The Boros Bunker – a treasure trove of the present

Boros Collection
Boros Bunker, Reinhardtstr. 20, Berlin–Mitte

The Berlin skyline is a medley of history and contemporaneity. Postmodernist architecture patches up wartime and post-war wounds, whose scars are evident in the still bare swathes of land between the eastern and western parts of the city, the bullet holes in historic buildings, and the damaged outline of the Reichstag building, restored to grandeur with Norman Foster’s glass dome, the symbol of a new beginning. But it is not only such historic ruins and sites razed to the ground during the last century that are in need of a new beginning. Something similar is also urgently required by buildings that only entered the urban landscape during the war, as elements of its wartime infrastructure.
In the heart of the Mitte district, in the eastern part of the divided Berlin, there is a civilian air-raid shelter. It stands on Reinhardstrasse, and though it is in the immediate vicinity of a popular underground station, it is not visible from a distance. It is no higher than its surroundings, and with its neo-Renaissance architecture and brown stone it blends in with its surroundings. The unique character of this building only becomes clear close up. It is heavy and solid, designed on a perfectly square plan, with four identical façades. The street-front bay features two pairs of heavy double doors, but betrays no information as to what is behind them. It is a private house. The outline of a glass-fronted apartment is just visible on the roof of this wartime monstrosity. This is the Berlin home of Christian Boros and Karen Lohmann, and includes the five floors of their contemporary art collection, which they open up three days a week to small groups of visitors.

Anti-aircraft bunker turned by Christian Boros into exhibition space © NOSHE

The collection itself, numbering some 700 works, is an impressive lesson in international contemporary art – a collection of the present, as its creator terms it. Boros is the proprietor of a successful advertising agency, which he set up as a graduate in 1990, and it was also during this time that he began amassing his collection of art. He met his wife, who also shares his passion for collecting, in a gallery in Basel while on a buying trip. He emphasises that his purchasing choices are always connected with contemporaneity: “I am only interested in understanding the present, art which is created now,” adding: “I am part of the present.” He has works by artists who have contributed to the canon of present-day art in his collections, from the young British art with which he launched his collection in the early 1990s, through international artists, among whom there are also Poles (perhaps out of a sentiment for his birthplace, Zabrze), to contemporary German art, which is his main focus. Names that feature in his collection include Damien Hirst, Olafur Eliasson, Elizabeth Peyton, Wolfgang Tillmans, Anselm Reyle, Manfred Pernice, Tobias Rehberger, John Bock, Wilhelm Sasnal and Michel Majerus. In 2008 this bunker was the venue for the first public unveiling of Sammlung Boros (The Boros Collection), and the exceptional character of this display is rooted in its special bond with the place.
Reichsbahnbunker Friedrichstraße – a shelter for the passengers and employees of the railway station at Friedrichstrasse in case of air raids – was completed in 1942 as part of a fast-track civilian air-raid shelter construction programme announced two years previously by Hitler in the wake of the first bombardment of Berlin. It was designed by Karl Bonanz to accommodate 1,200 people, although in the latter months of the war it held nearly 4,000. In 1945 the bunker was taken by the Red Army and adopted as a prisoner of war camp. It wasn't blown up after the war, probably because there were residential buildings in its immediate vicinity. From 1957 it was used by a state grocery enterprise as a fruit and vegetable store – and for this reason it was colloquially known for many years as the “Pre-Christmas Bunker” or the “Banana Bunker”. After the reunification of Germany it was used as a techno night club – “the hardest club on earth”, and throughout the 1990s it was also in demand as a venue for theatre and alternative parties, although not always legal. Contemporary art first went on show in the bunker in 1996 as part of the exhibition, Files. Boros bought the building in 2003.
Although a listed building, the bunker was in ruins at the time he purchased it. Over the years, new walls, installations, loading ramps and a lift were put in. The alterations necessary for its conversion into a residential and exhibition space were carried out by Jens Casper. The work took five years, largely owing to the unusually formidable structure of the building. Of the original 120 rooms, 80 remain: walls and ceilings were knocked through to produce spaces over 10 metres high in places. The external lift shaft was demolished leaving the only window apertures the whole height of the building (those visible on the façade are not, in fact, real windows). In spite of the major alterations to the fabric of the building, the exhibition spaces have retained their historical identity, and only a few of them have been transformed into classic white cubes. On each of the five levels the original ventilation shafts, powerful metal doors and handwheels, as well as information signs have been preserved. In some places graffiti has been left on the walls as testimony to its turbulent history during the 1990s.
The building, strongly rooted in the history of the 20th century – first as a witness to the trauma of the war, although itself a means for survival, and later as a symbol of prosperity during the socialist period, and finally of freedom in the form of “heavy” entertainment – is the context for contemporary artistic creativity under Boros’s chosen leitmotif of space, installation and light. The works on display here correspond superbly with their locus. There is no curator – the artists themselves were asked by the collector to select a space for their works and install them personally. Thus, there is no concept imposed from above; instead there is a system of mini-exhibitions around single works. Building relationships with the space seems to be the most natural and appropriate way to “populate” this Berlin air-raid shelter with art. Works which formed part of the collection before space was found to display them take on new meaning within these unusual walls.
As soon as one walks in, one’s attention is captured by the bell swinging above the entrance hall. It was taken from a desecrated church in Belgium by Kris Martin, who removed its clapper and attached it to a mechanism that allows it to move in random directions. This work incorporates a number of superimposed meanings: a church that is no longer a church, a bell that does not ring, movement that cannot be predicted, and the entrance to an air-raid shelter. The bell could sound the alarm, but owing to the lack of its most important component, it is silent, in spite of its constant movement. The title of this work is For Whom... (2008), a reference to the Ernest Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Connecting the plot of the novel – a study of a man who witnessed the horrors of war – with the mute bell and the place in which it has been hung produces yet more profound meanings.

