It’s six o’clock in the morning and I’m in a hot air balloon high above the Yarra Valley to get a glimpse of the Skywhale. She floats majestically in the morning sky, all 10 breasts hanging pendulously. It’s very rare to see her in flight, and even now we can’t get that close. At 34 metres tall she’s pretty hard to miss. She’s also unwieldy and far from aerodynamic.

The Skywhale – a hot air balloon artwork commissioned to mark Canberra’s centenary – is out to kick-off its creator Patricia Piccinini’s new show at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in the Yarra Valley. The show, Through Love ..., juxtaposes Piccinini’s hyper-real sculptures of imaginary life forms with the work of renowned 20th-century Melbourne artist Joy Hester.

Piccinini is never far away when the Skywhale takes flight – though today she stays on the ground watching, arms folded against the cold.

“It’s beautiful,” Piccinini tells me before I take off. “Magical. The way she inflates, it’s like she’s struggling up, as if after childbirth.” Piccinini is concerned it could be a bad omen for the show if the creature fails to take flight in this morning’s wind. She needn’t worry. It takes off and as the sun comes up over the horizon, my balloon pilot shoots another burst of flame up into our own balloon, and we give chase. It’s an uncanny sight.

Eventually the Skywhale floats down to earth to graze. Our balloon comes down too in a nearby field, the basket skidding to a halt on its side as a herd of cows looks on.

The Skywhale first flew in 2013 and has caused controversy everywhere she goes. Critics have found it grotesque, weird and baffling. This is a recurring reaction to Piccinini’s work, which is often confronting in its intimacy and bizarreness. It straddles the uncanny valley and challenges our approaches to non-human animals.

Maybe it’s the early start, but when I see the show at TarraWarra I’m quite overwhelmed – it’s imbued with so much love. For Piccinini’s most famous sculptures – made over the past two decades – odd, made-up creatures are rendered with startling realism. They have pink flesh, nipples, orifices and downy hair. Similarly realistic human sculptures – usually children – approach these unlovely creatures with trusting curiosity, or cradle them lovingly. Hester’s pictures also embrace tenderness – the Love series, made between 1949 and 1950, depicts couples embracing so tightly their bodies appear to fuse. Twisted faces press against one another, arms stretch across torsos, flesh is entwined. From the outside, it’s not pretty, but it is beautiful.

“Place me a heart upon my breast and beg my hands to soften, collect me tears from childhood’s howl, pick a bud - a deepening rose, and I will hear some birth flowers’ message,” wrote Hester in 1949.

Those tender and florid words are emblazoned on the wall midway through the show. Around the next corner a digital animation by Piccinini (Plasmid Rose) shows a budded, rose-red, fleshy creature with tumour-like objects springing out of abscess-like orifices. Is this abject and grotesque? Or is it strangely beautiful, like witnessing a birth?

For Piccinini, this show is a dream come true. Hester was a big influence on her early career three decades ago, and that influence has carried right through. Seeing her work alongside Hester’s for the first time, Piccinini sees points of intersection she’d never considered. She’s just noticed that Hester used hands to signify an intimate embrace, in the same way she does.

“We’re looking at similar themes,” she says. “[Hester] depicts relationships, and my work is all about relationships. She tries to depict what love feels and looks like, not the love object itself. So her images aren’t really pretty.”

Piccinini’s work doesn’t shy away from what people would consider as ugly, either.

“No,” she agrees. “It’s anxiety producing. A lot of [my works] are kind of scary for a lot of people.”

Piccinini thinks that anxiety stems from the disappearing intimacy in the life of the viewer.

“We’re living in a culture where the focus on individualism is becoming increasingly valorised,” she says. A lot of the structures that held up close relationships are dissolving and shifting.”

Piccinini doesn’t chat lightly. She makes constant eye contact, sits close, and never holds back. You feel as if she’s confiding in you.

Across the room from us is Piccinini’s latest, Sanctuary, a life-sized sculpture of an elderly Neanderthal couple embracing. It’s inspired by the plight of the bonobo, an endangered species of great ape that – along with chimpanzees – is considered our closest relative in the animal kingdom. The Neanderthals’ nostrils glisten as the two figures hold each other, flesh upon flesh, toes as long as fingers. Piccinini imbues the unsightly with devotion and love.

Intimacy between two anythings that aren’t cute or sexy is confronting, I suggest.

“And increasingly so,” she says. “But if we see other animals experiencing intimacy, how can we treat them as we do?”

To this end, she often uses images of children in her work because they’re yet to have internalised social norms about what’s pretty and what’s ugly, what’s trustworthy and what’s dangerous. In my favourite piece in the show, a young girl with thick body hair holds a strange mutant creature of feet and lips, cradling it like a kitten. The love is unconditional and untrained.

As they were when the Skywhale first took flight, a lot of people will be repelled and confused by the work on display. But as Joy Hester establishes, and Piccinini reiterates, the beautiful doesn’t have to be pretty.

Patricia Piccinini and Joy Hester: Through Love… is at TarraWarra Museum of Art until March 11, 2019.