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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Hello Kitty installation. Photo credit : David Parry/PA Wire.
Hello Kitty installation. Photo credit : David Parry/PA Wire.

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Imagine coming up with the most important technological innovation in modern history – the internet – and then seeing it used almost exclusively for ordering McDonald’s at 3am, arguing with strangers and sharing funny pictures of cats. This exhibition ignores the burgers and yelling in favour of the kittens, because cute, it turns out, is powerful. 

Cuteness here is presented as a cultural powerhouse, an internet language that’s spread its grammar throughout society, a contemporary aesthetic force with almost no equal. Does that hypothesis work? Not necessarily, but it’s fun to watch them argue it. The exhibition is a mind-melting assault on the senses, a barrage of objects, ephemera, history and artworks that shoves cuteness down your eyeballs until you want to burst (into pink love hearts). It’s complex, tiring, clever, and very good.

It starts with kittens. Louis Wain’s turn-of-the-century illustrations present them as friendly, naughty little things, all big eyed and fuzzy. Contemporary artist Andy Holden shows his grandmother’s collection of ceramic felines, with their long necks and huge ears. This is the crux of cute: lovable, adorable, soft, gentle, unthreatening, childlike, innocent. 

It’s a set of attributes that's safe, but also hugely commodifiable. A display of Hello Kitty dolls and objects (which leads into a ridiculous, cynical and pretty pointless, Hello Kitty disco room) subtly exposes the capitalist heart of the character, its history as a tool of Japanese industry. Basically, cute sells. 

Lovable, adorable, soft, gentle, unthreatening, childlike, innocent

But this isn’t really a proper history of cute, despite the room about kawaii. Instead, the show’s populist, Instagram-friendly facade is an excuse to sneak a load of weird, difficult art past you. Mike Kelley’s teenage mugshot, with his grotty stuffed toy accomplices, dirties the fragile sterility of cuteness. Wong Ping’s brilliant animation uses cuteness to tell an absurd, surreal story about loneliness and anxiety. Rachel Maclean skewers the pressures of consumer beauty standards in trippy, dark, nasty paintings. PC Music's Hannah Diamond’s installation invites you to take part in a slumber party as an act of radical feminist reclamation, all set to a soundtrack of Charli XCX and Katy Perry.

The art here isn’t cute for its own sake. It’s using cuteness to criticise, to question, undermine and rebel. It shows how cuteness is a dangerous mixture of safe and commercial, how it’s paradoxical and conflicting and exploitable.

In among all that is a universe of bewildering ephemera and junk. An ET lunchbox, animatronic plushies,  Grogu dolls, a pink Pussy Riot balaclava, Pokémon cards, Care Bear boots, a whole arcade….a picture of Hitler feeding deer, for some reason. It’s a bit over the top, and some of it badly misses the mark. But it proves the point that cuteness is as pervasive as it is nebulous. 

There are missteps and flubs here. It’s way too full of stuff, some of the art is so tangential to the theme that it’s hard to figure out why it’s there, and at points it goes too far in pandering to what it thinks a non-art audience wants, getting just a little desperate to attract the Instagram crowd.

But at its adorable heart, this is a brilliant exploration of an all-consuming cultural phenomenon, of how cuteness has swept the world, and it does it by neatly combining art and pop culture.

But why? Why do we seek refuge in the safety of cuddly, gentle, cuteness? That’s obvious. Because life is hard, times are hard, and sometimes all you need is a little softness. And there's nothing softer than kitten. 

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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