The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Shinagawa used to be a family home, and it must have been a very nice one because it is a beautiful place, designed and built in the late 1930s in the Bauhaus style. The hardwood floors and comfortably high ceilings create a relaxing atmosphere in the one-time dining, sitting and bedrooms that now serve as galleries. In a couple of weeks, the Hara will celebrate its silver anniversary as a museum (1979-2004) and what better way to do so than with a show about families?

Patricia Piccinini’s “We are Family” features five mixed-media sculptural installations and a video installation. But the “family” is certainly not the stuff of Norman Rockwell. No, what the Hara is hosting is a motley mob of mutant creatures that will appear revolting to some and captivating to others. Executed in acrylics, silicone and human hair, these creatures can only be described as “realistic” or “life-size” if one is flexible with the concept of representation.

“Leather Landscape” is a mis-en-scene featuring a colony of meerkat-like humanoids (or humanoid meerkats) perched atop a posh white leather mound. The creatures scan the room even as they are studied with keen interest by a toddler (she is another of Piccinini’s creations, and seems normal but for the company she keeps). “Leather Landscape” stretches about 2 meters across and deep, and stands almost 3 meters tall.

Also “life-size” is “The Young Family,” which sees several sucklings with their weary reposing mother, a huge creature who wears a pig’s snout on a human face on an eczema-scarred pig’s body; and “Game Boys Advanced,” which is a pair of apparently teenage twins who, on closer inspection, are seen to have the dry hair and wrinkled skin of senior citizens.

“Game Boys Advanced” was inspired by a report that Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep, had aged abnormally quickly and died at a young age. As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, the works in this show address issues related to bioengineering.

The works are all from 2002 or 2003 and they mirror the exhibition that curator Linda Michael put together for the Australian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. (Piccinini was in the running for Venice’s Golden Lion national award, but the prize went to Su-Mei Tse of Luxembourg.)

Piccinini is a soft-spoken woman of 38, slight of build with long dark hair that frames a thin, friendly face. She was born in Sierra Leone and raised in Melbourne. She currently lives in the artsy southern Australian city with her partner Peter Hennessey who, she writes in the acknowledgements of her Venice Biennale catalog, “is part of everything I do.” At a garden party celebrating the opening of “We Are Family,” the affable Hennessey explained how these words were literally true, as a lot of the hair that gives Piccinini’s creatures their realistic skin was plucked and shaved from his body.

I was introduced to Piccinini’s work some years ago by respected Sydney gallerist Roslyn Oxley, but at that time the pieces I saw photographs of teens with what looked like prehistoric pets failed to impress. There is simply too much good CG work being done these days for photographs of weird things to be taken seriously. What makes Piccinini’s new work so amazing is the realness of the creatures in three-dimensional form.

After the vernissage, I carried Piccinini’s Venice catalog around for a time. People I showed it to, without exception, instantly responded to the pictures with “kimochi warui!” (a feeling somewhere between uneasiness and revulsion). But at the museum, when confronted with the sculptures, I heard more than a few utterances of “kawaii” (cute, likable) or “kawaiso” (pitiable). Coming face to face with Piccinini’s “family” affords far more personal reactions and so introduces a more sympathetic relationship. I, for one, could not get enough.

There are so many different ways to relate to Piccinini’s challenging visions, which grow not from fantasies, horror or science fiction, but from the reality of current medical research.

A thought-provoking piece is “Still Life with Stem Cells,” in which a girl who looks to be about 5 years old is sitting on the floor, cuddling and playing with a colony of hairy flesh lumps. She is smiling and that might seem wrong, because what she is holding is disgusting.

But think again: Imagine that the little girl has a terminal disease and that the cure is contained in those same lumps. Now they are not ugly; now they are like family.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.