Held in partnership with Sanrio to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of their most iconic figures, CUTE explores the overwhelming allure of all things kawaii in contemporary culture.
Playing Dress up with AI by Graphic Thought Facility (2023), photo courtesy of Somerset House
You may have seen the gigantic Hello Kitty sculpture, designed by Hattie Stewart, looming over the Embankment entrance to Somerset House. You may have even taken a picture with her and shared it on social media, exclaiming at the cuteness of it all (I know I did)! Cuteness is portrayed here as a cultural force, an online language that has permeated society almost entirely. It has transformed into a modern aesthetic influence with unparalleled impact. This is exactly what the exhibition explores – how have mere plushies and characters gained such traction?
The exhibition begins with cats - and lots of them. Louis Wain’s 19th-century drawings depict several anthropomorphised, large-eyed cats exhibiting remarkably human-like traits, which launches us straight into what we consider cuteness to be: soft, fluffy, innocent and adorable beings. Andy Holden’s Cat-tharsis is certainly an impressive piece, comprised of around 300 ceramic feline figures belonging to the artist’s late grandmother, inviting contemplation on the sentimentality of collecting cute objects. Even though there’s no sign of Hello Kitty yet, don’t worry, she’s on her way.
Andy Holden's cat collection, photo courtesy of David Parry for Somerset House
Then, we’re invited to take a closer look at kawaii. In Japanese, the word has a meaning that sits between ‘cute’, ‘tiny’, and ‘lovable’. This particular branch of cuteness is a hugely recognisable aesthetic, characterised by its vibrant, cartoon-esque nature and huge popularity in Japanese popular culture. The exhibition takes a look at how the style was adopted by many young people as a means to subvert traditional societal expectations. For instance, in the West, Hello Kitty was taken up by feminists, for example, the Riot Grrrl movement, who would often wear the cute character as hair clips or handbags in an ironic riposte to outdated notions of femininity.
CUTE also subtly hints at the forces at work behind cuteness, as companies capitalise on the appeal of cute aesthetics by using adorable characters and designs to strategically attract consumers, particularly children and young adults. The collection features rare and unique items from private collectors and the official Sanrio archives, including a Hello Kitty toaster and a My Melody luggage set, reminding us that cuteness sells. After all, it’s no coincidence that the rapid rise of kawaii culture coincided with Japan’s economic slump in the 1990s.
And at last, here comes Hello Kitty in all her glory. Visitors are invited to immerse themselves in her legacy, passing through a giant neon cut-out of her head and into a dedicated plushie space featuring the collection of superfan Amy-Louise Allen. You might be tempted to pull off one of the hundreds of soft toys for yourself, but don’t worry, you can buy your very own Hello Kitty plushie for £9.99 in the gift shop. Hello Kitty herself is worth more than 7 billion dollars – that’s far more than most celebrities. Don’t forget to let loose on the dance floor at the Hello Kitty disco, complete with a dazzling mirror ball, to experience the iconic character’s infectious energy.
There’s also plenty more immersive experiences to enjoy upstairs, including a ‘sleepover room’ curated by PC Music and hyperpop artist Hannah Diamond, a dance mat installation, and even a pretty pink gaming arcade, all centred around the concept of girlhood. Visitors will also come across artefacts and memorabilia from games such as Animal Crossing and classic toys including Tamagotchi, Sylvanian Families, and My Little Pony.
Hello Kitty installation, photo courtesy of David Parry PA for Somerset House
However, exhibition curator Claire Catterall also wants to counter the idea that the concept of cute is merely childish and inconsequential by addressing its darker side, and using it to criticise, question, undermine, and rebel. For example, on display is a reproduction of a 1934 photograph ‘Der Fuehrer als Tierfreund’ (The Fuhrer, Friend to Animals), which depicts Hitler feeding a small deer. This particular inclusion showcases how the potency of cuteness unveils its inherent connections to capitalism and the manipulation of emotions – a running theme throughout the exhibition. Fashion from Japan’s extremely problematic ‘Gothic Lolita’ sub-cultural fashion community is also on show, reminding us just how easily cuteness can disguise the unpalatable.
Somewhat disconcertingly, the exhibition reinforces the very thing that it seems to critique - the capitalistic nature of profiting from cute - through the inclusion of The Hello Kitty-themed Cute Coffee Shop by ARTBOX Café. Somerset House proclaims that the eatery is ‘inspired by Japanese kawaii themed cafe culture, where even the everyday mundane can be transformed and elevated by cuteness’, and it’s worked – since its opening, visitors have queued for hours just for a chance to sample its delights. People are eagerly seizing the opportunity to pay upwards of a fiver for a latte printed with Hello Kitty’s face, lining up an hour before its 10:30 am opening to guarantee a table. Again, cute sells.
So, it’s most definitely not just an exhibition for children (although when I visited, it was packed full of them). CUTE has the ability to both entrance and repulse you, depending on how you allow yourself to feel. The collection most certainly proves that the appeal of cuteness transcends age, gender and cultural boundaries, making it a universal and enduring aspect of contemporary society. For me, I found that it struck a harmonious balance between adorable charm and intriguing depth. It’s certainly worth your money, too. I could have easily spent hours wondering through the never-ending stretch of rooms, each equally as fascinating as the next, with a new concept to bring to the table: desire and longing, memory and place, ecology and capitalism, difference and belonging. The only thing missing for me? My favourite fictional bunny and icon of cute, Miffy, was unfortunately nowhere to be seen. Nonetheless, it’s definitely not one to miss.
CUTE is on at Somerset House until the 14th of April, 2024. General admission is £18.50 (concessions, child and family tickets also available), half-price tickets for 25s and under on select Tuesdays.
Edited by Faye Elder, London and Beyond Editor