On a quiet street in Berlin Mitte, between unassuming apartment buildings, cafes and shops stands a monolith that looks like a prison or a fortress. Its presence is imposing and although based on Renaissance stylings and symmetry, it is brutal. Just looking at it brutalizes you; as your eyes move across the building’s surface they feel like they are being scraped by the architecture’s harsh edges and angles. At the entrance are two metal doorways nestled deep inside two archways. A giant boulder blocks one. You go through the other door, hefting its solid metal weight, only to find more stern iron doors frowning at you in the dark cramped quarters. Then the space opens up some and certainly gets brighter. You’ve made it to a small check-in desk above which hangs an enormous old church bell strapped to a huge metal I-beam. The whole apparatus swings swiftly back and forth in silence—its clapper has been removed. The work, For Whom… (2008) by Kris Martin reflects the building itself: large, threatening, repurposed but still bearing reference to its initial use. And like the building, For Whom… presents a moment of cold beauty in the voluminous silence it speaks.
The Boros Collection is housed in a most unique site, one that perfectly embodies the nature of Berlin. Choosing as a home for your art collection, and on top a home for yourself, a bunker from World War II is unique enough, but this one in particular has quite a storied past.
Built in 1942 to protect up to 1,200 civilians during air raids and servicing the nearby Friederichstaße state railway station, the bunker was situated above ground to be a living monument. Somewhat optimistically, the architect Karl Bonatz under the direction of Albert Speer and the Führer himself, planned for the “Reichsbahnbunker Friederichstraße”, and those like it across Germany, to be covered in marble following the war, functioning as imperial memorials. In the final months of the war around 4,000 local residents moved into the bunker. After Berlin fell it was used as a prison by the Red Army.
The communist Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) was faced with the problem of what to do with the bunker, made of reinforced concrete two meters thick on the sides and three on the roof it was practically indestructible. But as a construction of the Nazi regime it was a dubious location for a governmental purpose. Strangely, using the Air Ministry building, headquarters of Herman Göring and his Luftwaffe, didn’t seem to pose the same problem and was the site where the DDR itself was founded, later serving as its House of Ministries. With all the concrete it naturally maintains a cool temperature and so the East Germans ended up using the bunker to store tropical fruit. Due to the majority of fruit it stored, bananas imported from comrades in Cuba, Reichsbahnbunker Friederichstraße got the nickname “the Banana Bunker.”
After the fall of communism the re-unified Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany) was faced with the same logistical and political concerns as the DDR faced with the bunker. But again using the Nazi Air Ministry building was somehow OK but a bunker that protected civilians was not. Today, rather appropriately, the Air Ministry building is now the headquarters of the German Finance Ministry. The Banana Bunker sat unoccupied, and as tends to happen to such buildings in Berlin, it was thusly turned into a techno music S&M fetish sex club. “The hardest club on Earth” was eventually shut down by the authorities but continued with illegal parties like “The Last Days of Saigon” and “Overtüre der Lust.” Aside from the occasional theatrical production or art exhibition the bunker sat vacant until collector Christian Boros and his wife Karen Lohman purchased the air raid shelter with the intention of refitting it for their art collection in 2003.
Under the direction of architect Jens Caspar, over an arduous five-year period nearly 450 cubic meters of concrete were removed with the help of diamond-tipped cutters. This included removing floors to open up the space since the original ceilings are just barely taller than your head. The largest undertaking was perhaps cutting a giant hole through the roof, where metal rods meant to reinforce the concrete now hang like strands of thread as a metal frame stairway leads up to the Boros’ penthouse residence. The result of all this is a cavernous space that on the one hand is the ultimate in white cubes: a series of windowless rectangular and cubical spaces made of concrete and on the other is one of the most idiosyncratic.
It might seem like the building would completely overpower the artwork, but instead site and object re-enforce and refer back to one another. Some rooms have been painted white others have been left with remnants of graffiti and other traces of the building’s previous uses still on the walls. All of the artists whose works are on view were invited to oversee the installation and pick the locations.
The current installation, which opened to the public when renovations were completed in 2008, includes work by artists such as John Bock, Olafur Eliasson, Sarah Lucas, Tobias Rehberger and Manfred Pernice. One piece that directly interacts with and challenges the bunker’s formidable structure is Santiago Sierra’s Construction and installation of tar-coated forms of 75 × 75 × 800 cm organized in two spaces (2002/2008). Four slick black rectangular columns pierce the incredibly thick wall and extend all the way into the next room. They jut out almost entirely occupying the space you are trying to move through. Neatly placed in front of each hole and resting on wooden skids are the sections cut from the wall that allow the tarred behemoths’ to pass through.
Anselm Reyle, who features quite prominently in the collection, has one room in particular where the architecture and character of the space functions well with the art on view. A large gallery made by removing the floor/ceiling that separated two rooms contains an enormous painting and a sleek black sculpture. The tour guide pointed out the black paint clinging to the walls of the former upper room.
“It used to be a dark room.”
“You mean like developing film?”
“No, like at a sex club.”
Reyle’s Life Enigma (2008) is an enormous homogenized sculpture echoing Henry Moore and the African sculptures that influenced many Modernists. Colorful, trashy and classy, the bronze sculpture is coated in black glittery auto body enamel and it gleams like a shining butt plug in the spotlight.
~ Erik Wenzel, a writer living in Berlin.
(Images: Bunker Exterior; Courtesy Sammlung Boros / Photo: copyright Noshe; Kris Martin, For Whom..., 2008; Courtesy Sammlung Boros / Photo copyright Achim Kukulies; Santiago Sierra, Construction and installation of tar-coated forms of 75 × 75 × 800 cm organized in two spaces, 2002/2008; Anselm Reyle, Left: Life Enigma, 2008, Right: Untitled, 2008; Courtesy Sammlung Boros / Photo: copyright Noshe)