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LOS ANGELES — The retrospective: it’s standard fare in the museum world, a survey of an artist’s work over some stretch of her career. In Los Angeles, however, I’m not sure there is such a thing as “standard fare.” Case in point: Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), a retrospective of a cartoon character. The exhibition is a massive installation of material culture, ephemera, and artwork featuring and inspired by the famous non-feline.
One might wonder why a museum would curate an exhibition based on a children’s character that was created by a product company (in this case, Sanrio). There are reasons: this year marks Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary, and she’s become an iconic figure in cultures across the globe. I’ve never been a Hello Kitty kind of girl, but I was curious to see how a serious cultural institution would handle such a bubblegum subject. Curated by Christine Yano, author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific, the exhibition is expansive but not particularly insightful. It includes the elements one would expect, such as Hello Kitty dolls, lunch boxes, and backpacks. It also contains many more quirky pieces, from Louis Vuitton handbags with Hello Kitty prints and crystal-studded Hello Kitty heads to a dress made from plush Hello Kitty dolls, worn by Lady Gaga.
According to JANM’s press release, Hello! “combine[s] a product-based historical and sociological examination of Hello Kitty, including rare and unique pieces from Sanrio’s archives, with an installation of mixed media works by artists demonstrating Hello Kitty’s influence on contemporary art.” This does happen in the show, but not in a way that’s particularly critical or engaging — the exhibition lacks a specific thesis and mostly ends up feeling like fluff, a cloyingly sweet confection of cotton candy.
This is not a huge shock, of course; you don’t really go into an exhibition with “supercute” in the title expecting something groundbreaking. I was, however, hoping for more engagement with the historiography done on Hello Kitty, the role she’s played in Japanese-American cultural exchange, and how her meaning or place in global culture has evolved over the years. Sadly, all of that was absent from the show. I would have loved to see sketches of the character from her inception in 1974 or video footage of Hello Kitty cartoons from Sanrio headquarters, maybe even evidence of brainstorming sessions — something! I wanted more engaging wall text, something to sink my teeth into, but alas, was left hungry.
A handful of pieces did pull me in, including a set of collectable plastic Hello Kitty figurines rendered with KISS makeup, Jonathan Stein’s oversize Hello Kitty bag of gummy bears that’s studded with crystals, and a portrait of Abe Lincoln by Scott Scheidly depicting Honest Abe in a purple suit and bowler hat with Hello Kitty’s face on them. These pieces were witty and offered cultural references outside of Hello Kitty’s immediate world, creating a more layered experience. Otherwise, the exhibition is mostly just fun. If you’re at all into Hello Kitty — or hell, even the color pink — you’ll get what you came for.
Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty continues at the Japanese American National Museum (100 N Central Ave, Downtown, Los Angeles) through April 26.