill in this natural amphitheatre, stamping our feet to stay warm, awaiting this sneak peek. At 5.56am, the project co-ordinator appears: “Thirty seconds to the sun!” he yells. “Three minutes ’til flight!”
The balloons puff and swell, then they’re aloft, floating upward, making no sound whatsoever. The aural vacuum is swiftly filled with whoops and cheers and applause, and a startled stock horse gallops through a nearby paddock. Someone tells Piccinini she must be freezing now, but the 55-year-old just smiles. “My Italian friend, she got married in Italy one freezing winter, wearing this strapless thing, but she said she didn’t feel the cold because she was the bride,” she says. “That’s how I feel.”
For half an hour her balloons drift slowly back and forth, catching faint currents, waltzing together, as the pilots pump hissing hot air into each vessel and a waning gibbous moon fades into the frosty sky. I wonder how Piccinini feels. “Joyful!” she cries, head tilted up, brown eyes brimming. “He’s gorgeous. Look at him up in the blue, looking down at us. I feel maternal. I feel relief. When you do have your baby come out, it’s a relief, isn’t it? Like, thank god he’s okay. He’s out! He can fly!”
Nick Mitzevich, director of the NGA, grins and gives Piccinini a long-held hug. “It’s amazing to see him take his form,” he says giddily. “He defies logic. Defies realism.”
The launch is incredibly important to Mitzevich, too. He came to Canberra in July 2018 and discovered a clear imbalance in the national collection: 75 per cent of its works were by male artists, 25 per cent female. He also saw a need to better share the collection nationwide. The result is an exhibition – Know My Name – to celebrate and elevate the profile of Australian women artists, which opened in Canberra in November and runs until July, and the commissioning of Skywhalepapa, the perfect vehicle to take the gallery beyond its walls, literally all over Australia. Combined, the show and balloon are the gallery’s most significant project under his stewardship.
The skywhales will fly together three times in the national capital – supported by the Balnaves Foundation – then at nine regional locations around the country over two years, sponsored by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation. They’ll then fly around the world, in locales still being nutted out. The NGA has just published a Skywhalepapa children’s book, Every Heart Sings, which Piccinini will read in schools.
There’s a pop song being released by ACT musician Jess Green, and a children’s choir will help her “sing the balloons into the sky” at the public event next week. There’s an adjoining online education project, and a stitchwork pattern is being released online, so people can knit their own skywhales. The nearby Three Mills Bakery hopes to produce a nutritious “skywhale food”, while local craft brewer Bentspoke is discussing a “Skywhale Ale”. (It would be light, and cloudy.)
The plans are big, and so is the price tag: the total project cost for Skywhalepapa is $1.3 million. “For me, it’s an investment in the creativity of Australians, an important part of how we define ourselves and who we are, and how we thoughtfully think about the world around us,” Mitzevich says.
“This is a contentious, ambitious idea, but in the 21st century art can be anything an artist defines it to be.”
Yet artists are still regularly asked to explain themselves, even sometimes by members of the NGA council. Former federal minister for the arts Richard Alston, a council member, is standing in the paddock with us on this cold December morning. Turning to Piccinini in the darkness before the launch, he asks: “So … what actual work did you do? Have you painted it?” Piccinini is often asked a version of this question, and she’s ready for it. “I imagined him, that was the first thing,” she parries. “Then I drew him. Then in our studio we put together a 3D model, and we sent this to a very experienced special-shaped balloon fabricating company in Bristol, and they took about a year to engineer him and sew him together. He’s hand sewn, every seam made by 16 seamstresses. It’s a very lightweight, tough, heat-resistant nylon. The colours are printed. Naturalistic. And he says so much.”
Later, Piccinini shows me photos on her iPhone of Skywhale tribute tattoos, and papier mâché Skywhales, all made by ardent fans of the balloon commissioned by the ACT government to celebrate Canberra’s centenary in 2013. A crowd favourite from the get-go – albeit controversial among some – Skywhale has since flown in Ireland, Japan and Brazil as well as, closer to home, the Yarra Valley.
“That’s funny. That’s hilarious,” Piccinini says of the various tributes. “And I love that,” she says, pointing to a Skywhale hat with inflated condoms for teats. “It’s joyful and creative and celebrates the moment. It doesn’t diminish the seriousness of my work,” she says, explaining what the work’s all about. “The first level of Skywhale is that you see this very breasty creature. She’s a mammal. There are not many mammals in the sky, so you think, ‘That’s very strange.’ Most people go a step back: ‘Is that advertising something? Is it promoting a film?’ It’s a truly enigmatic object: ‘What the f… is that?’
