Clages, Cologne, Germany
Come one, come all, and take my hand as we enter the wacky toyshop of Claus Richter. There are bears that perch and bunnies that lurch; a robot that squeals and a pot plant that wheels. There are nightlights that flash, rodents that stash, and commuters kept kicking their heels.
There is wonder, oh such gleeful wonder, but something slightly darker this way comes.
Claus Richter’s exhibition ‘Living in Another World’ opens with a bus stop. On wall panels, a trio of life-size figures wearing sultry shades and somnolent scowls lean against a post, their arms folded, while LED signs read ‘NEXT TRAIN IN 15 MINUTES’. On two tall steel pillars sits To-Do-Bear (1-2) (all works 2017), a duo of waistcoat-clad teddy bears that appear unfazed by any activity below, their animatronic legs swinging, their rosy red noses buried in copies of the book 1001 Fun Things to do Today. Childishly innocent, our cuddly friends seem less self-aware than the grown-ups lingering beneath, but they too exist in a state of inescapable in-betweenness.
Similar musings on the 21st century rebrand of purgatory are found in the exhibition’s second room, a space partially lit by six gothic night-lights that summon the gloomier hues of the early hours. In the middle of the floor lies 4. 00 am – a work that many of us will recognise as a self-portrait of sorts. Sporting matching tartan pyjamas, a mannequin with unkempt locks is curled around a MacBook, its wide artificial eyes glued to a meditation video that depicts a river flowing through snow. This scene would seem a little straight-laced for Richter were it not for two pairs of pink, bespectacled bunnies in the room that poke their mischievous heads out from miniature doors, waiting for the coast to clear. This is the matutinal madness that stirs while you lie in anticipation of a seemingly unattainable slumber. It is the whirling playground of sleeplessness; the bunny-plagued insania of insomnia.
Things are no less weary in the final room, where another a figure lounges in the centre: Your Little Helper (Robot), a part-rubbish bin, part-R2D2 mechanical butler, who lies battered and broken. Wire innards exposed, cogs struggling, metal claw in spasm, it wheezes in German (In a moment! I'll be there!), endearingly driven by its techno-Protestant work ethic unto the last. Flanking it is a series of wooden wall works (Hoarding Hamsters 1 – 6), in which a family of rodents lie within tunnels and enjoy an array of multi-coloured berries foraged from the garden above. The hamster troupe may be sprightlier than our inert butler, but their labour also comes at a cost: the plants overhead, once bursting with life, now wilt, bare and exhausted.
‘Life in Another World’ reconsiders reality’s cruellest and most tolerated of inevitabilities – frustration, exhaustion, mortality. But while it would be easy to pass off Richter’s playpen as the madcap by-product of a pervading pessimism, thankfully this fairy-tale has a happier ending. In a fantastical play of Brechtian alienation, the exhibition represents not only a necessary acceptance of said inevitabilities but a call to arms for the creatives and the clowns. We’re all going to go down, so we might as well have a little fun while we fall. Maybe Richter’s whirligig world is not so far removed from ours after all. In fact, invoked at a time of rampant anxiety as to the topography of the future – social, professional, political – the exhibition constructs a universe that sounds all too familiar. For me, as for Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass (1871): ‘You may call it “nonsense” […] but I’ve heard nonsense compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!’
Main Image: Claus Richter, Your little helper (Robot), 2017, steel, electronic components, loudspeaker, LED, plastic, wood ca. 65 x 55 x 55 cm. Courtesy: Clages, Cologne