Picture Credit: David Parry PA for Somerset House
Artillery Row On Art

Scary cute

CUTE, a new exhibition at Somerset House is a deliciously unsettling stroll down the uncanny valley

What if I told you that it was possible to trade the dank streets of London for a pink candy wonderland, all in the space of a moment? If something sounds too good to be true, then it is likely the case. Mood changing and morally ambiguous, the notion of cuteness is interrogated for its double-edged nature in the exhibition CUTE (25 January – 14 April 2024) at Somerset House.

The aim of the exhibition is ambitious — seeking to prove that “cuteness has been revealed to be one of the most influential forces in contemporary culture”. Always the sceptic, I raised an eyebrow whilst eyeing a kitsch painting of a cat in a basket explained as representing “a radical moment of cultural sincerity”. 

I was wrong.

Candy pink aesthetics may initially appear silly but this is part of their manipulative power. The double-edged nature of cuteness — a “sugar-coated pill” — is a major theme of the exhibition. Etymological nuances inform current manifestations of the cute aesthetic. The ancient Greek word for “acutus” roughly translates as “sharp” whilst the Japanese origins of the word “utsukushi” describe the “fragile, small and vulnerable”. The first room proves that “cuteness” is not something to be blindly accepted. 

Visitors can approach the exhibition on two levels. They can either smile their way through, taking up the invitation to “lose yourself to cuteness” and posing for pictures in the highly stylised Hello Kitty disco, or take cuteness seriously, scanning the extra content offered by the QR codes and pondering political perspectives. 

Losing yourself in the cute. Picture Credit: David Parry PA for Somerset House

Nostalgia is key to both interpretations. It evokes entertaining memories and evidences the prevalence of cuteness in personal histories. Animal Crossing, Sylvanian Families, and Robodogs instantly transported me back to childhood. I was particularly delighted to see a giant Neopet model created from the distinctive soft-hard plastic. Whilst lost in a nostalgic haze, I was reminded that “Cuteness offers us a comforting retreat into childishness in the face of the inhuman technological future that we fear. It also gives us permission to be as passive and powerless as children in the face of threats.” Yikes. That wiped the smile off my face. 

The internet obfuscates this gap between reality and fantasy, where cuteness thrives and festers. Dog memes testify to this idea: a photograph of a beaming bride arm-in-arm with the Ikea dog plush, Djungelskog. These social media stalwarts were instantly recognisable. Film installations by Singaporean artist Bart Seng Wen Long sampled Instagram make-up tutorials that instruct viewers how to obtain that post-cry red-nosed glow. These corners of the internet have cropped up via my Instagram algorithm before, and suddenly their manipulative capacity is illuminated as part of a darker narrative.

Please do not touch (thankfully). Go on and hit a lick of benevolence (2024) by Sean-Kierre (SK) Lyons.

Disconcerting art installations tilt the scale towards outright fantasy. A sinister goat-like gargoyle (Go on and hit a lick of benevolence (2024) by Sean-Kierre (SK) Lyons) wore a terrifyingly realistic glare. Standing on a bed of hay, it presided over a circle-time set-up of chairs, complete with a cuddly toy sat on each seat. It panickily crossed my mind that I was about to stumble into a participatory performance — a weird séance featuring strangers and cuddly toys. Luckily, this nightmarish thought evaporated when I noticed the “Please do not touch” signs. 

There were, however, plenty of opportunities to participate in “cute” through interactive installations — a sleepover room and the technology to transform yourself into a magical heroine using Xbox Kinect motion sensors. Another room was filled with arcade game machines. Taking the first one I saw — which happened to be a dating game — I was instantly matched with the pink and white three-headed monster “Queen Seadora (They/Them)”, a “Career-Orientated Undersea Royalty”. Although tempted, I was concerned that work commitments would bleed into our leisure time. 

The notion of “queer cuteness” was mentioned on several occasions. The Little One (1994) by Nayland Blake — a black porcelain doll dressed in a white bunny suit — was informed by “kinky play and furry fandom”. The sexual element of such exhibits was left unexplored, probably reflecting the mixed-age audience it sought to attract by avoiding the uncomfortable relationship between cuteness culture and kink, especially in relation to the schoolgirl “kawaii” aesthetic. 

Sex lurks, uncomfortably, just beneath the surface of cute. Hannah Diamond, Affirmations. Image courtesy of the artist

Ambiguity framed the exhibition, draping typically controversial issues in the narrative of double-meaning. In fact, several political issues that typically polarise and paralyse in popular discourse were prodded using an approach that sought not to tell you what to think, but rather question its message and mode of presentation.

The curatorial narrative became increasingly dark, and a highlight (or should I say lowlight) was an exploration of the link between cuteness and authoritarianism. This is the idea that cuteness constitutes a sugar-coated pill to manipulate subjects into submission. Adolf Hitler photographed feeding a Bambi-esque deer, North Korean propaganda posters, and a video inspired by life in the People’s Republic of China provide cross-cultural references to “cute authoritarianism”, a term coined by Ewan Morrison. Cute authoritarianism appears not as a historical phenomenon but something that bleeds into the present. 

The relationship between authoritarianism and cuteness emerges as an entropic state of humanity. Fluffy monsters and rainbow cats are replaced in the final room with a stark warning for the future. Darkened and tomb-like reached through descent, the video piece DAZZLEDDARK (2023) by Mark Leckey plays on loop. In contrast to the earlier Candy Girl soundscape, gunshots and organs warn of death. Finishing with this work reinforced the message that the escapism offered by cuteness is a denial of reality, with deadly consequences. 

About to leave, I suddenly remembered the Hello Kitty themed café that accompanied the exhibition. The presence of Hello Kitty — bearing the stamp of a corporate partnership in the name of Sanrio — seemed like a distant memory from the darker narratives, perhaps testament to the profitable nature of cuteness with its alluring aesthetic. For the visitor, the café offered one last node of escapism before the gloomy winter evening.

A Hello Kitty beetroot latte, but at what cost?

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