It was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who put it best.
"The Skywhale looks like something that was not meant to fly," said Brian Schmidt, after seeing Patricia Piccinini's creation take to the air for the first time in 2013.
And for anyone else watching at the same time, it was true. It seemed, at first, that the gentle-faced beast seemed weighed down by her 10 breasts and fanned-out tail. But then she wasn't. She lifted and soared, majestic, benign, a reminder of the wonders of art, of technology, of - as Professor Schmidt reminded us - physics. A human-made natural wonder.
Except that it didn't quite work out that way at first.
If Skywhale were a movie, the highly anticipated launch next week of her male companion, Skywhalepapa, would be the climax, complete with swelling music and brimming eyes. Her seven-year journey - from a cause for protest, complaint, defensiveness, and bureaucratic bickering over money and ownership and relative artistic merit, to an eccentric, beloved icon that belongs squarely to we Canberrans - is surely the stuff Hollywood hits are made of.
Back when Skywhale was first unleashed upon an unsuspecting world on the occasion of Canberra's 100th birthday in 2013, reactions were mixed, to say the least.
Piccinini is an artist renowned for creating sculptures that are both hyper-real and other-worldly, so it's no surprise that her gift to her hometown - specially commissioned for the Canberra Centenary - looked the way it did.
And yet, perhaps because she had been kept carefully under wraps for so long, for many the big reveal felt like ... a letdown (puns are inevitable).
Waggish jokes about teats and hot air abounded, and the air crackled with defensiveness and disappointment and entirely valid questions about the work's price, ownership and commissioning process. The territory's former chief minister Jon Stanhope, who had commissioned the work in the first place but had left his post before the work was revealed, weighed in and pronounced himself appalled, uttering the immortal indictment: Canberra's centenary, he declared, would be symbolised throughout the rest of the country by "a giant tortoise shape with pendulous breasts". What's more, he said, Skywhale would do little more than feed the "voracious beast" of Canberra-bashing.
And indeed, the world, if it turned its attention to us at all, reacted with bemusement. International news agencies, from the UK to Lebanon to Venezuela, ran photos and videos of the balloon in flight over Canberra.
"Controversy over giant turtle with breasts," read one French headline.
What had we done?
Skywhale is nothing if not a patient force, floating up there in the skies, biding her time. No matter what anyone said, she was a marvel to watch every time, as she unfurled and took flight.
She's routinely drawn huge crowds for every outing - in various parts of Australia, as well as the Trans Art Tokyo festival, Ireland's Galway Arts Festival, and in the Brazilian cities of Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro.
By the time it was announced, in 2019, that the National Gallery of Australia had acquired Skywhale via a private donation, with the help of the Balnaves Foundation - it had, until then, been in the possession of Australian company Global Ballooning - public opinion had shifted to the other end of the spectrum.
The news was met with a sense of joy and excitement. Skywhale's mystique was now threaded through with affection; she was our Skywhale, our very own bosomy curiosity. We loved that she would have a new home, one that befitted her status as a valuable artwork by a renowned artist.
And her image was a familiar one, not just in people's memories (it had been a while since we'd seen her fly), but as an icon, a motif, a talisman for our city. It was possible to source Skywhale keyrings, socks and fridge magnets if you knew where to look (mainly Etsy), and The Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope frequently used her as a symbol that popped up unexpectedly in his works to denote something particularly Canberran.
Her companion, we learned, would be a male figure, carrying several babies, a symbol of nurturing, of engaged fatherhood, of evolution.
Due to fly in March 2020, the Skywhalepapa project was delayed. And by the time Skywhale took her most recent flight, on Canberra Day in March 2020, the pandemic was taking hold and lockdown was just around the corner. There was a large and appreciative crowd there to watch her inflate and drift above us on that chilly morning, and for many, it would be one of the last big gatherings of any kind in the capital.
And now, almost a year later, excitement for the rescheduled launch of Skywhalepapa is building nicely.
"Nature is healing!" wrote one wag early in the year in response to a tweet about the date for his launch. Tickets to see the COVID-restricted launch up close booked out in minutes, twice.
Piccinini herself has been silent in recent months, biding her time until next week's big reveal, but she has, in the meantime, launched a children's book based on the Skywhale's origin story.
Her premise has always been that whales once walked on land; the slow evolution to becoming sea-dwelling mammals could just as easily have gone the other way. What might that look like?
She has maintained that she never aims to shock, only to prompt deeper thought on where we are as a species, and how we fit into different eco-systems.
