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Cute exhibition screen grab

A sinister sweetness

Ellie Palmer explores the 'Cute' exhibition at Somerset House.

23 February 2024

As an assistant psychologist with a keen interest in the intersection of art and psychology, I recently had the opportunity to explore the Cute exhibition at Somerset House. This captivating display, curated by a diverse group of artists, delves into the psychological underpinnings of cuteness in contemporary culture. Here, I aim to unravel the layers of meaning in this whimsical showcase.

The exhibition, on display from 25 January to 14 April, opens with an exploration of grief and loss, and inviting psychological reflections on the human experience. Notably, Andy Holden's collection of 300 ceramic cats, aptly named 'Cat-tharsis', takes centre stage. This art piece, a collection left to him by his great-grandmother, becomes a poignant exploration of grief. Holden reports that the collection of adorable figurines supports him in grieving his great-grandmother, helping him think back to the times she visited charity shops searching desperately for additions to her collection. The artwork was complemented by an audio recording that alluded to the renowned yet often criticised Sigmund Freud. This voiceover encouraged listeners to consider the process of grief but also offered insights into the connection between hoarding and collecting behaviours and the self-preserving instincts of our ancestors during foraging activities. This idea of cuteness having psychological and historical roots continues to be a theme throughout the exhibit.

One of the numerous themes that caught my attention during the visit was that of identity. The androgynous portrayal of identity within the exhibition seemed to encourage visitors to challenge traditional concepts of innocence. A noteworthy addition to this exploration is Nayland Blake's creation, 'The Little One' – a black porcelain doll encased in a white bunny suit. This piece serves as a profound commentary on race, sexuality, and gender, delving into societal taboos with references to the ‘furry fandom’ and ‘kinky play’.

Blake, a non-binary and pansexual artist, reports they intentionally employ cuteness in 'The Little One' to question and blur the boundaries of identity. This deliberate fusion of cuteness and sexuality goes beyond surface aesthetics, offering a deep psychological exploration of societal norms and expectations.

'The Little One' is presented as a dynamic platform for dialogue within the exhibition. It prompts contemplation on the implications of societal expectations, navigating the intricate relationship between innocence and sensuality. Blake's creation acts as a catalyst for discussions, inviting visitors to reassess preconceived notions within the captivating realm of cuteness.

For me, a significant thematic focus of the exhibition was cuteness in capitalism, exploring its strategic use in selling products and ideas. A large number of the pieces playfully interrogate the role of cuteness in marketing and consumer culture, revealing its potential for manipulation. Seemingly out of place amongst the display of cute cats and cuddly toys lay five pills of Ecstasy with imprints of smiley faces, hearts, flowers, and stars. The simple piece aimed to provoke ideas around ‘sugar-coated pills’, stimulating reflection around cuteness being a tool for softening or disguising the unpalatable and promoting positive feelings in the consumer. The initially charming nature of the exhibition takes on a sinister undertone, inviting viewers to confront the discomfort inherent in the use of cuteness in consumer culture.

The highlight of the exhibition for me was 'The Family' by CFGNY. It featured a circle of dining chairs, each adorned with plush toys arranged haphazardly. The piece evoked thoughts of patients participating in group therapy, prompting contemplation on my current position working in medium and low-secure forensic psychiatric hospitals. It aided me in the realisation that every individual – regardless of their serious and, at times, alarming offences like murder and sexual assault – was once an innocent child, perhaps with a cherished stuffed toy. This piece compelled me to reflect on the profound impact of mental illness, which can strip away innocence and reshape the course of someone's entire life.

In its entirety, Cute at Somerset House becomes a rich tapestry of psychological exploration, with a pronounced emphasis on the manipulative potential of cuteness in a capitalistic context. It invites us to consider the interplay between aesthetics, emotion, and societal constructs, challenging preconceived notions in the unsettling yet compelling realm of sinister sweetness. The deliberate use of cuteness as both a captivating allure and a potential tool for manipulation demonstrates the exhibition's nuanced approach to engaging the audience in thoughtful introspection. It stands as a testament to the transformative power of art in providing a space for psychological contemplation and reflection on the intricacies of the human experience.

- Reviewed by Ellie Palmer BSc (Hons), Assistant Psychologist at a Specialist Community Forensic Team. E: [email protected]