“Mummy, look at the boob,” shouts a small child gleefully. The sun is rising on a bone-chilling Canberra morning and Patricia Piccinini’s mammalian artwork lies half-inflated, flopping on the frosty ground.
There are 50 to 100 hardy souls who’ve gathered to watch the fantastical Skywhale come to life on the lawns in front of Old Parliament House.
The Skywhale’s been much criticised and much defended. It’s the butt of jokes and Facebook memes. But wherever it makes an appearance, it generates interest and conversation.
This Sunday morning there are plenty of fans milling about on the lawn - you would have to be a dedicated hater to get up at dawn to come out and see something you didn’t like.
“It’s about the imagination and using it. If we could have more of that it would be good,” says his mum Samantha Pollock who is with the art community herself. “Patricia Piccinini is a superstar in the art world and we should be so proud of her.”
Her young son Felix thinks the artwork looks like a whale with claws.
The balloon starts to inflate - the many appendages billowing out over people’s heads and rising into the sky. Some parents get their children to pose with them, others wander in between the breasts, as though in a slightly surreal jumping castle. Some photographers, armed with tripods, have taken up position on a low ridge while others race around the balloon to get the widest array of shots.
“It’s like giving birth,” one woman says. “My brother in law said, ‘Yeah, it’s like a pregnant woman.’” “It’s definitely female,” says another. People walking their dogs, many on their way to the nearby Million Paws March, start to wander past the lawn, some of the animals straining at the leash to take a look at the artificial creature before them.
“It’s a nice thing to have in Canberra,” says one man as his tiny, fluffy dog cocks its head at the balloon. “But I’m concerned that we’ve paid all this money for something we don’t own.”
It’s a concern that others in the crowd also express. Lesley Ellis says the artwork is intriguing though she doesn’t personally find it beautiful. “I think it’s hideous,” she remarks. “But as an object I think it is interesting.”
It lifts off the ground a little and a couple of dogs bark furiously. Inside the tiny basket (“use the foothole”) pilot Steve Ireland is preparing to take the Skywhale up for a short tethered flight. He says the balloon is much more interesting than the usual “special shape” balloon (such as a Darth Vader or Michelin Man).
When he first saw the pictures of it he was a little taken aback. But he’s warmed to the great beast. “I’m getting to understand the meaning of it as an artwork,” he says.
The sun is bright now and the crowd has grown quickly - several hundred people are now gathered, all busily taking pictures, tweeting and instagramming photos of the Skywhale. Other balloons appear over the top of Old Parliament House, dipping down past the creature in a loose convoy, as if to pay their respects.
Gas burners squawk the Skywhale to life and as the balloon rises the lawns are filled with people with their faces tilted upward towards the creature. A toddler in a beanie crouches with his mother, smiling and waving, utterly delighted. Is there a sense of reawakened wonder on the faces in the crowd? Perhaps. It’s hard to tell behind all those cameras, iPhones and iPads.