“Time turns metaphors into things” – Robert Smithson
Ruins are often untouchable spaces. The ruin embodies architecture as memory; the site is a host to ghosts, standing half-formed and half-alive as specters from the past, "unregulated" and with "no present function,"—an artifact, as some would say, that transforms the symbolic into the concrete. The influence of the past invades potential futures of the space, so much so that the ruin is trapped in time, a cycle that Robert Smithson attributes as belonging to the “non-historical past." Yet the ruin is also physical; it is how we (visually) touch history. But how does this context change when certain present-day ruins were designed to be so: ruins that are not structures affected by time—indeterminable and distant—but ones that represent the very ethos of the goal, the purpose of the architecture? What are we to make of the buildings that were planned, built, and executed with their predicted, indeed imminent, status as a ruin in mind?
What if ruins were not a remnant of civilization, but the very purpose of it?
Exterior view of the bunker; Photo: © NOSHE
It is through this very unnatural state that Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich, conceived the concept of "ruin value." His buildings were constructed in such a way they would leave aesthetically pleasing ruins for thousands of years into the future. In resistance to its Romantic symbolism, the WWII listed air-raid bunker that houses the Sammlung Boros (the Boros Collection) in Berlin-Mitte is a persistent and tenacious ruin. It is fitting that the building, in addition to its role as a bunker, was envisioned to be part of Hitler's grand vision of "Germania"—which Berlin would have been entirely renewed and renamed—had the Germans triumphed. The architecture of the site, planned by Karl Bonatz under the supervision of Speer, traces a replacement of the Romantic nostalgia for decay with an obstinate structure, standing firmly in the face of destruction surrounding Berlin or Dresden, circa 1945. It is also a “ruin” entirely devoted to contemporary art.
The private collection—despite being contained within a piece of very specific and inescapable history—is exceptionally current, featuring works from the '90s along with many recent pieces. Collected by Christian and Karen Boros, the acquisitions on view within the five-story cement fortress are bought the year the work is made—“they never collect backward,” one guide notes. Out of the 700 works that make up the Boros collection, 130 individual pieces are on view. The exhibition, only the second to open within the collection’s walls, capitalizes on its context, resonating with the oppressive architecture of the space to expand on themes of access, boundaries, dramatic representation of time, and the fall-out of expected outcomes. Sound within the space is deadened by the concrete walls, which are two meters thick in most instances.
The installation is unique in the sense that each of the twenty-three artists on display installed and adapted their pieces to fit the space. A type of site-specificity permeates the many works on view; the tension between straight installation and painting is strangely indiscernible within the automatic specificity awarded by the bunker walls. The galleries operate like a maze, meandering through and opening up to different experiences, different worlds, within the tight confines of the low ceilings, and expanses of paint peeled away by the years. Swaths of torn red and grey sweep the starkness of the walls. Certain spaces have been renovated by the collectors, refinished with white walls and fluorescent lights—glimpses into the typical white cube, greeting the viewer with momentary lapses into a less demanding and weighted context.
Michael Sailstorfer, Forst (01), 2010, Electric motor, steel, one oak tree, Installation view Boros Collection, 2012; Photograph by Katy Hamer.
In one of the stark white-walled galleries, a tree hangs upside down from a motorized fixture, slowly turning to trace its branches in a circle on the floor. Its leaves, still tinged with a faint green in certain small passages of foliage, are the only indication that this tree was not cut down so long ago—its current state, inverted and infinitely rotating, is still fresh in its consciousness. This is Forst (01), by Michael Sailstorfer, an oak tree slowly turning itself to dust. Just as ruins are endowed with their own symbols, the piece is a classical nod to Romanticism, taking the image of the tree and overturning it. Its reversal mimics a similar formula in Romantic literature—Shelley’s blasted tree, or Milton’s Tree of Life in Paradise Lost—as a direct representation of a natural object injected with sentimentality, but in a way that teases and undermines its own seriousness. The mechanized component within the piece is a slight, a purposeful affront to the Romantic idea of retreat from an industrialized world. The tree, if we insist on its personification, is more like Sisyphus: it exists. The tree is a material, not a symbol.
An emphasis on materiality, seen through the guise of romance, is a recurring pattern throughout the collection. Alicja Kwade’s work is featured multiple times throughout the various rooms of the bunker. In one small alcove of the space, what resembles a shattered mirror lies broken and separated on the dark and unfinished concrete floors, spot lit so that the fragments glisten in the dim and limited light. The piece is not fragile; though the site appears tenuous and breakable, it is in fact cast out of hard metal, staged as a perfect accident, a careful catastrophe. Much like the space, Unter anderer Bedingung [Among Other Conditions] braces itself for a descent that never comes, instead existing in this parallel state of expectancy. While the material admits its strength, the image of the unbreakable metal is never at ease, never without trepidation.
In another work of Kwade’s, Parallelwelt, two identical lamps are separated (severed) by a slice of mirror. The sculpture allows you to navigate the object in the round, forever adjusting and readjusting its parameters—is that the green lamp or the white?—through the trompe l’oeil of the reflection. While one object certainly does not feed into the other, there is the hesitance, the unanswered question, of how our eyes are unable to discern such a clear and obvious trick. The mistrust, or faltering of objects, is something Kwade navigates often. A third work, Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 4), pictures various materials—geometric pieces of wood, glass, and metal—ostensibly melting down the wall. In the process of the objects losing their concreteness, their faith is also lost. The betrayal of gravity is a symbol of mistrust in its most basic of forms.
Alicja Kwade, Parallelwelt, 2012, Installation view Boros Collection, 2012; Courtesy Sammlung Boros
Perhaps the most fascinating architectural element of the Boros Collection is the Scissor Stairs, or double-helix stairs—invented by da Vinci—the only vertical access point throughout the bunker. The staircase is made up of two independently intertwined structures, designed such that whoever is climbing the stairs can see their opposite, but never intersect with them. Civilians on one side, power on the other. If the status of this “ruin” is to harbor the affect of the past, the sense of authority within the collection’s walls is overwhelmingly preserved, if not heightened over time. In the face of such historical precedence, the work within the bunker pauses the trajectory of the site’s past, relegating its status as a ruin into something less predictable, less determinable—a “non-historical” space defined not by its inability to exist separately from history, but through its ability to change its future.
 Robert Smithson, "I am convinced," he wrote, "that the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the nonhistorical past; it is in yesterday's newspapers, in the jejune advertisements of science fiction movies, in the false mirror of our rejected dreams. Time turns metaphors into things, and stacks them up in cold rooms, or places them in the celestial playgrounds of the suburbs."
[Image on top: Alicja Kwade, Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 4), 2009, Installation view Boros Collection, 2012; Courtesy Sammlung Boros]