To artist Kathy Aoki, it didn’t seem so far-fetched that a Mount Rushmore-style tribute to Hello Kitty might actually exist. After all, to mark the iconic Sanrio character’s 30th birthday in 2004, crop circles in her likeness were created not far from Stonehenge. The fact that a carved-out-of-a-mountain Hello Kitty Monument did not exist in real life allowed Aoki to devise a fictitious version, complete with an elaborate back story: The memorial was a huge tourist attraction in Canada, but was demolished about five years ago so that a real estate firm with ties to Elon Musk—“a totally ridiculous narrative,” Aoki notes—could build condos on the site. Now through Sept. 9, her exhibition at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, #WishYouWereHere, transports museumgoers to the imaginary world that Aoki has conjured.
Aoki’s ICA Sandbox project is part of an ongoing series, Museum of Historical Makeovers, that the associate professor of studio art at Santa Clara University initiated in 2009. The throughline for the body of work is the exploration of pop culture and gender issues. Hello Kitty became part of Aoki’s oeuvre in 2012 and was the focus of a 2016 solo show at Berkeley Art Center. At ICA, Aoki has introduced new elements: selfie documentation and augmented reality. “You can take a picture that makes it look like you were at the monument around 2008, before it was destroyed,” says Aoki, adding: “It seems that places only exist if you take a selfie there. I love the idea that the selfie will make a fictitious place ‘real.’” And, using the Zappar app, visitors can feel like they are at the landmark, standing among trees and rock formations.
The room-size diorama that Aoki constructed includes sculptural aspects that are “rendered to give the illusion of depth,” she says. In a separate space, large-scale fragments, such as the hollow of Hello Kitty’s eye, are on view. The exhibition also has audio and video components. An artist talk is scheduled for Aug. 26 (Aoki will be in character as the curator of the historical installation), and an activism workshop related to girl power is planned for Sept. 7 (involving a make-believe protester, named Hater Girl). Delving into cultural obsessions and consumerism, Hello Kitty Monument is much more than just a cool Instagram opportunity. “The desire to consume a certain brand has always interested me,” says Aoki, who grew up a Hello Kitty fan until she realized the effect that brands can have on society. “By putting it in a museum context, I’m really poking fun at the overimportance of the Hello Kitty brand. It’s a parody of what I think we should be spending time studying and learning in museums.”
Originally published in the July issue of Silicon Valley