“But you see it’s a female. It looks a bit like a whale. And you think, ‘I’ve never seen an animal like that. It’s ridiculous.’ But somehow it’s got this lovely gentle demeanour. It flows through the sky and it’s a beautiful day – because it has to be a beautiful day, because hot air balloons don’t fly in bad conditions – and you’re drawn in, and you think, ‘Maybe it’s not as crazy as I first thought.’ Maybe it’s this lovely maternal presence that is often not valued in our society.” The piece ponders nature, she says, and its undeniable strangeness: how seals stink, and angler fish hunt, and birds are basically menacing little dinosaurs. “All nature to us is other. That’s why we treat nature in the way we do. That is why we disregard it, and why we don’t value it. That’s humanism. There’s a culpability.”
Into this story comes Skywhalepapa, massive and muscular yet the ultimate nurturing figure, cradling his babies and toddlers. “One of the things about nurture and care is that it’s often ascribed to women. The idea that you could be a big, strong, masculine, beautiful male – and be the nurturer – is a really fantastic image to reflect back at us.“
It’s an image she sees in her own husband, the artist Peter Hennessey, who cooks dinner every night for Patricia and their children Hector, 15, and Roxy, 13. (They didn’t eat takeaway once during Victoria’s long 2020 lockdown, thanks to Hennessey’s sweating at the stove.) The couple have been together 33 years, and their connection shows, in the way Hennessey might call his wife “Patricia” then “Patty”, “My love” then “Old girl”, “Darling” then “Mate”. And the way she gazes back.
“That’s what Skywhalepapa is about – reflecting this triumphant shift in how we define masculinity, and male-female partnerships,” Piccinini says. “There’s a lot of shit in this world, but this is actually a great, wonderful thing. That’s why I made him.”
Over the past two decades Piccinini has used relationships in her work to raise questions about everything from genetic engineering and artificial intelligence to animal rights and gender norms. She works in a variety of mediums but is best known for her hugely popular silicone forms: strange creatures that straddle the boundary between human and animal, nature and technological. Her exhibitions draw strong crowds in her home country – she’s enjoyed survey shows at both the South Australian and Queensland state galleries over the past decade – but also internationally. Her 2016 show, Consciousness, drew 1.4 million viewers across four Brazilian cities, leading The Art Newspaper to name her the most popular contemporary artist in the world that year.
That kind of success, however – won in South America instead of south London – sparked a certain sneering dismissiveness. “I’ve also been accused of being too ‘available’,” she says. “That’s a negative term in the art world: ‘If anyone can understand it, it must be populist.’ But I’m not populist, I’m popular. I want people to get something out of my work. I want that for myself when I go into any exhibition. I want to feel richer.”
That this commission comes from the NGA is no surprise: Mitzevich has long been a fan, commissioning the 2011 Art Gallery of South Australia survey show when he ran that institution, and Piccinini herself grew up in Canberra. One day in year 9, she decided not to go to school. She walked past the gates and kept on walking, ending up in the NGA, staring at canvases by Willem de Kooning and Francesco Clemente. “I just had this incredible feeling of being free from the rest of the world, that my mind was opened,” she says. “I could look at these paintings and imagine things in them, and just be with them. And I thought, ‘I don’t know what this is, I don’t know who these people are, but I want to be here.’“
It wasn’t easy. She was discouraged by her parents: “My father said, ‘No Patricia. There are only three artists – Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael – and you’re never going to be one of them.’”
We talk a little about Piccinini’s back story on another day, at her studio, Drome, in inner Melbourne’s Collingwood, over a pot of camomile tea and a plate of fruit. She was born in Sierra Leone in 1965. Her late father, Teodoro, was an Italian builder looking for work in Africa; her mother, Agnes, an Irish migrant teaching English to kids in the capital, Freetown. Eventually a power vacuum in the former British colony was filled by violence and terror, so when Piccinini was three they fled to her father’s village in Italy, in the Po Valley. They migrated to Australia in 1972, when Patricia was seven and her younger sister, Paula, five.
