Aww, cute: new London show explores the world of the adorable

From cats and plushies to emojis, a new central London exhibition opening on Thursday is exploring the “irresistible force” of “cuteness”.

Even before the doors to “CUTE” opened at Somerset House, social media influencers in Japanese schoolgirl uniforms, “Hello Kitty” dresses, and Pikachu hats playfully posed for photos, to charm their social media followers.

The exhibition blends art with an array of musical clips, video games, and memes from social media, exploring a largely virtual culture that has swept across the globe with the explosion of the internet.

One room of “CUTE” is a tribute to cats, which make up some of the most viewed content on the internet, contrasting 19th-century black and white feline photographs with futuristic AI-generated rainbow kitten portraits.

Further on, a collage of curly-haired Renaissance cherubs — the original “cute babies” of art history — intermingles with plush toys, mangas (Japanese comics), and iconic figures from the “kawaii” or cute culture that emerged in 20th-century Japan.

For Claire Catterall, the exhibition’s curator, the concept of “cute” is so vast that she struggles to define it.

“The exhibition unpacks what cuteness is, so it’s a very slippery scene,” she told AFP. 

“It’s very hard to define. It’s very tricky. And in many ways, that’s the power of it. It’s so many different things all at once.”

Lucrative business

In sections divided by cat-shaped or rainbow arches, contemporary works share space with commercial products such as Tamagotchi toys or Sylvanian Family figures, reminding visitors that “cuteness” is a lucrative billion-dollar business.

The “Cute” exhibition is sponsored by Japanese company Sanrio, which globally markets merchandise of the beloved feline-inspired character “Hello Kitty,” created nearly 50 years ago.

Visitors meander under an archway adorned with the character’s likeness, walls blanketed in colourful plush toys, before shimmying under the “Hello Kitty” disco’s glitter ball.

“Cuteness and capitalism are so closely intertwined,” Catterall says.

“There is this kind of quite queasy quality about that which makes people feel really uncomfortable.” 

Although cuteness lives “within the capitalist structures which spawned it”, it could also be what disrupts it the most, she adds.

‘It’s a feeling’

The aesthetics of cuteness were once mocked or adopted ironically but its values and dress codes are now championed by many young people as they allow for an “existence outside the norms,” particularly for women and the queer community, Catterall says.

“I think for a long time, cuteness has been considered childish and inconsequential and not serious, but this exhibition will hopefully show that there’s so much more to it than that,” the curator says.

“It’s actually really something to be taken seriously, and can tell us so many things about us and the world around it.”

“CUTE” also touches on a more political dimension of “cuteness,” in a section featuring a fuchsia pink balaclava from the Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot, known for their provocative protests against President Vladimir Putin.

As immersive exhibitions and museums proliferate around the globe, “CUTE,” open to the public until April 4, also emphasises interactivity.

Visitors can enjoy vintage Japanese video games in an arcade room or relax at a “pyjama party” in a vast teen bedroom complete with bean bags and pop music, created by British artist Hannah Diamond.

“It’s exuberant, it’s exhilarating, it’s empowering,” says Catterall.

“We wanted to create a space where people could come in, dance, feel really happy, cover themselves in Hello-Kitty-glow of goodness.”

Cuteness is not just an “aesthetic”, she insists. “It’s a feeling.”