A Visit to the Art Bunker

Giulia Pines visits Sammlung Boros, a private collection of contemporary art housed inside a World War Two bunker…

Christian Boros. Image by Giulia Pines.

It is the quintessential Berlin tale: an empty and derelict space falls into the hands of adventurers in the early 90s, soon after the wall comes down.

They do the best they can with it, hosting a series of not-so-legal clubs that enrich and contribute to the burgeoning techno scene, writing Berlin into the history books once again.

Exhibitions also take place there, as a local art scene grows up around it. Then, one day, the pioneers are out and the space is on the market. But the structure cannot be torn down in order to rebuild on the land, indeed can barely be changed at all, and anyone who buys it will have to be half mad, very creative, or perhaps a little of both.

The structure in question is a hulking bunker that sits on the north side of Mitte’s Reinhardtstrasse. Just steps away from the main tourist drag on Oranienburger Strasse, this is a decidedly less chaotic stretch of roadway, the only disruption the sound of nearby jackhammers and creaking cranes as new luxury condos go up all around it.

The bunker has been snoozing away somewhat quietly in the decades after the war, built in 1942 to protect several thousand citizens from air raids, used as storage for fruits and vegetables during East German times, and finally, playing host to the aforementioned sex and techno parties, remnants of which can still be seen in the form of fluorescent paint markings.

The new owners of the space, of course, also lend their name to the art collection they display within its concrete walls: advertising executive Christian Boros and his wife Karen. True to form, they might be the only two crazy dreamers with enough of a wild imagination—and indeed, enough money—to take the bunker, this “hateful building” as even Christian himself calls it, and turn it into something completely new.

The Boros bunker, complete with war-damaged facade. Image by Paul Sullivan.

“It could not have had anything better happen to it,” he says with a half smile, as if he knows the whimsy of his own words.

The two of them were there last Thursday to present their second exhibition in a press preview before the public opening this week.

To watch him talk of his own art collection is to watch a man at once amused by, and assured of, his own passion; when he describes a piece, he often cocks his head and looks slightly off to the side, as if trying to recollect what he first saw in it, and why it delights him still.

His wife, an art historian, is a bit more pragmatic, approaching the pieces from a more objective, academic angle, conveying a love for them that comes out of an educated appreciation. A bit more conscious of her and her husband’s place in the current Berlin art scene, perhaps, and what they and their project represent to those who came before, she quickly reassures us, “we didn’t kick out the club, no no! They were already gone long before we came.”

In the years since the couple first bought the bunker in 2003, they have received a tremendous amount of attention for their daring concept: the five levels provide thousands of square meters of exhibition space as well as appropriately high ceilings for their ever-growing contemporary art collection, many examples of which are in constant motion, swinging back and forth, from side to side, flashing on and off, or spontaneously bursting with sound and light.

Crowning the bunker and barely visible from the street is their living space: a custom-built, 450-square meter penthouse, in which they presumably manage some semblance of normal family life (one wonders how their two young children must feel growing up with such a playroom directly underneath them).

As with every reincarnation of an old space, each room of the bunker now seems to exist on two planes, as the new works of art compete with the shadows of whatever was displayed there before (and in the case of one room, where melting ice mixed with ink to create black puddles on the floor, permanent markings).

“We had to make a big decision in our second exhibition,” Karen explained, “whether to take down the pieces that had been designed specifically for the space. In the end, we realized we needed to replace all of it.” Gone is the oft-photographed, multi-colored orb by Olafur Eliasson (a perennial Boros favorite), which threw kaleidoscopic, shattered glass patterns onto each wall like a disco ball in the room guests were shown first, on the ground floor.

It has been replaced by two of Tomás Saraceno’s floating orbs, which visitors will recall from the “Cloud Cities” exhibition at the nearby Hamburger Bahnhof. Another unforgettable piece, the ominous, silently ringing bell without clapper just above the check-in desk in the entry room, has been replaced by a new Eliasson orb, made from metal and mirrors that gently reflect the light.

Inside the art bunker. Image by Giulia Pines.

There are no labels on any of the artwork, as the bunker is, of course, not really a gallery. In his welcome talk Christian made sure to point out, with a humbleness that might seem a bit disingenuous, considering his surroundings, “this is not museum, not an institution; rather, it is our hobby-cellar.”

The group tours offered every weekend, which must be booked in advance but cost no more than admission to a normal museum (12 Euro per person), are therefore essential; a phalanx of guides, mostly young, attractive, and impeccably stylish students or artists, are employed to lead visitors through the collection.

Today, however, they were still learning, frequently glimpsing at cheat sheets to confirm the name of an artist, unable yet to launch into an effortless explanation of each and every piece.

Particularly of note is Ai Weiwei’s gigantic tree, which appears to be cobbled together from pieces of driftwood. At seven meters tall, it is one of several massive installations for which bi-level rooms are reserved; spaces for which Realarchitektur, the team responsible for transforming the bunker, cut through meters of concrete in order to allow the art to be viewed from above and below.

The tree, as Christian explained earlier, represented a bit of a risk: they had bought it without knowing whether it would even fit in any of the bunker’s largest rooms; but it had, if only by about six centimeters.

Whereas several works in the last exhibition were built into the bunker by the artists themselves in order to use the space to its fullest advantage, the new exhibition contains only one site-specific piece: a playful and unexpected use of a spy-hole tunnel through the bunker’s outer wall, drilled when the architects wanted to test its thickness. Perfectly aligned with this hole is a single golden arrow, its tip wedged squarely into the opposite wall, as if shot through from the outside.

Bunker artwork. Image by Giulia Pines.

On Thursday, it appeared the Boros’s had matured a bit since the collection’s first rotation. Those pieces solicited for pure shock value, or to comment a bit too cheekily on the state of the art world (the disconcerting figure in the hospital bed that used to lie in front of the bunker’s only window, visitors will note with either a thrill or some disappointment, has been replaced by a constantly running popcorn machine) are few and far between.

Instead, this new exhibition seems to focus more on the senses beyond sight, on smells and sounds and more personal first impressions.

It has a calmness and a self-assurance that may have come from the four years of recognition Christian and Karen have enjoyed since they made their new home in Berlin. After all, having curated an exhibition for the space once already, it must have been easier to do it again.

Yet looking back at what the last few years have brought, Christian mused, “when asked if I would do it again, I would say no; knowing what I know now, I would be afraid…. And yet,” he said with that sly smile again, “we are here, and we are happy.”


Sammlung Boros

Reinhardtstr. 20, 10117 Mitte

U6: Oranienburger Tor

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