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A bunker of one’s own

Nazi bomb shelter, GDR warehouse, techno club, and since Christian and Karen Boros purchased the Mitte heritage-listed bunker in 2003, one the most intriguing sites to experience contemporary art. We take a peek inside.

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Photo by Wolfgang Stahr

Moving from Wuppertal in western Germany, private collectors Christian and Karen Boros purchased the Mitte heritage-listed bunker in 2003 in order to publicly present part of their 700-work multi-media collection, while taking up residence in the bunker penthouse themselves. Their first exhibition of Berlin contemporary art opened in 2008 and drew 120,000 visitors over the last four years. Featuring 130 works from 23 artists, Sammlung #2 opened in September. With Karen Boros as our guide, Exberliner took a peek.

Once a Nazi bomb shelter, then a GDR-era Cuban banana warehouse, then a post-Wende fetish and techno club, today the eye-grabbing 3000sqm cement bunker has been reincarnated into what the charismatic cherub-cheeked advertising mogul Christian Boros calls his “Hobbykeller”.

Though extensively renovated by the couple, the walls remain pockmarked with bullet holes, and air vents and glimpses of the thick exterior edifice constantly remind visitors of the building’s past lives as they wind through what Karen Boros describes as the “labyrinth” of the bunker’s five storeys.

Each of the 80 windowless rooms presents a single artist, with some given free rein to install their own art. As a whole, the works feel brave, pressing and relevant. “What do we look for? A lot of times it’s irritation and not understanding and wanting to understand,” says the 50-something Karen Boros as she regally swans through a room, ever the perfect hostess.

First view: Olafur Eliasson’s brass and mirror Orientation Star and gradient wheel, Colour Experiment no.10, a nod to the Berlin-based artist who dominated Sammlung #1. Ten works from Berlin’s Alicja Kwade anchor this second exhibition.

With the sublime smashed steel Unter anderer Bedingung, a cast based on a shattered glass pane, and the intriguing Parallelwelt (Ast/Antiast) I, a gangly rubber faux-branch standing beside its authentic twin, Kwade restlessly plays with form and illusion. “Alicja’s work is about what is real, what is unreal; what you think of a piece; what material, what consistency may be possible beyond that. We were fascinated by her different approaches.”

Complementing Tomás Saraceno’s utopian suspended plastic orbs and Cosima von Bonin’s Alice in Wonderland-like pastel felt mushrooms, Kwade’s Bordsteinjuwelen, eight black pebbles polished like diamonds in a chiaroscuro-lit glass case, explores this re-evaluation of reality and nature. “Elements from nature, but portrayed in a completely different way.

With the cut stones you don’t even really think of nature anymore, you don’t realise where it comes from. Only when you think, ‘What is it actually – is it a precious stone? Or a very simple stone?’” This urge to take a closer look at the everyday rings through the 38 Wolfgang Tillmann photos taken from the late 1980s and 1990s – from the Kate Moss portrait Kate with Broccoli, which used to hang in the Boros’ upstairs apartment, to Tillman’s series of techno DJs, like Richie Hawtin in his father’s living room.

They feel particularly pertinent here considering that Tillmann frequented the premises when it still was a techno club. Boros acquired the series back when Tillmann was barely an emerging artist, and the photos are the oldest works in Sammlung #2. “We always buy pieces that are produced in that particular time. We will never go back and buy something that was made in say, 2001.”

While Sammlung #1 focused on space, there is an emphasis in #2 on the interplay of sensory impressions. The odour of decay seeps through the floors thanks to the burning rubber of Michael Sailstorfer’s Zeit ist keine Autobahn, a wheel running against the wall, looking onto Volks, his jungle of hanging inner tubes knotted like balloon animals.

Sailstorfer’s nostril assault continues with 1:43 – 47, a raucous operational popcorn cart, kernels mashing underfoot; and Forst, his inverted willow tree rotating on a motorised axis, leaves and branches brutally sweeping the floor, its slow and inevitable deterioration exposed to all.

Ai Weiwei’s leafless Tree, purchased the day before Weiwei was arrested, similarly explores violence against nature. Chopped into jigsaw pieces and bolted together, the imposing gnarled trunk was one of the original pieces chosen for the exhibition – despite its logistical challenges. “We had to open up the balcony on two levels in order to lift it up there with chains. We were not even sure it would fit – it did by only a few centimetres.”

Boros spent a year smashing down bombproof walls – a dogged perseverance fuelled by infinite resources of passion and money. The extraordinary result is a nod to the collectors’ nature-defying ethos, an impression reinforced by Karen Boros’ goddess-like poise.

Sound, too, leaks through the bunker – “It wasn’t planned, but it came out that it was very sensual” – as a sudden organ chord filters down or Thomas Zipps’s bronze bell clangs noisily overhead. The result is an experience of hearing the passage of time, intensified by the bunker. Thea Djordjadze’s e i, a reflective cadran-like ceramic plate, gently clicks time with different noises denoting second, minute and hour, while the ground floor buzzes with Kwade’s Der Tag ohne gestern (Dimension 1-11), the constant drone of fluorescent lights thrown back amongst the curls of varnished black steel.

“Being in here, the outside is so far away. You don’t know what the weather is like or what time it is, so time could stand still here, but then again, you become so much aware of it because you can hear it almost on all the levels.” That said, the splendid penthouse atop surely has a perfect view of the weather…