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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Cute: Somerset House

Updated: Feb 27

★★★


Exhibition Review: Cute, Somerset House, London. Until 14 April 2024. From £11. Book here. [Disclosure: Our reviewer received a free ticket for the purposes of this review.]


Cute as a cultural phenomenon has had a significant impact on almost every aspect of global popular culture.  And so, it is appropriate that cultural innovator Somerset House should choose to dedicate a major exhibition to cute, coinciding with the 50th birthday of cute’s brand ambassador,  Hello Kitty. 

 

I think the reason why cute has become such a powerful cultural force is that the concept, and its expression, embody so many contradictions and paradoxes.  Feminism or misogyny, tradition or subversion, innocence or corruption, sincerity or irony, beauty or horror, serenity or agitation – cute can encompass and express all of these concepts. 


The Hello Kitty sculpture outside Somerset House.


The one nation that has whole heartedly embraced cute, in all its iterations, is Japan. The increasing global popularity of Japanese culture has played a large part in the spread of cute across the globe.  So it is fitting that Japanese entertainment behemoth, Sanrio, has partnered with Somerset House to curate this exhibition.


A display of Hello Kitty soft toys. I have not colour corrected or enhanced this picture because I wanted to show how dark the exhibition is. To me, the darkness throughout felt oppressive and claustrophobic.


With this type of clout and expertise available, I found Somerset House’s exhibition surprisingly haphazard and chaotic.  Although the curators have made it clear that cute encompasses a myriad of different philosophies – it felt a bit of a jumble sale of various, slightly random and sometimes inappropriate items to illustrate the various aspects of cute. 


Display showing cute in its "Monstrous Other" iteration addressing cute's darker side though whether Sumikko Gurashi plushies are the best example of this is debatable. Photo © Charlotte Trichard.


I also felt there was a disproportionate emphasis on cute as weird or horrific with a huge number of pieces of contemporary art on display that evoke the strange, horrific, weird and unsettling.


Isaac Lythgoe - 1989


These are interesting and valuable in their own right, but I don’t think that they are a good illustration of the subversive expression of cute.  In fact, some of the contemporary pieces are truly extraordinary, and if I could, I would pick those pieces out for a separate and compelling exhibition that has nothing to do with cute.


Commissioned for the exhibition, Sean-Kierre Lyons, Go on and hit a lick of benevolence, 2024.


Strangely, I think that the exhibition lacks a real exploration of the one aspect of cute that started it all – the expression of the traditional, sincere, and youthful.  While there are a lot of Hello Kitty pieces, as well as some manga, the displays somehow fail to convey just how beautiful and seductive the traditional expression of cute can be.


Display showing Amy-Louise Allen's Hello Kitty collection. This display felt dark and cluttered.

 

This exhibition is worth going to if you want to see some exceptional pieces of contemporary art –some of the video pieces are particularly compelling and well displayed. However, as an engaging and informative exploration of the expression of cute in all its cultural iterations – I think this exhibition has not succeeded. 



Here is an excerpt from one of my favourite pieces of the entire exhibition, a video installation by Mark Leckey called DAZZELDARK 2023.

 

展示はあまり可愛くなかったです。

 

Feature image: Graphic Though Facility, Playing Dress Up with Ai, 2023.

Unless otherwise stated, all photos taken by me at the exhibition and © Catherine Flutsch.

If you enjoyed reading this review, you may enjoy reading my other posts about Japan.


Shout out to exhibition visitor Sophie - who came dressed for the occasion.

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