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Cute as hell

by Elsa Vettier

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It's not always pleasant to hear the word, or even worse, to be called cute— this word that has now seemingly replaced its equivalent mignon in the French language. When used to describe an artwork, the term “cute” is, in my opinion, rather offensive and reductive. It diminishes the work’s significance, depth and complexity, assigning it to the realm of small, vulnerable things that we overlook with affection with a dash of disdain when we describe them as “cute”. As a means of avoiding this disqualifying judgment, a number of artists are now embracing cuteness, this cuteness that flourishes anywhere a product can be sold, or a person can be caught off guard and emotionally deceived— i.e. everywhere. Clumsy puppies, fluffy animal mascots and teary-eyed babies are the embodiment of what theorist Sianne Ngai sees as a new aesthetic category. “The cute product flatters us by wanting us and only us for Mommy,”1 it constitutes a ready-made expressly demanding p-maternity, or even auctoriality, which is both tempting and dangerous to seize, so simple does the operation seem. Calibrated to be loved and bought while at the same time rapidly arousing aggression, the cute figure is part of a libidinal economy that places it at the center of dynamics of desire and frustration, domination and regression. This is where its ambiguity and eminent reversibility lie, perhaps allowing artists to employ it in ways that don't necessarily make their practices cute.


Fabienne Audéoud was the first artist who spoke to me about cuteness and her understanding of Sianne Ngai’s theory. In 2019, she was finishing a series of canvases featuring large-scale reproductions of Beatrix Potter's drawings that illustrate several children's stories. She selected scenes depicting the gendered tasks of caregiving, notably the little anthropomorphic mice busy sweeping up, or the unpaid labor performed by candlelight and in fear of the boss. Each scene reveals the mechanics of domination and the crushing domesticity of which these cute little creatures (and the humanity they embody) are prisoners. This is the cruel component of the cute: what makes them endearing is also what makes them mercilessly exploitable. Shortly after completing this series, Fabienne Audéoud made around fifty Petits loups [little wolves], hand-sewn plush toys based on a pattern found online. With their large, skinny paws, muzzles and pleading looks, they manifest a form of dependence on their creator. The artist gives form to a vulnerability that allows her to dominate the stuffed animal while admitting that it exerts a strong power over her. "I accepted the idea that I liked these needy sculptures, and even that they made me address them with a strange voice and smile: bonzour mon petit coco.”2 Fabienne Audéoud experiments with the duplicity of her Little Wolves; their acknowledged passivity and simultaneously their agency, the feelings they urge us to develop and the silliness they place in our mouths. Canadian artist Liz Magor, who uses stuffed animals as one of her preferred materials, sums up this dialectic very well when she describes them as “slaves of our love,”3 an idea that would not displease Beatrix Potter and her industrious mice. Liz Magor collects her stuffed animals mainly from garage sales, along with the sweaters, shoes and blankets that form part of her visual vocabulary. In her most recent works— in which these items are hung, spread out or wrapped in transparent plastic— few are left unscathed. Those not molded in silicone have lost limbs or had new ones implanted. The casting process, which stiffens the stuffed animals, and the repair process, which sometimes alters their gentle expressions, all contribute to setting their cuteness at a distance. They then become “agents,” gently emerging from their passivity “covered in tears and snot.”4 In the series entitled Delivery, long-armed silicone teddy bears hang upside down, clinging onto garment bags whose contents are spilling onto the ground. They are links in a “chain of falling,” an action doomed to failure since the fabrics are already touching the ground, but in which they finally play a supporting role.


Whilst it is clear that we can shape cuteness - because it's part of its soft nature - create it to our liking, represent it under our authority or in more enticing positions, it has the power to shape us in return. It softens us, takes us back to childhood, makes us speak in silly little voices or, to put it more bluntly, infantilizes us in order to better take advantage of us.5 Companies and political entities with adorable mascots have understood this logic: banks give their customers stuffed animals, Lindt sells animal-derived chocolate in the form of rabbits, and yuru kyara (Japanese mascots) make political conventions look like amusement parks. Cuteness is an appealing strategy, a marketing ploy that begs to be subverted. In Bébé Colère, a film from 2020, Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel present a doll with big blue eyes, blond curls and a diaper. The chubby 3D figure is adorable until she opens her mouth. Dubbed by the hoarse voice of a young woman, she moans about all the negative things she thinks of humanity, trying to hasten its demise. It quickly becomes clear that the film is not about the life of a baby, but about a cuckolded youth, almost forced to regress so as not to repeat the political patterns of previous generations. It's hardly surprising that Bébé Colère was made during a period of confinement marked by a decline of free will and common sense in favor of general infantilization. It's these insidious regressive rationales that seem to be the target when the cute object is violated: Bébé Colère turns against its own cuteness, just as Ethan Assouline's stuffed LCL bank lion in exhibition “Watch Me Fall”6 suffocated in a plastic bag. The packaging that guarantees its distribution condemns it, and that's all it takes for us to project onto it our own asphyxiation in the face of the implacable logic of the banking system that it so tenderly conveys. Stuffed animals are not immune to capitalism; on the contrary, they are its lubricant. So they deserve what happens to them when they're attacked or trampled on, like the huge stuffed Lindt bunny presented by artist Kevin Desbouis at a party at Bagnoler (2021)7 and martyred for hours by partygoers.8 Their malleability and permeability, including to all forms of advertising, must be punished.


