Laura Gascoigne

Like swallowing a pack of Parma Violets: CUTE, at Somerset House, reviewed

It was hard to separate the art from the merch – other than by size

‘The cat sitting in its favourite basket out in the blizzard, the Himalaya’, 2020, by Karen Kilimnik. Courtesy the artist, Sprüth Magers and Galerie Eva Presenhuber

It’s funny how badly some 1960s films have dated. Watch What’s New Pussycat? today and you feel faintly sick. Never mind the chorus line of high-kicking cartoon cupids in the title sequence, what about the lyrics of Tom Jones’s theme song? ‘So go and powder your cute little pussycat nose…’ Yuck.

Tim Berners-Lee, asked what uses of his invention he hadn’t foreseen, replied with one word: ‘Kittens.’

But if you think we’ve moved on, you’d better not visit CUTE. Coinciding with the 50th birthday of Japanese cartoon character Hello Kitty, Somerset House’s latest exhibition – ‘a landmark exploration of the irresistible force of cuteness’ – takes as its starting point the craze for funny cat memes unleashed by the internet. Tim Berners-Lee, when asked what uses of his invention he hadn’t foreseen, replied with one word: ‘Kittens.’ His response is quoted at the start of the show in a gallery of rainbow-coloured cosplaying kitties designed using AI by Graphic Thought Facility.

Since the launch of Caturday on imageboard 4chan in the mid-2000s, cats have bred on the web like, well, rabbits and merchandising companies have monetised the fad. Japanese company Sanrio was ahead of the curve with Hello Kitty. With her kitten ears and whiskers, a red bow and cute little pussycat nose – but no mouth – the character was created in 1974 as a rival to Mickey Mouse aimed at the Japanese schoolgirl market. But in the 1990s she went global and, with a total revenue of $80 billion, she has overtaken Mickey and friends at $70 billion. A room featuring 50 years of candy-coloured Hello Kitty merch from cushions and cases to toasters and hairdryers – including a pair of shoes with Kitty heels Grayson Perry would die for – leads through to a space upholstered in pink Hello Kitty plushies into a Hello Kitty Disco where you’re invited to ‘lose yourself in cuteness’ to a playlist of ‘iridescently luminous pop music’.

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