Meet Patricia Piccinini, The Artist Behind Australia's Skywhale And Meet Graham Project

Photo of Monique La Terra
4 August 2016

Known for her disconcertingly life-like and surreal sculptures, Patricia Piccinini has gained a reputation for re-imagining evolution. Born in Sierra Leone in 1965, Piccinini moved to Canberra at the age of seven, before receiving a diploma in Italian from the Università di Firenze in 1984, a BA in Economic History from the Australian National University in 1988 and a BA in Painting from VCA in 1991. Piccinini specialises in sculptural installations created from silicon and fiberglass, and often incorporates multimedia elements in her contemporary depictions of nature, evolution and the impacts of technology.

Piccinini has presented solo exhibitions nationally and internationally every year since 1994, and her most recent exhibition, We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep at the Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco is her first on the West Coast of the United States of America. The exhibition pools together work including ‘Embryo’ (2016), ‘The Comforter’ (2010) and ‘Boot Flower’ (2015). Some of Piccinini’s most memorable work includes ‘Protein Lattice’ (2000), ‘The Young Family’ (2002), ‘The Strength of One Arm’ (2009) and ‘The Long Awaited’ (2008).

TAC - Meet Graham – Vulnerability Campaign launch. Billie Patestos (17) and Sam Inskip (16) check out Graham at the State Library.


Ahead of Canberra’s centenary celebrations in 2013, creative director Robyn Archer commissioned Patricia Piccinini to design a balloon in honour of her contributions to the Australian capital. Piccinini had no previous experience with balloon development and began designing it with the concept of Canberra being a city which ‘aspires to blend the natural and the artificial’. ‘Skywhale’ is Piccinini’s vision of a sea creature which learned to fly, but instead of wings the artist imagined gas udders.

Built by Cameron Balloons in Bristol, the balloon took six workers seven months to construct and when completed it stretched 34 metres high, 23 metres long and required 3,500 square metres of fabric. Piccinini took part in the balloon’s test flight near Mount Arapiles in April 2013, and on May 11th ‘Skywhale’ took its maiden flight from the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne to the National Museum of Australia in ACT. At a cost of $350,000, the balloon was a hefty investment by the ACT and received mixed reviews by both the public and government officials. Piccinini’s intention was to create a creature ‘that invokes a sense of wonder’ and has the ability to ‘make you smile or think, or both’.

Skywhale in flight May 2013 | © Nick-D/Wikipedia

Meet Graham

The TAC is known for their impactful TV commercials, and with a reported road deaths toll of 252 in 2015, there was a growing need to tackle the issue of road safety from a new perspective. Patricia Piccinini was commissioned to collaborate with Dr. David Logan, a Senior Research Fellow at the Monash University Accident Research Centre, and the Royal Melbourne Hospital trauma surgeon Dr. Christian Kenfield to re-design the body in Project Graham.

Meet Graham Courtesy of the Transport Accident Commission

The grotesque figure of a seated man was crafted with the impact of velocity and force in mind, and illustrates how the human body would need to evolve in order to withstand a car accident. Graham features an enlarged helmet-like skull to protect the brain, and to prevent injuries such as paraplegia and quadriplegia his neck has been removed. The sculpture also features ribs which extend upward, air sacks to protect the body’s internal organs and hoof-like feet for added flexibility. Graham is currently on display at the State Library of Victoria and will tour through regional Victoria throughout the remainder of the year.

Meet Graham Courtesy of the Transport Accident Commission

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