Santagio Sierra, Construction and installation of forms covered with layers of tar, size 75 x 75 x 800 cm, for two rooms, 2002 © NOSHE

The installation by Monika Sosnowska displayed on the ground floor (untitled, 2005/2008) carries a powerful emotional thrust. It is a huge, irregular wooden “lightning bolt” painted black, whose sharply pointed structure zigzags through several rooms, penetrating their thick walls. It may be viewed from all sides, and even experienced by entering its dark interior and attempting to find a path through its irregular shape – the blind crawling accompanied by a sense of uncertainty, discomfort and fear. This work can be read as a universal piece speaking of the human condition in contemporary times, but in this particular place it invites a very specific association – the experience of war, which it captures on a micro scale in its shape, and the fact that it can be viewed from both inside and out.
Just as Sosnowska’s work cannot be viewed in its entirety from the available perspectives, so Katja Strunz’s installation, Zeittraum (2004; the title is a reference to Walter Benjamin’s concept of Zeitraum – space-time; the second “t” creates the word “traum” – dream – with the title of the installation taking on an additional meaning), cannot be taken in as a whole. It is composed of dozens of triangular forms folded in the shape of paper aeroplanes, which are mounted on the walls of a three-storey high room created by knocking through ceilings to open up a “shaft” stretching up through successive storeys. Each storey offers a different perspective on the angular wooden and metal shapes that climb higher and higher. Situated in this particular place, on the bare walls of the shelter that still display the original information signs, these wooden and metal shapes become directly linked with the original function of the building.
Temporarily Placed (2002), by the Scandinavian duo, Elmgreen & Dragset, is one of the most disturbing works. It shows a patient in a hospital bed, in a white-painted room, separated from the exhibition space by a screen. The reclining wax figure with its realistic face and bandaged hands is turned towards the grated window, and brings to mind a hospital ward. This was indeed the context of the work that was previously on display in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Hamburger Bahnhof – where, the patient, gazing out of a window, was looking at a hospital, which placed the work squarely in the stream of institutional criticism. Here, the sickness and wounds are a reference to war wounds, and the mock-up hospital ward functions as a protective shelter, just as the building itself did during the war. The context of the window in the bunker nevertheless introduces a rather comical tone, for immediately adjacent to this building a hotel has now been built – the walls of the two buildings are only the pavement’s width apart. Thus, the patient looks out at one of the hotel rooms; on more than one occasion in the past its guests have been known to call the police, thinking it was a real person (the hotel reportedly offers a discount on this particular room).
One of the artists most prolifically represented in the Boros collection is Olafur Eliasson. His Ventilator (1997) swings on a rope a dozen or so metres up against the white walls, to the rhythm of the revolutions of a fan. When the room is empty the trajectory of its movement is regular, but it is disturbed by the currents of air produced by people coming into the room. This is another deeply metaphoric work that takes on a new dimension in juxtaposition with the context of the place: humans destroy a settled order, but – significantly for the interpretation of this work – do so unintentionally.
In total, there are 3,000 square metres of exhibition space and no way of mentioning all the works or even all the artists. I have selected a theme that most directly links the art with its locus. An ideal work with which to round off this overview is Construction and installation of tar-coated forms of 75 × 75 × 800 cm organized in two spaces (2002/2008) by Santiago Sierra. As the title indicates, these are extremely elongated hexagons (four in all) which bore through a wall and which, owing to their size, actually occupy two rooms. The heavy stone blocks created in the process of cutting the necessary openings (using the diamond cutting technique, employed throughout the building to remove sections of wall) lie just beneath the protruding black forms. The work evokes violence and is oppressive. These powerful black things, smelling of pitch, have forced their way into these rooms, and their length, which has necessitated alterations to the wall structure, is completely unjustified.
The Boros Bunker is a space half-private, half-public. There is no logo here, no plaque betraying a name, no captions alongside the works. Visits have to be arranged well in advance. Every member of each group of 12 arriving for the one-and-a-half-hour artistic walk is first served a glass of water. Boros calls the people who come here at the weekends “guests” rather than “visitors”. Yet the public character of the place is evident in the cloakroom and the cash desk, where the 10-euro entrance charge has to be paid. The next face of the collection goes on display this autumn.

Translated from the Polish by Jessica Taylor-Kucia