“We didn’t speak English, so we were just put in the front row of the classroom, and that’s how we learnt,” says Paula, a barrister and CEO of a family violence organisation, married to shareholder activist Stephen Mayne. “We were very much migrants. We might not look like it or sound like it now, but we were. Patricia had an Italian accent up until high school.”
“As an artist I try to situate myself inside society … I’m not outside, telling people what’s right and wrong; I find that way of creating meaning a bit retrograde.”
This childhood deeply informs Piccinini’s work. “We had nothing – I wanted to be part of something,” she tells me. “So as an artist I try to situate myself inside society, and have a discussion with the people around me. I’m not outside, telling people what’s right and wrong; I find that way of creating meaning a bit retrograde. I don’t make art for myself. But that’s another notion given favour in the art world – that the artist can’t help but share his vision, through this ‘compulsion’, this maverick ‘genius’ seeing things no one else can see. I kind of think, ‘Nah, I don’t believe in that mythology.’ It’s bogus. And I don’t fit into that mould anyway because I’m a woman, and women aren’t given those exalted positions in art.”
When she chose art, her parents panicked. They had a vision for their daughters: one would be an economist in treasury, the other a lawyer for the attorney-general. Patricia entered into a deal with them: she could go to Europe for a year after high school, so long as she came back and studied economics at the Australian National University, which she did. “Patricia kept trying to fail economics, but she’s quite a clever person,” says Paula, laughing. “She would cram for exams a few days before, and manage to pass, while completing a double major in fine arts, which no one really knew about.”
After three years, though, she went to Sydney to visit friends, and stayed, transferring to the University of Sydney to study film, where she met Hennessey. She came to Melbourne in 1989 to study painting at the Victorian College of the Arts. “I think she had something to prove to our parents, because they were very, very worried,” Paula says. “Part of the reason they were so keen for me to do my law degree was to support ‘poor Patricia’ in her old age, because she was destined to be destitute.”
The backdrop to their concern was the stomach cancer Piccinini’s mother, Agnes, developed at 39, when Piccinini was 13. Operations and chemotherapy sent the disease into remission, but it returned in her pancreas. The responsible first-born spent her teen years delving into the medical futurism that would ultimately become a theme in her art. “Take reproducing an organ in another body, and transferring that organ to mum so she could live: Patricia saw that as a possibility,” says Paula. “That started her thinking about cloning, and growing ears on mice, and organs in pigs. And what if we were to create new chimeras? Do they have their own humanity? What are the ethics around that?” Piccinini recalls the psychological scar serious sickness left. “We were told she was going to die,” she says. “So we always expected her to die. So my focus was, ‘What can I do to help keep my mother alive?’ And I thought I was keeping her alive, because teenagers always think it’s about them, but it’s magical thinking.
“Then I got married, and she died within six months, at 52, and I thought, ‘F…, I’ve taken my eyes off her and she’s dead. This is all my fault.’ That sounds crazy, but people are not rational.” All this was compounded by the relationship she had with her parents: loving but fraught. “I’m not saying I was badly treated, but there was a kind of distance in my family, which was a bit hard for me, personally, and made me grow up to really value things like connection, and belonging, and care. They had a lot to deal with, and they tried their best with us. But they were just people who had a lot going on in their lives, and had to deal with quite a lot of trauma.”
For her father, who passed away in 2019, that trauma began when he was seven, with World War II. His memories were of blood streaming from his ears after his home was bombed, and villagers lining up in the street to be shot by Nazis. Her mum came from a large expat Irish family in an underprivileged part of Liverpool, a life of poverty that sounds like a chapter out of Angela’s Ashes. “In that context, providing shelter, education and a bedroom for each child, in this safe Australian city, was amazing to them,” says Paula. “But in terms of being mindful that they might have a child who had higher needs – an artistic child, a sensitive child like Patricia – that was not a concern to them. When my parents would argue – and they were very feisty – I would stand in the doorway and listen, and Patricia, who was older, would go into her bedroom and hide under the covers.”
In 2010, Piccinini produced “The Comforter”, featuring a pre-teen girl covered in hair, cradling an other-worldly creature.
