Cuteness gets creepy at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

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Rachel Maclean explores the relationship between the sweet and the sinister in ‘Too Cute!’, a visually arresting exhibition at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in partnership with the Arts Council Collection.

Cuteness is everywhere. How many emojis do you use on a day to day basis, or photo filters that turn you into a bunny or a kitten? How many cute animal videos do you engage with online? In troubled times, it’s incredibly tempting to seek out content which makes us go “awww”, but does cute have a dark side?

Artist Rachel Maclean, curator of Too Cute!, a new exhibition opening on Saturday 26t January at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, definitely thinks so. “I’ve always been interested in the mystery of why something intended to be cute can take on a sinister quality,” she says. The show spans time periods and disciplines, from 19th century oil paintings to internet-inspired works, and Maclean wants visitors to think about how they engage with cuteness online and in their own lives. “There’s an element of escapism to it, and I think there’s something inherently sinister about that,” she says. “You’ve got tax-dodging giant companies like Google or Amazon who are feeding us these cute things, illiciting that ‘awww’ response, evoking childhood, because when you’re a child you tend to take things at face value.”

The exhibition features works from Arts Council Collection and Birmingham Museum’s own archives, by a diverse array of artists including Gillian Waring, Peter Blake and Helen Chadwick.

“I’ve had a fantastic time exploring the Birmingham collection and the Arts Council Collection and it’s been an honour to be able to bring together a show that includes so many artists that I admire,” says Maclean. “I have been fascinated by cuteness for a long time and think that despite it being an area that so many artists investigate, it can often be overlooked as being too silly, shallow or feminine a subject for debate. I think cuteness is fundamental to our experience of consumer capitalism and it’s important that we take it seriously in order to understand what we use cute objects for and the effect they have on us. Something which has come to the fore in curating the show has been the number of artists that toe the line between cuteness and creepiness. There is something fascinatingly complex about this and for me it is the fundamental mystery of the cute object, how can things that look sweet be simultaneously sinister?”

Childhood imagery is visible everywhere in the exhibition, but in different configurations than we are used to, such as a series of “serious” photo portraits of babies wearing black, taken in profile. Elsewhere in the show are the familiar iconography of Punch and Judy puppets and Victorian dolls which, while associated with childhood, also carry some uncomfortable associations. “There’s something about the way we construct childhood as this innocent, gated off, utopian world, which takes on new meaning when looked at through the eyes of adulthood,” says Maclean. As adults, we take no pleasure in the violence in Punch & Judy shows, and old porcelain dolls have become innately creepy thanks to a bunch of horror films.

Maclean is known for her bold, colourful, almost-painfully vibrant approach to her work, and she brings this sensibility to her role as curator, playing a wide-eyed, catlike academic named Dr Cute in a film which plays on a loop as you enter the gallery space. The effect is deeply unsettling, and sets the tone perfectly, preparing the viewer for the assault on their senses they are about to experience.

“Rachel is a ground-breaking artist and we are thrilled to be working with her as she curates our final Arts Council Collection National Partnership exhibition,” says Deborah Smith, the curator working on behalf of Birmingham Museums Trust. “We are excited to see how this immersive exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery will come to life and invite visitors to consider the contemporary obsession with cuteness.”

This is the kind of show which rewards multiple visits and close attention; there are so many pieces on display that it is impossible to take them all in the first time around, and a cursory glance just isn’t enough. That carousel horse might look perfectly ordinary, but the longer you examine its features the more nightmarish they seem. The same goes for the show’s pantheon of dummies, sculptures and taxidermy.

In that regard, it feels right that this is the exhibition which signals an end to the partnership between Birmingham Museum and the Arts Council Collection — its assembly of colourful, ever-so-slightly off-putting imagery will stay with you long after you leave the building.

Too Cute! runs from Saturday 26 January to Sunday 12 May 2019.

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