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CUTE is a delight for the senses but has a darker complexity

Pamela Buxton

A shrine to Hello Kitty and a cushioned slumber-party room both feature in this exploration of the rise of cuteness in contemporary culture, designed by AOC Architecture, which also looks at how young people are using it to express their own identities

Playing dress-up with AI, 2023
Playing dress-up with AI, 2023 Credit: Graphic Thought Facility

‘I didn’t want the exhibition to be too academic,’ says Claire Catterall, curator of CUTE, an exploration of the rise of cuteness in contemporary culture, which opens later this month at London’s Somerset House.

Walking around the show as it takes shape in the Embankment Galleries, it’s clear that visitors will find plenty to engage and delight their senses as well as their minds. In an immersive shrine to Hello Kitty, the walls and huggable columns are literally lined with plushies of the popular character. A special playlist of hyper-pop uplifting sounds emanates from the next room, a Hello Kitty disco complete with mirror ball, mirrored walls,and concentric colour dance floor, overseen by an illuminated Kitty in DJ mode. Elsewhere, there is a video arcade, a slumber-party-style gallery by artist and singer Hannah Diamond and much more, in an exuberant and tactile setting designed by AOC Architecture in collaboration with theatre designer Chloe Lamford. Even the gallery lift has entered into the spirit of the show, decked out in strokey, colourful fun-fur.

While all this helps set a playful and celebratory tone, it does so in the context of what is clearly a more complex, and sometimes darker, subject than the show title might initially suggest. Despite the Hello Kitty content, it’s not really a children’s show. Instead, it uses contemporary art and ephemera to explore why cute tropes such as flowers, hearts, stars, and big imploring eyes may have gained such appeal, in a phenomenon supercharged by the internet.

Catterall wants to counter the idea of the cute as merely childish and inconsequential. Instead, she feels the appeal of Cute goes far further than simply both an adorable aesthetic and an opportunity for escapism in uncertain times. Instead, young people are, she says, celebrating cuteness and using it to talk about their own identities.

Louis Wain, Ginger Cat, 1931. Credit: Courtesy of Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Setsuko Tamura, 'Fancy Note' notebook, 1960s-1970s. Credit: © Setsuko Tamura. Courtesy of Yayoi Museum

‘It feels to me that it’s being used in a positive way to navigate a route through the world, which is very different to it being used as a form of escape,’ she says.

In the exhibition catalogue, she expands on the role of cuteness online: ‘In recognising and honouring otherness,’ she writes, ‘cuteness allows us to be fully ourselves, without judgement or boundaries. Put simply, it gives us permission to be happy.’

The exhibition begins by delving back more than a century and a half earlier. We start with a room full of cats, including Louis Wain’s famous anthropomorphic representations of cats, as well as photographer Harry Pointer’s Brighton Cats series depicting his pet cats in a series of amusing settings and poses. Catterall sees this as part of a cutification of animals and children that only really began in the 19th century.

The next room delves into Japan’s long history of cuteness – demonstrated in the popularity of the kawaii fancy goods, toys and stationery of the 20th century aimed at schoolgirls and young women, which prefigured the internet-driven explosion of cute throughout popular culture.

Emerging from the aforementioned Hello Kitty shrine and disco – which serendipitously marks the character’s 50th anniversary – the second half of the exhibition focuses more on nuances of cuteness as demonstrated in the work of contemporary artists, and supported by displays of cute ephemera.

‘Art is there to unlock how cuteness can be used as self-identification, identity and expression,’ says Catterall.

Categories include Cry Baby, which looks at the appeal of the vulnerable; Play Together, which explores the comfort of playable brands such as Sylvanian Families and My Little Pony; and Monstrous Other, which considers the cute aesthetic as a safe space to explore divergence and belonging. Sugar-coated Pill, meanwhile, looks at how cuteness can be appropriated to make the unpalatable more appealing, such as a cuddly Oxycontin Pill plushie. The final Hypersonic section considers ‘maximalist, super-glossy and futuristic’ manifestations of the cute.

  • Xiuching Tsay, Drunken Gravity, 2019.
    Xiuching Tsay, Drunken Gravity, 2019. Credit: Courtesy of the Artist. Photo by the artist
  • Nayland Blake, The Little One, 1994.
    Nayland Blake, The Little One, 1994. Credit: © Nayland Blake, Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery
  • Hannah Diamond, Affirmations.
    Hannah Diamond, Affirmations. Credit: Image courtesy of the artist
  • Katsudi Matsumoto, 'Kawaii Kurumi-chan' transfer stickers, 1943.
    Katsudi Matsumoto, 'Kawaii Kurumi-chan' transfer stickers, 1943. Credit: Courtesy of Yayoi Museum

Designing such a show seems right up AOC’s street, given the practice’s track record of engaging with popular culture with a boldness and playful spirit. Visitors may not notice the subtle cat silhouette created in the profile of the enlarged gallery skirting at the start of the exhibition but they can hardly miss the giant heart and monster arches used to create thresholds to different zones within the long upstairs gallery. A rainbow arch leads off to Hannah Diamond’s pink floored and cushioned slumber party-style room, as well as a vintage games arcade. 

AOC has also had fun with the plinths including the Cry Baby setting of fluffy clouds, shimmery rain and a puddle of tears; a daisy plinth for the Play Together section; and a blue pill plinth in the Sugar-coated Pill section. Throughout the exhibition, tactility, shinyness and boldness of colour abound.

Even before the installation is finalised, it’s clear that there’s a lot to make people smile in this exhibition, as well as further food for thought on a complex subject. Asked about whether cuteness could be found in architecture (which is outside the scope of this exhibition), Catterall wonders if it may be in spaces that are concerned with joy and making people feel happy.

‘I wonder if the exhibition might be a space for architects to think more about cuteness in their work,’ she says.

So have we reached peak cute? Catterall thinks not, given the use of cuteness as a mechanism for people to find themselves, and the new possibilities of the next iteration of internet technology.

‘I’m really optimistic,’ she says. ‘I think cuteness will only get stronger and stronger.’

CUTE An exhibition exploring the irresistible rise of cuteness, 25 January-14 April, Embankment Galleries, South Wing, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA