“When Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was asked in 2014 to name one use of the internet that he did not anticipate – he answered with a single word: ‘kittens’.” This is the first thing you’ll read when you enter Somerset House’s latest exhibition. Aptly called Cute, it works to explore the irresistible rise of, well… cuteness – from the Georgian era to the birth of kawaii to the advent of the internet.
From now until April 14, within the Embankment Galleries of historic site’s South Wing, you can immerse yourself in the complex power of cuteness as seen through a contemporary lens. It’s the first major exhibition to explore the attractive trait and features the work of over 50 artists and contributors, now and then, as well as a scattering of absolutely adorable, culturally significant objects – everything from emojis and internet memes to video games, plushie toys, music, fashion, food and robotic design.
Split into five key themes – Cry Baby, Play Together, Monstrous Other, Sugar-Coated Pill and Hypersonic – there’s lots to explore, and each section is accompanied by a short film commission by visual artist Bart Seng Wen Long. PC Music alum Hannah Diamond created a visual and sonic music installation inspired by teenage sleepovers that comes soundtracked by a playlist packed with hyperpop stars Sophie, XG, Kim Petras, Marky B and Charli XCX amongst others. There’s a video game arcade curated by Now Play This producer Nick Murray where you can play with the darling characters of Peachy Keen Games’ Calico and Cantusmori’s Froggy Pot. There are cats too of course – lots and lots of cats; some by 19th century artists Harry Pointer and Louis Wain. They sit amongst plenty of endearing, modern creations by artists like English multi-media artist Ed Fornieles, American visual artist, poet, and performer Bunny Rogers, American musician Juliana Huxtable and many more. These are artists who have found their own, individual way of exploring their identities through cuteness and at times, using the attribute to navigate existential issues as a response to our ever-changing, ever-taxing world.
The showcase delves into the darker side of all-things-cute too, especially how it can be co-opted by far-right extremists and/or big pharma as propaganda, used to soften unpalatable and controlling messaging.
The exhibition – designed by award-winning architects AOC Architecture and curated by Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House – also aligns with the 50th anniversary of cult character Hello Kitty, so as you might expect, there’s a dedicated plushie space and discotheque-y display of rare Hello Kitty memorabilia accompanied by a huge Hello Kitty sculpture by Hattie Stewart, commissioned in partnership with Sanrio, the original creator of the iconic character. There, you can shake your booty to an energetic playlist curated by American musician and producer David Gamson (formerly of pop band Scritti Politti), that’s made up of shimmering pop and disco tracks from the 1960s through to the ‘80s.
Once you’ve had your fill of unfettered adorableness, stop off for a hot drink at the Hello Kitty-inspired Cute Coffee Shop by Artbox Café and cast your gaze up toward a sweet Sean-Kierre Lyons-made flag. Cuteness overload!
Photography courtesy of Somerset House. Cute is on view at Somerset House until April 14, 2024. Click here to discover more.