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Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Bunker, Berlin

By Andrew Mulenga

The Bunker – you can also call it Reichsbahnbunker except, in Berlin, Germany it seems somehow, everybody speaks or at least can speak English -- can be described as arguably one of the most unusual, yet captivatingly absorbing gallery spaces anywhere in the world.

Like many buildings on the Eastern side of Berlin, this structure does not by any means serve its original purpose and has been used for several things over the years from a banana storage facility to a hive of underground nightclubs and sex party spaces for young revellers.

Boasting concrete walls, two metres thick, The Bunker
was constructed in 1943 by Nazi Germany, it now hosts a
private art collection – Picture by Andrew Mulenga
Completed by forced labourers in 1942, it was originally built as a bomb-proof air-raid shelter -- with outer walls of up to 2 metres of reinforced concrete -- to provide safety for at least 3,000 civilians near a train station during World War II. According to a lively young art historian, gallery assistant and tour guide Marie-Therese Bruglacher, the building was also designed to serve as a reminder of the war after the rest of “Germania” was built. Not much is said about Germania in the history books, however, after winning the war, this was to be the gleaming new capital from which the Führer would rule the Greater German ‘World Empire’, and it would be the cornerstone of the civilised world, except things did not really work out as planned.

Nevertheless, today, a 5-floor military bunker in the middle of the Mitte district of Berlin is home to over 700 hundred works of contemporary art that belong to advertising guru Christian Boros and wife Karen. The couple – and their two children --  actually live on the top floor of the gallery, in a glass-walled penthouse and occasionally come down to enjoy their collection, although they have now opened it up to the public and the Bunker runs as a full time gallery, complete with qualified staff and guided tours twice a week.

A viewer takes in Florian Meisenberg's 2011 series
Magic Moments of Homeopathy,
picture by Andrew Mulenga
Boros purchased the bunker in 2003 and began to convert it to house his collection and after four years, he displayed about 130 of his works to the public, mainly installations, and according to gallery statistics, by 2012 the first exhibition attracting 120,000 visitors and over 7,500 tours.
The tours are booked by appointment and from Thursday to Saturday, viewers are charged a small fee and although the works have a theme that is directly linked to Berlin as a city, the Boros collection has pieces made by artists from all over the world. The current display of over 130 select works includes a wide range of media, such as installation, painting, drawing, sculpture, video and photography, the featured artists are Ai Weiwei, Awst & Walther, Dirk Bell, Cosima von Bonin, Marieta Chirulescu, Thea Djordjadze, Olafur Eliasson, Alicja Kwade, Klara Lidén, Florian Meisenberg, Roman Ondák, Stephen G. Rhodes, Thomas Ruff, Michael Sailstorfer, Tomás Saraceno, Thomas Scheibitz, Wolfgang Tillmans, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Danh Vo, Cerith Wyn Evans und Thomas Zipp.

Ink and Sugar, 2007 by Thomas Scheibitz at The Bunker,
Berlin - Picture by Andrew Mulenga
But what is perhaps most striking is that as you walk through the labyrinth of tunnels, large and small rooms, all of different sizes -- despite most of the installation works involving motion, sound and video, looking at the graffiti-riddled, bare concrete walls, one cannot help but try to imagine the previous occupants and uses of the space. Depending on the fertility of your imagination, you can perhaps here the din of 3000 civilians seeking shelter from an allied forces air-raid at the height of World War II in 1943, or maybe you can imagine the shouting commands of soldiers from Russia’s Red Army who used the facility to cage prisoners of war during the fall of Nazi Berlin in 1945, perhaps you can imagine how it smelled in 1957 when fruits were very rare in East Germany and so it was converted into a warehouse for imported tropical fruit from Cuba, and was managed by a state-owned company “Fruit Vegetables Potatoes”, a time it was known as the “banana bunker”. Maybe you can imagine the sounds that echoed in the space when Techno music, fetish parties and drug binges were the norm in 1992 when it gained the reputation as “the hardest club in the world” or perhaps you can imagine “Sexperimenta”, a massive erotic trade fair that took place in the building in 1995 the same year the space was shut down by the authorities because of an outrageous New Year’s Party.

