The child’s acknowledgement upon accepting the lifelessness of a favourite doll that its toy is ‘dead’ does not simply mark the passing of innocence. Notions of death are circumscribed within childhood fictions routinely populated by sleeping beauties and cloven Rumpelstiltskins. A recurring, if hidden, manouevre within children’s stories is the escape from the real to the fictive – the realm of invention a remove from reality, in and outside the story. This accounts for the pathos of the return from Narnia to the wardrobe, from Neverland to the playroom, from Wonderland back up the rabbit hole. Moving the other way, it explains the enticing (but actually fatal) world of ‘Pure Imagination’ that Willy Wonka sings about in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Hence Wonka’s characteristic moral ambivalence exemplified by a line in the song: ‘there is no life, I know …’
Today, the exterior of the Stadtwerke München’s gasworks building, which served as the exterior of Wonka’s chocolate factory in that film, has the yellow, cake-like exterior typical of German building renovation. In its crafted flatness it also recalls the planar sculptures of Cologne-based artist Claus Richter. The playfully macabre, self-enclosed worlds of Richter use equivalent imagery from childhood fantasy inherited from 20th-century children’s books and Technicolor cartoons. Metaphors of escape are accomplished through Richter’s burrows, chutes, doors and window frames.
For the 2008 work Showtime Richter and Tobias Rehberger constructed a life-size amusement park-cum-fantasy world inside the Messe Frankfurt for that year’s Design Annual, filled with cakes, splattered figurines, flamboyantly-lit signage, walk-in mouths and flat sculptural mushrooms. More recently, Richter – who collects antique children’s books and toys, recreates and lectures about sci-fi film props, as well as teaches stage design at the HfG Karlsruhe – has turned to a comparatively restrained, less experiential aesthetic that smacks more of a William Morris-like alliance of craft and art, albeit with a ludic, historical dandyism. Take the ‘toyshop’ window (Toyshop Outside, Toyshopwindow, garbage bin, 2014) featuring flat silhouettes of cats and mice. A toy ‘pauper mouse’ balancing on a trashcan stares longingly at the scene. The premise of Richter’s stagey constructions – and their Wonka-like creepiness – was articulated in the shopsign hung outside Clages in Cologne for his 2011 show, Mirrored Mountain Castle: a pink cat with a yellow door in its body, accompanied by the words ‘come in / and stay’, meaning enter (the realm of imagination, childhood) but also, do not leave.
Whether by fairground or toyshop, Richter’s performative scenarios invite the reader, user or audience to enter and never leave. The fictional character who thinks he can escape the escape is what Richter’s art stands against. For his 2014 exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, on the occasion of that institution’s 175th jubilee, Richter constructed a fictional museology of the Kunstverein between 1839 and 1914 by filling the institution with vitrines stuffed with ‘historical’ ephemera, works by fictional artists and related documentation. Documents suggested that one of the institution’s chairmen was involved in a puppet theatre so Richter crafted a marionette theatre and performed an intricate puppet show, gave a lecture on the fake history of the Kunstverein and even staged a costume ball, while displaying fictional works through-out the city (at a museum of smell, for example, and at the Museum Ludwig).
Upending hierarchies of craft and art, childhood and the adult world, Richter’s art inverts the usual superiority of enlightenment rationality over innocence. One of the consequences, articulated via the numerous quotations and photographs of toy collections in his 2013 artist’s book Peter Pan & Me, on the occasion of the group exhibition Forever Young at the Kunsthalle Nürnberg that year, points to the violence of childhood (a cliché of Grimm’s fairytales) as well as the trauma of ‘growing up’: the disavowal of fantasy and ‘immaturity’. The 2012 work Kindness 1 is a framed, MDF and wood relief in subtle, pastel colours in which a tiny mouse offers a gift to a hapless, top-hatted man, his head in his hands, whose cogs in his back reveal him to be an automaton. The myths of ontogeny – that one can supersede immaturity – and capitalist self-betterment are likewise parodied in one of Richter’s gloomier works, a series of MDF, lacquered wooden boards titled Nothing is Easy (2012). Richter found self-help books and presented their titles on light teal backgrounds in generic craft-store type: ‘How To Solve All Of Your Problems’, ‘How to Be Free in Ten Easy to Follow Steps’. If the escape from the real, exacted by Richter’s works, seems to be an escapist fantasy to a conveniently naive innocence with questionable moral unaccountability, then Richter is right to quote J.R.R. Tolkien’s adage in Peter Pan & Me that those who mix up fantasy with escape: ‘have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter’.
Like his friend Cosima von Bonin, the ironic cloyingness of Richter’s works often jars with their iconic, metaphorical clarity. Richter’s self-consciously crafted materials and subject matter imply unsettling conclusions against adult reality and childish imagination alike. Yet Richter seems to perform not ‘real’ naiveté but a drag of it; using an ironized surface aesthetic that points to the impossibility, hubris and undesirability of aesthetic wholeness. Were the circuit of ‘pure imagination’ to be completed, it would become its own ‘world’, its own reality, and hence a kind of death.