A good deal of Piccinini’s work is about maternal love and valourising birth. She signs her text messages and emails with the emojis of an orangutan and a leaf. The leaf for a burst of nature in a digital message. And the orangutan? “They are among nature’s greatest nurturers,” she says. “They look after their young so well, showing their children the forest, what to eat, when to eat it, where to find it. They seem so patient and also strong.” She seems to chase that bond in her work. “You could say that,” she muses, pausing. “But I worry about saying that, because I don’t want people to think the work is about me. That’s another trope of visual art: that it’s all about the artist’s life. But yes, the relationship between a child and mother, and what that looks like in humans or in other species, is really interesting to me, because that relationship has always been a difficult one for me. Because it was always threatened.”
Walking through the painting and casting rooms at her studio, Piccinini picks up a stray silicone hand. She stares at its rubbery, pale palm, somewhat perplexed. “Oh I know, that’s my hand!” she says, smiling. “Well, it’s similar,” she says, peering more closely. “No, wait! It is my hand.” She and Hennessey have worked here for 15 years, prior to which he supported both their art-making endeavours by running a small graphics and interactive media
design business. “We would never have been able to be artists if we hadn’t had that period where Peter’s business supported everyone,” says Piccinini. “You can’t make a sculpture that costs $20,000 if you don’t have any money.”
Their art practices became self-sustaining around the time Piccinini was chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, in 2003. “It’s a bit chicken and egg though, don’t you think?” says Hennessey. “You got Venice because people were starting to notice what you were doing – so it was confirmation, but also had a flow-on effect.”
Unlike many contemporary Australian artists, who move abroad to pursue opportunities, Piccinini has carved out her global career from here. “We possibly should have left then [post Venice], if we really wanted to be part of the high art world, because the trajectory was to work internationally in London or New York,” she says. “But we knew we wanted to have a family. It was a big decision to stay, and we’re so happy we did, because we can see our children thriving, and they don’t have to go to school where they’re afraid of guns.”
Drome, on a grimy bluestone alley, became a “permanent place where we can make a mess with friends”. Piccinini is not that solitary artist, cloistered in her studio, labouring alone into the night. If her work were a movie she’d be the director, but she still needs producers and actors and gaffers and grips. “The process is this,” she says. “I sit in my room and I think up all this stuff: what is important to say in the world? What is relevant to people’s lives? I do that and come up with ideas, and draw them. Then I work on a 3D model of the design with this great guy. He’s not here today, but I just want to show you his head.”
Come again? “That’s Dennis,” she says, pointing to a pasty silicone head, disembodied, resting sideways on a windowsill. “That’s ‘White Dennis’, because Dennis is actually Indian. I sit with Dennis to do all our models.”
Expert staff thus help sculpt her menagerie, or make moulds, or paint skin. The studio is empty today except for Liz Rule, sitting in the tiny room where she punches individual hairs – strand by strand – into silicone skin. “I’ll sit for seven-and-a-half hours, with my green tea and my audio books and my hair,” says Rule, surrounded by plastic tubs labelled “raccoon” and “brown arctic fox pelt”. “I spend my happy days in this tranquil meditation.”
They also buy human hair, and people donate locks, too. “Look at this,” says Piccinini, handing me a black braided ponytail. “We were given this. Isn’t it lovely?”
Delegating such expertise gives rise to a common criticism of Piccinini: reliance on artisans. But this is not unusual in art. Andy Warhol employed his “Superstars” to create screen prints. Damien Hirst outsources almost all his production. Ditto Jeff Koons. Sol LeWitt’s art is sometimes just a set of instructions. The Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald sees this “factory manager” role as a major stumbling block to his appreciating Piccinini. He goes further, critiquing her art as “relentlessly saccharine” and “gross sentimentality”.
“It’s not just mindless insults, but an argument,” McDonald tells me. “All of her work is too gimmicky for my taste. The explanation for her popularity is that people are touched and moved by all these creepy-crawly creatures, but I think they just want to see an old-fashioned freak show.”
Others say this ignores the depth of emotion many feel when confronted by her anthropomorphic tableaux. There’s a deeply intellectual aspect to her work, too, according to art critic Sasha Grishin. An emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Grishin recalls teaching Piccinini – “a dedicated, challenging and quite funny student” – in a few fine art classes. “She has always been a thinking artist,” he says. “She’s not one of these artists’ artists, where the cognoscenti are in love with them while the general public can’t understand what the fuss is all about.” People mightn’t recognise her on the streets of Melbourne, argues Grishin, yet globally she’s “light years” ahead of someone like high-profile Archibald winner Ben Quilty. “When she has her exhibitions abroad, they draw hordes. Patricia is probably Australia’s most prominent artist today, a major figure on the world stage.”