Michael Sailstorfer’s Popcorn Machine 2008,
has been churning out hot popcorn for close
to two years - Picture by Andrew Mulenga
Nevertheless, perhaps it takes a wild mind's eye and animated tour guide to plant such imaginings in your head, but the shear unconventionality of the Boros Collection is sure to keep your mind on the art and nothing else as you walk through the work that comprises a dried tree installation that fills an entire room by Ai Weiwei, the infamous Chinese artist and government critic who gave the world the Beijing National Stadium or “Bird’s Nest” among other things, or you try to get past the spider-like webs of an installation by Tomás Saraceno – whose work actually is inspired by the many species of spiders that he purposefully breads in his studio. As you get drained by walking around the 80 rooms that are filled with art, in one of them, you are confronted by the delicious smell of fresh popcorn, but don’t expect to see a kiosk, instead there is Michael Sailstorfer’s Popcorn Machine (2008), which has continuously been churning out hot puffs of popcorn for close to two years, but don’t try any as the guide warns it is probably tasteless and has been lying there for way too long. The popcorn fills an entire room and like many other installations in the gallery, it is activated by sensors when someone walks in also the gallery is not short of dazzling paintings, some of them quite cheeky like Florian Meisenberg's 2011 Magic Moments of Homeopathy series although portrayed in flat, two-dimensional forms, the two bent over images leave little to the imagination.

Flying Garden 2007, by Tomas Sacareno
- Picture by Andrew Mulenga
No doubt the collection is mind-boggling as is the selection of the artists varied, and in an interview with Kimberly Bradley for ArtReview, when asked about his favourite artists, Boros responded “My favourite artists… haunt me, they crawl over the bedsheets”.

In a different interview with German Curator and Art Historian Axel Lapp, Boros emphasised the difference between his gallery and a museum and also mentioned that he, as a collector does not curate, he instead host’s and that there was a big difference.

 “It’s mainly a private space. It’s a public space only on two days of the week, and even then it’s only half public. I distinguish here very clearly. On Saturday, I don’t have visitors: I have guests. I say hello, they get something to drink, they are not just able to see art here, but they are part of my private space. They are told about the building, they get to hear about my wife and me. When I leave, they thank me. Nobody does this in a museum, and no one says thank you, because he was a visitor – and here he is a guest. This is two days per week and the rest is private anyway,” stated Boros “It would be curating if I made relations between three artists or something like that. I invite the artists over and ask them where they want to put the things that they sold me. Therefore, I’m a host and not a curator”.

And one of Boros official gallery statements reads: “Art is created to be noticed. It should not be allowed to disappear into boxes and storerooms; it should be put on display. Collecting brings with it certain obligations.”

Concerning that last statement, one cannot help but be reminded of the dispossessed Lechwe Trust Collection in Zambia. The Lechwe Trust, an arts charity overseen and founded by veteran artist and philanthropist Cynthia Zukas MBE has no permanent space to accommodate the hundreds of works that it has collected for just over two decades. This collection of mainly sculptures and paintings by some of Zambia’s top artists living and departed, is currently stored in two containers, except for occasions when it is exhibited in hired spaces such as galleries and museums, or in situations like the present where a fraction of the work is on display at the American Embassy in Lusaka. With several works by the forefathers of contemporary Zambian art such as Henry Tayali and Akwila Simpasa, the collection remains a very important preservation of Zambia’s cultural history as many of the works would have wound up in collections abroad, considering Zambia’s lack of a specific collecting policy for works that can be considered important.

But, recent activities, however, indicate the possibility of a permanent space, the Aylmer May Cemetery Restoration Trust is developing part of its land into a business complex in Rhodes Park which may include an area allocated free for the Lechwe Trust gallery, however, the art charity is still expected to raise money to get the project going if indeed the space will be accordingly allocated.
Meanwhile, in case you missed the opening, you can still catch a glimpse of Water, a solo exhibition of paintings by Lusaka-based artist and adventurer Quentin Allen at the Zebra Crossing Café/Ababa House on the corner of Twikatane Road off Addis Ababa Drive, Lusaka, near the Manda Hill footbridge. Allen, who has been traversing the wilderness of the Muchinga escarpment for decades, never disappoints with his breath-taking landscapes of some of Zambia’s most scenic yet inaccessible open spaces, again in this show, he brings them right to your door step and although the economy may be biting at the moment, the artist is known to have a price for every pocket, for an artist of his standing, some works are relatively a bargain, the show runs until 4 November. 

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