Claus Richter, To Do Bear (1–2) (detail), 2017, steel, fabric, motor, wood, rubber, plastic, 110 1/4 × 27 1/2 × 27 1/2".

Claus Richter, To Do Bear (1–2) (detail), 2017, steel, fabric, motor, wood, rubber, plastic, 110 1/4 × 27 1/2 × 27 1/2".

Claus Richter

Claus Richter, To Do Bear (1–2) (detail), 2017, steel, fabric, motor, wood, rubber, plastic, 110 1/4 × 27 1/2 × 27 1/2".

“Everything I do here I do with pleasure, and I admit I’m a bit ashamed of that,” says the Cologne-based artist Claus Richter. And a visit to his exhibition “Living in another world” offered a similar experience of guilty pleasure. I laughed at the kitschy plastic orchids in his Singing flowers/Omi Ursula (all works 2017), which hop up and down while singing in what sounds like a squeaky girl’s voice (actually the artist’s), and at the robot in Your little helper (Robot). The latter is a beat-up R2-D2–like mechanical butler whose loose wires hang out of its insides and which kept assuring me, with breathless evangelical fervor, in German, “I’ll be right there”—despite the fact that it seems ready to completely fall apart at any moment. I smiled at the red noses on the cuddly bears in To-Do-Bear (1-2), who sit with their legs dangling over the edges of tall plinths, each placidly reading a book titled 1001 Fun Things to do Today. The naively innocent gaze of the Greeting Bunnies (1-2), with their heads sticking round a door, seemed to whisper, “Come with us into another, better world”––for Richter loves the world of Disney above all else. I empathized with the boy lying on the floor in checked pajamas in the sculpture 4.00 am, staring mesmerized at a MacBook screen showing that most Romantic of images, a river landscape in winter. Who hasn’t tried to escape the loneliness and desolation of a sleepless night this way?

I laughed, but as I did so a vague sense of shame crept over me: How could I, an adult possessed of a critical gaze, enjoy this unspeakable kitsch and silliness? And yet the answer was simple. All the tableaux that Richter stages have this in common: They awaken the child in us and with it the unbiased pleasure with which we once encountered the world. And yet at least since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, it’s been clear that the unprejudiced child possesses a sharp eye that can penetrate deep into those cracks in reality that the adult gaze ignores.

In this exhibition, laughter also lured the viewer into cracks where things became less fun the farther one traveled down them. These included, along with the red-nosed To-Do-Bears teaching themselves how to have fun, the flat cutouts of faceless adults waiting at a train stop in front of a brown LED panel announcing NEXT TRAIN IN 15 MINUTES in Haltestelle (Train Station). Is the train ever going to come at all? The people waiting no longer seem to think so, having long ago abandoned themselves to their fate of having to wait indefinitely. And what about that lonely and desolate boy who, unable to sleep at four o’clock in the morning, uses an unromantic electronic medium to bring Romantic nature into his bedroom? Why is the boy lonely? Why is he accessing nature over a laptop? Why is the assistant saying, “I’ll be right there” when it clearly can’t do anything anymore? These are questions one might raise as a child. But what about as an adult?

In the end, it is not because I laughed that I felt ashamed, but rather because I first had to adopt the child’s gaze in order to pose such questions. That’s why “Living in another world” was not as crazily out of kilter as it might have seemed at first sight. It is life in this, our own world: happy and sad, lonely, desolate and sometimes also broken. Give me your hand and follow me into this world; I promise we won’t only laugh.

––Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.