REVIEW: CUTE EXHIBITION AT SOMERSET HOUSE
Catnip for Insta Generation, Fluffy Playground for Kids and Fascinating Journey Through the Rise of Cuteness for Everybody Else
The Hello Kitty-filled, Cute exhibition is catnip for the Instagram generation; an adorable, fluffy playground for children and a fascinating journey through the rise of cuteness in contemporary culture for anybody keen to look deeper than the hearts and doe eyes.
The Somerset House show is a slick, huge and sickly sweet juggernaut, crammed with 'adorable' art and immersive installations by more than 50 artists, including a dreamscape sleepover room; Hello Kitty disco; a shrine to plushies and games arcades.
But beneath the sugar is a compelling story about the history of cute, its powerful links to capitalism and its unsettling, emotional manipulation.
The tone is set on arrival, when 18 impossibly cute, but strangely sinister, AI-generated cats greet visitors with rainbow fur, too many tiny paws and giant, empty eyes. Cats are the unofficial mascot of the internet and make up some of the most viewed content on the world wide web.
Accordingly, the first room is dedicated to felines and shows that our voracious appetite for adorable cats and chubby babies started long before the internet. In the 19th century, lower childhood mortality rates meant that childhood was cherished rather than viewed as something to survive. And the cutification of animals began when they started being kept as pets, rather than working animals.
A heart shaped shrine to cuteness surrounds a single Kewpie doll - which dates back to 1909 and was the first deliberately cute product to take over the world, opening doors to the exploitation of cute's emotive potential, when mass consumerism kicked in.
Links to capitalism are explored further in the next section, dedicated to the birth of kawaii, one of the most well-known Japanese words, which is often translated as “cute.”
Kawaii gained global momentum in the Nineties, benefitting from the popularity of Anime and Manga and took on a darker tone as it came to be used as an expression of identity against accepted norms by bands like Hole and Babes in Toyland. This section charts kawaii’s origins in products from the 1910s to the 1950s, targeting schoolgirls and young women with a romanticised idea of girlhood.
And then we’re straight into the Instagram-saturating, money shot of the show - and the busiest section - the giant, Hello Kitty arch, framing walls of Plushie toys and leading into a Hello Kitty Disco, in which we are invited to “lose ourselves to cuteness.”
Our children do just that, beneath the giant disco ball, sequinned walls and Hello Kitty neons, to suitably saccharine disco tunes, curated by David Gamson of Scritti Politti. Sanrio, the creator of the ubiquitous, red bowed cat is a major sponsor of the exhibition, which doubles as a celebration of Hello Kitty’s 50th anniversary.
We enter the upstairs space via the jaws of a giant, purple monster to explore different elements of cuteness. We see the heartstring tugging of 'cute sadness', with Susie Sad Eyes dolls and “crying Make-Up” TikTok tutorials. And we see its ability to sugar-coat the unpalatable, with a jarring photo of Hitler feeding a deer or Pussy Riot’s bright pink balaclava, used to subvert cuteness in protest against Putin’s regime.
These parts are rightly unsettling for adults, but go over the heads of our children, who are lost in fluffy walls and the excitement of discovering giant, mythical creatures and cuddly monsters.
Through a neon rainbow arch, we discover Hannah Diamond’s dreamy sleepover room, where we throw ourselves onto soft, pink beanbags and watch colourful pop videos, while pink clouds drift over a lilac sky through the windows of this space, inspired by teenage sleepovers.
This comfortable, nostalgic cocoon is one of many areas to ponder the escapism and safe, fluffy hug provided by cuteness and its rise during difficult times like the present - our post-pandemic, climate-change battered, skint, stressed world is leaping deep into the womb of pastels, doe eyed cartoons and daft, loveable animals.
This section leads to a warren of gaming areas, from dance mats to video games, exploring how cuteness is used by independent gaming designers. Naturally, these are a huge hit with our children.
The sugar coating is sucked off to reveal a bitter and dark ending, via a sinister video of a popular cat toy before we exit, via the Hello Kitty-filled gift shop.
ARTBOX Cafe has created a Hello Kitty-themed Cute Coffee Shop to run alongside the show, which our daughter is desperate to enter. However, we give this a miss because the queue snakes around Somerset House and signs warn of long waits.
The cafe queue has more adults than children in it, many dressed in suitably cute, pink and fluffy attire, patiently waiting in the drizzly, windy square - this could itself be an installation for the exhibition, perfectly illustrating our voracious appetite for cute, the childlike escapism it provides and its powerful ability to tug on heart and purse strings.
Somerset House, Embankment Galleries, South Wing. Until 14 April. £18.50pp. Concessions from £11.
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