In Australia, Skywhale stands as her biggest splash, one raised in parliamentary question time in 2013, when a politician referred to it as the “Hindenboob”, another as “an embarrassing indulgence only a fourth-term government would contemplate”. That debate had little to do with the style or quality of the work, however, and a lot to do with the notion of spending public money on art. Look, for instance, at the uproar over Sydney’s $2.5 million commission of the monolithic milk crate, Pavilion, by Hany Armanious, or its proposed companion piece, Cloud Arch, by Japan’s Junya Ishigami, shelved after the estimated price tag blew out from $3.5 million to $22 million. Walking through the National Gallery, I stop to admire Blue Poles, the Jackson Pollock painting purchased by the NGA in 1973 for $1.3 million. The price became a scandal, yet famously, the painting is now valued at as much as $350 million.
Skywhale has the advantage of sentimental favouritism, at least in the ACT, where Canberrans developed a touching perspective on her solo flights over their city: she must be lonely, in need of a companion. Jaklyn Babington, senior curator of contemporary art practice at NGA, thinks that after such a sad 2020 these balloons have the potential to prompt enlightening smiles. After all, the people society valued most last year were “the caregivers”, Babington says, and care giving is the central heroic theme of Skywhalepapa. “It’s the kind of project we’re all desperately needing, something that brings together family and love and art. And extreme sport!”
“Not many people can make art. I don’t think that’s elitist – making art is a really difficult thing to do.”
Piccinini doesn’t dwell on public critique, but it’s worth noting that although Skywhale cost $300,000 to make, she got only $8000, which was spent mostly on visits to the Bristol manufacturer. Yes, Skywhalepapa cost $1.3 million, but this time more than 70 per cent went to the artist to deliver the work, with the remainder going to exhibitions, events and touring, for the NGA’s biggest ever commission by a female Australian artist. “I don’t really like talking about the money side of it, because people are going to condemn me,” she says. “They’re going to hate me for being paid. ‘Why her?’ ‘Why that much?’ But this is three years of work. This is going to tour Australia, then probably the world. It will just keep on giving and growing. I don’t know what else to say.”
The criticism of spending on public art, she believes, is rooted in the well-meaning premise that anyone can make art. “But not many people can make art. And that idea is very threatening to people, because everyone should be able to make art. And I don’t agree with that. I don’t think that’s elitist – making art is a really difficult thing to do.“
We can all sing, I offer, but we can’t all be Freddie Mercury. In reply, she offers her own simile. “You like football,” she says to me. (She’s done her own research.) “Who’s that guy with the mullet, who’s super amazing? He’s got tattoos?” (She means AFL superstar Dustin Martin.) “If you say to someone, ‘Not everybody can be Dustin Martin’, they completely understand. But if you say that about art, the reaction is completely different.”
“I don’t have the answer. I’m not that artist who tells people ‘the truth’.”
It’s true. Like Dusty, she’s done her training, too. It’s right there on her studio bookshelves, groaning under the weight of Foucault and Derrida and Heidegger. Amid the 1980s theory boom, Piccinini remembers not just her peers explaining how their work leant heavily on Virilio’s theory on speed, but how such tommyrot seemed to impress people. “I could write an essay on those topics,” she says, “and I could convince you that I was smarter and better and more intelligent than you, and you might think, ‘Whoa, her work has meaning.’ But it might not actually have that much depth. I’d say a lot of vacuous work has been produced on the back of theoretical credit. I just thought, ‘I’m really sick of this, it’s not really authentic, and it’s boring, and myopic.’”
She wants to excite and be excited, and to connect. She can’t help but constantly introduce you to acquaintances in this intensely interested way, whether a photographer who runs marathons – “Actual marathons!” – or a designer who’s just had a little girl – “He’s a very hands-on dad!” In the gallery, I watch her spend 10 minutes trying to coax a painfully shy toddler, enamoured with her skywhales, to say hello. He finally looks – she beams back.
Piccinini clearly recognises the importance of this chance to create a grand airborne dialogue with her audience. “I don’t have the answer. I’m not that artist who tells people ‘the truth’. I want to be part of the world,” she says. “But it is really important for me, this opportunity to reach into the community and have a conversation, in a way that a work in a gallery can’t do. Because I could die tomorrow, and this might be the biggest thing I ever do.”
By Konrad Marshall