Interview with Ben Frost: What did Hello Kitty Ever do to You?Juxtapoz // Thursday, 07 Jan 2010
As I was leafing through some of my old photographs from the Hello Kitty theme park in Japan, I couldn’t help but think about the many ways that this image has been appropriated and used in contemporary art.
Ben Frost is a prominent artist who has incorporated Hello Kitty into his artwork. I sent him an email to find out more about his use of HK and pop imagery as a whole.—Helen Soteriou
Helen Soteriou: You are an undisputed king of pop imagery. When and why did you decide on using this method of expression?
Ben Frost: As I’m writing this interview, I'm watching the Simpsons. I love the Simpsons. It's the ultimate Pop Art representation of society. All the characters have yellow skin, 4 fingers, ridiculous hairdos and the irony is so thick you could eat it on toast. I'm old enough to remember a time before the Simpsons…those were dark times indeed. But, take a look at our generation--we've grown up into a world of hyper-reality that things like the Internet, advertainment and the Simpsons have helped create.
I think of myself as a landscape painter. When I look out of my window, I don't see mountains and rolling hills—I see billboards competing for my attention, jealous cartoon characters bludgeoning each other with the products they're trying to sell and dark clouds, filled with spam, ready to pour down messages about penis extensions and Viagra savings onto my email inbox. This is our contemporary landscape and its all Bart Simpson's fault.
You have corrupted most of the characters in the Mouse House along with countless other cuties from Sanrio. What did they ever do to you? What message are you sending?
It's like that feeling when you first find out that Santa Clause is really your dad dressed up in a costume, or when you see dove droppings drip out of the magician's sleeve as he performs at your 10th birthday party.
Cartoon characters are all happy and fun at first—promising you happy rainbows and pixie dust, but then when you switch off the television, life
suddenly isn't like that anymore.
In fact the only way children can feed their rainbow and pixie dust addiction is to get their parents to purchase any number of items from the toy catalogue that the character represents.
New characters are specifically created based on their projected profit margins from merchandising sales, and Happy Meal tie-ins. Their cute happy faces are the public face of the corporations they represent. It is this often-misplaced motivation that casts a dark shadow across the entire idea of children's 'entertainment'.
So I try and imagine what these characters might be doing when they are not working, when they aren't performing for us on our screens. Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar get together and smoke crack, Hello Kitty has a porn addiction, Goofy and Pluto like rough sex with each other, but they always manage to clean up and get it together when they have to come back to perform for the kiddies.
What type of feedback are you getting from your art?
A lot of my earlier paintings caused controversy because of their content relating to child drug use and the sexualization of advertising. Police wanted to shut down a few of my exhibitions, TV programs and national papers picked up on it and that's when I started getting death threats and loads of hate mail.
In the last few years that kind of stigma has died down and I've noticed that despite our society becoming more conservative, people are more desensitized to graphic imagery.
Generally people are attracted to the bright colours and happy faces in my paintings, but when they look a little closer, they soon notice the skeletal corpses, mutant two headed ducks and copulating fur seals.
I like this idea of attraction and repulsion being combined as the same sensation, and it's fun to watch people's reactions go from "Oh…how cute!" to, "That's disgusting."
Tell me about your relationship with Hello Kitty - are you a fan or do you dislike the image and the company behind it?
Hello Kitty and I had a brief relationship, but we parted ways after she cheated on me with Pikachu.
Having studied the way a lot of these characters are designed, they all have similar elements that make them impossible not to be appealing. It's like when we see babies or kittens - we are mentally hardwired to see their 'design' as being adorable and we are compelled to look after them and care for them.
Hello Kitty's round eyes, round head, simplification of the body and limbs, as well as the hair which radiates away from the head like a flower are all perfect design elements for irresistible attraction.
Mickey Mouse can also attribute his popularity to his design elements. Not only does he have the round face and eyes - but he has the addition of two extra circles that are his trademark ears, making him the most recognisable character in the world.
I still see Hello Kitty now and again, but since we broke up things just haven't really been the same.
One of your pieces depicts Hello Kitty with a gun and another holding a severed head, can you tell me what these symbolize?
Hello Kitty represents innocence. By juxtaposing her with something more sinister (like a shotgun or a severed head) there is a purity of confused emotion—a kind of indefinable feeling that exists where love and hate co-exist. I get this feeling when I'm watching television and flipping through the channels. One moment you're watching Nickelodeon, the next minute you're watching a news report about a bomb explosion somewhere.
It's a daily rollercoaster ride of emotion, where desensitization is the only way of self-preservation.
Have you had any run-ins / reactions from the companies whose logos and mascots you use?
A lot of people - and especially a lot of artists, are so incredibly afraid of appropriation as a means of creative representation.
There is this scenario in their heads that the 'Coca-Cola' police are going to break down their studio door, dressed from head to toe in red and white leather, tie their hands behind their backs with dynamic ribbon devices and then knee-cap them in the parking lot—all because they painted a Coca-Cola logo on one of their canvases!
Are there any other contemporary art pieces that include Hello Kitty that you like?
The Hello Kitty vibrator of course!
For more on Ben Frost, check out his website here.