Somewhere in the Yukon Territory in Canada, a monument in the style of Mount Rushmore to Hello Kitty was once carved in stone. The sculpture was a popular site for families, celebrities and Hello Kitty stans alike to make a pilgrimage to honor their idol: an adorable, anthropomorphic Japanese cat with a little red bow.
Tragically, things this pure are never meant to last. The Hello Kitty monument found itself destroyed, and in its place, condos — Hello Kitty-themed, no less — were built.
This is the fictitious reality imagined by Kathy Aoki, pop culture mixed media artist and UC Berkeley alumna, in her solo exhibition “Formidable Fragments: Breaking Down the Cult of Cute” at the Berkeley Art Center.
Museum-goers perused the fictional Museum of Historical Makeovers on Thursday, featuring large-scale artifacts (supposedly pieces of the destroyed monument), an interactive map detailing the cutest monuments around the world (featuring “My Little Pony,” Lisa Frank and Hello Kitty), video and audio-based pieces, sketches, prints and diagrams before Aoki — scholarly in a stern pantsuit — took the floor for her talk titled “The Rise and Fall of Hello Kitty Monument.”
Utterly deadpan, Aoki proceeded to elaborate on the history of our culture’s obsession with cuteness: specifically, the secret society that supposedly exists called the Culte de Mignon (Cult of Cute). The society, which was most active in the 1700s, gave cuteness ratings to monuments around the world.
“Now, Mount Rushmore — how cute is it really?” Aoki asked the audience. People chuckled as she revealed the monument’s cuteness ratings, with each former president’s likeness individually rated: Washington received a five, Jefferson a six and so on.
No rating for the Hello Kitty monument was forthcoming — tragically gone too soon — but Aoki assured the audience that the adorable rock formation would have scored very high on the cuteness scale. She brought the story of its erection and subsequent destruction to life.
It all began when Tarik Felsic, the sculpture’s creator and disenchanted Cartoon Network employee, created a mash-up of Velma from “Scooby Doo” and Hello Kitty. Unfortunately for Felsic, the drawing was not well-received by Hello Kitty fans — it received vehement criticism for attaching Velma’s intellect to Hello Kitty’s cuteness. In its absurdity, the feminist message underlying the exhibit became most obvious.
“Fans preferred that Hello Kitty’s naivety remain intact rather than demonstrate any sort of deductive reasoning,” declared the caption beneath a copy of the cartoon on display. Additionally, Felsic added a mouth to Hello Velma, an atrocity to fans who loved Hello Kitty as she was: silent and lovable. In the aftermath of the backlash, Felsic realized that Hello Kitty was best honored in her “pure form,” driving him to build the world-renowned monument to her likeness.
Perhaps the most eye-catching of the “artifacts” on display were the picket signs from the monument’s No. 1 protester, referred to as “Hater Girl.” A female tech worker from San Francisco, Hater Girl would travel to the monument several times a year to protest. Her picket signs, hung up on the walls, featured statements such as “Hello Kitty lost her mouth when she spoke up.”
Beyond the easily digestible feminist critique on display, the construction of the Hello Kitty condos in the monument’s place led us elsewhere: the tech-fueled housing crisis. Audience members were invited to put their names on an interest list for the new condos, in which residents could customize their own Hello Kitty-themed homes.
At the end of the talk, Aoki pulled up a photo of Gwen Stefani in a shirt emblazoned with the words “A Fatal Attraction to Cuteness.” In a moment of clarity, she wondered out loud: “Could this be a disease?”
While an eccentric, hilarious satire on our consumerist and misogynist culture, Aoki’s exhibit seems especially vital within the current national political climate. Maybe Americans don’t make pilgrimages to fawn at the head of a stone cartoon cat, but we’re extremely susceptible to worshipping false idols. Putting icons on a pedestal, no matter how cute or convincing, can be dangerous.
“The Rise and Fall of the Hello Kitty Monument” runs at the Berkeley Art Center through Nov. 20.