Over at the National Gallery, director Nick Mitzevich is watching the reactions with interest, while tamping down his own nerves about all the things that can go wrong on the day of Skywhalepapa's maiden flight (at the time of writing, the ACT government had yet to confirm how many people would be allowed to watch the launch up close).
"For me, it's very interesting that in less than a decade, it's become iconic," he says.
"Things generally in society take longer than that."
But we all know there is nothing straightforward about Skywhale. Mitzevich had a hunch, back when the gallery brought the balloon into its collection, that interest had far from waned. It was he who suggested to Piccinini that she create a companion piece.
"She was excited about it. She went away and thought about what it might be," he says.
"And she then decided it should be a set and it should be a family. It played out a bigger story for her.
"We didn't want it to feel like an oddity, we wanted to feel that it was part of a very important Australian artist's body of work. And I think by commissioning the second work, we've had the opportunity to do that. We've spent time building a narrative about how it fits into the artist's practice, where it sits within the things that she wanted to achieve, and how it then interacts with the wider world."
Curator Jaklyn Babington, who has been working closely with Piccinini for the past two years on bringing the commission to fruition, says now is the time to tell that story.
"It really does feel like the right project for this time," she says.
"I feel like it's the kind of awe-inspiring community-building exhibition that we need, and project that we need."
The world has changed considerably since Canberra's centenary, and not just in terms of our attitudes towards challenging art.
"We've grown up a lot in seven years," says Babington.
"Canberra has expanded in all sorts of ways. Culturally we're much more mature, I think."
And if Skywhale is an awesome sight to behold when airbourne, Skywhalepapa will be an even stranger proposition - about a third bigger and quite a different shape.
And speaking of science, the balloon's technical aspects are another type of feat altogether. Both Skywhale and her companion have been made by Cameron Balloons, a world-renowned hot air balloon manufacturer based in Bristol in the UK, where Skywhalepapa spent a good part of 2020 marooned by lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Company sales director Nick Purvis, who worked on both balloons, says collaborations with artists like Piccinini bring their own challenges.
"A flying sculpture is a unique medium because what we are doing is making a certified aircraft," he says.
"The biggest challenge in working with artists is to ensure that Cameron Balloons takes the role of the 'artist's brush' rather than driving the artist's hand.
"In the case of Skywhalepapa the trickiest element was to get the tail with the babies to work in the way Patricia envisaged."
He says speciality balloons like Skywhale, which involve a conventionally shaped balloon inside an outer shape, are not difficult to fly, but they do behave differently to regular hot air balloons.
"They will only fly in lighter winds and they do not go up and down as quickly because of all the appendages," he says.
"Being three times the weight and much bulkier than a standard balloon, you will see that they need a much larger crew."
Babington says the project has been unique in almost every way, from organising government permission to fly an aircraft, to packing the whole thing up in a crate, for all the world like a standard - and precious - work of art.
"It's such a hybrid artwork that everybody's working outside of their usual zone, including Patricia and including the staff here," she says.
"There's lots of science, which is why I think Patricia really loves it. I think there's also that awe of when science meets art, there's something that it triggers in our minds, we recognise how technically complex it is, and how nature and and the human-made combine to create something that is quite special."
Mitzevich, a relatively new arrival to the capital, believes Skywhale, both in conception and reputational journey, is a perfect metaphor for Canberra.
"It appears to be just a big country town, but it's socially progressive, it moves to the beat of its own drum," he says.
"And in its own way, it's quietly ambitious, particularly in the social space. And I think Skywhale is emblematic of something being unique and something that no one else has.
"When Skywhalepapa joins the family, with all the kids, it is a floating family that it's very much rooted in Canberra.
"Patricia studied here, she has an affinity for it. So it comes out of that experience. It's not a whimsy, she understands the city, she's lived and breathed it. And so the work fits into a bigger context."
And physically, the city is not the same. Never mind the fact that people will be able to watch Skywhalepapa's maiden flight from the windows of apartment buildings that didn't exist back in 2013.
Our natural environment is morphing and changing at an alarming rate, and Skywhale has always, on some level, been a commentary on evolution in a changing world, albeit linked to prehistoric times.
"I think, when art transcends art itself and makes a head-on collision with the issues of today, people embrace it more, and I get it," Mitzevich says.
"Particularly with young people that we meet in the gallery, there is a heightened awareness of these environmental issues and ecology, and how the world all fits together. And Patricia very succinctly, and magically, brings that to life. She brings science to life."
- Skywhales: Every Heart Sings will take place at John Dunmore Lang Place in Parkes on February 7, March 8 and April 3. The balloons will then tour Australia as part of an NGA touring exhibition.