In 2015, artist Puppies Puppies roamed the aisles of Material fair in Mexico City in a SpongeBob costume. The hilarious, fleecy figure held up a sign depicting her in a carnal embrace with her sidekick Squidward. An anthropomorphic sponge, Bob is the quintessential cute figure thanks to his compressible, elastic nature; better still, he's the franchised, globalized cute, identifiable by (almost) everyone, across all generations.9 As the artist explains in an interview,10 SpongeBob was chosen for his ubiquity in popular culture: all that was required was to make him emerge from the cartoon world and assume a human scale, an approach not unlike that of Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno when, in 1999, they decided to buy the manga character Ann Lee. The difference is that the overt cuteness of SpongeBob SquarePants doesn't generate the same kind of narrative; here, it's not just a matter of filling the empty shell, it's a matter of seizing and perverting it. At the time, Puppies Puppies was hidden behind a name that was in itself adorable, inspired by a Facebook page dedicated to a missing person and filled with images of kittens. For the artist who would later abandon this avatar to sign her own name (Jade Kuriki Olivo), the cute also touches on questions of identity and self-representation, maintaining a form of opacity or indeterminacy behind appearances known and loved by all. This approach can be compared with that of artist Ad Minoliti, who since 2019 has been exhibiting mannequins topped with imposing stuffed animal heads. The artist calls these dogs, cats and wolves, with their thick ears and fluffy faces, furries, in reference to their fur and to the furry subculture (which focuses on anthropomorphic animals and consists in part of embodying a fursona, a character dressed in an animal costume made of synthetic fur). For Ad Minoliti, these costumes sketch out an identity beyond the categories of gender, species and age, a more desirable life that would no longer be adulterated or anthropocentric. As with Puppies Puppies, these figures we associate with childhood emerge from the miniature to circulate among us, and even look down on us adults. They suggest both abandoning the distinction between age groups and reinvesting childhood politically, getting rid of the idea of passive innocence and apolitical tenderness. The refusal of a certain norm associated with identity and the expectations of adulthood is also at the heart of Mélody Lu's11 work, as they regularly focuses on figurines or forms inspired by cuddly toys, notably in a series sculpted from small blocks of marble. What interests her is the affection we feel for them, as well as the acceptance of a childhood of indeterminate duration, enhanced by the unfinished dimension of some, like beings who have not completely left their shells. Because they are made of marble and sometimes inspired by finds in cemeteries, they also have a particular link to death. The cute takes on a psychopompic dimension, able to encapsulate our affection so that it remains intact beyond age and finitude. One of them bears the inscription “Je pense à toi” (“Thinking of you”). It's hard to know whether it's addressed to the deceased or to the abandoned child within.


Whether these artists regularly or occasionally employ cuteness in their work, they all seem to appeal to it in a way that captures and problematizes the power it wields over us: the power to soften us up, to make us do, say or buy anything, to unite us around cherished memories or figures, to emancipate us from a certain normativity. But even when they hinder it, politicize it or put it in perspective, do the works not nonetheless benefit from the primary appeal of the cute? It raises the question of a work's effectiveness with its audience: which of them can rival an object or a being with which everyone immediately wants to interact? How can we not envy the cute or reflect on the question of reception? In my opinion, the tension that inhabits the cute figure— between the desire for attractiveness and immense vulnerability— is not far removed from that which characterizes the artist's relationship with his audience. In a photograph by Kevin Desbouis from 2021, a dog-shaped child's chair stares at a computer screen with big, sad eyes. The title casts doubt on the entity it embodies, unless it's an ultimatum: it's the audience or it's me.







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Mike Kelley’s Arenas through the lens of the “cute”