This Nazi-era bunker shelters one of Berlin's finest private collections of contemporary art. Advertising guru Christian Boros acquired the behemoth in 2003 and converted it into a shining beacon of art. Book online (months ahead, if possible) to join a guided tour (also in English) of works by such hot shots as Wolfgang Tilmanns, Olafur Eliasson and Ai Weiwei and to pick up fascinating nuggets about the building's colorful past as a tropical fruit warehouse and techno and fetish club.
CHRISTIAN BOROS / ART BUNKER
Sarah Hegenbart: You get around a lot; you go to art fairs all over the world; you know artists in many different cities… In your opinion, how is Berlin different from other art capitals? What makes Berlin different from London, New York or Paris?
Christian Boros: Whenever I go to Paris, London and New York and tell people I come from Berlin, I always notice their eyes start gleaming. It is really quite confusing, because I am fascinated by these three cities: I find them exciting and wonderful and yet I am envied because I come from Berlin. I definitely think that Berlin is glorified, internationally. Everyone in the art scene dreams of Berlin, and I believe this fascination is founded in various different things, there’s not a single cause. If it were just that Berlin was cheap, it wouldn’t be enough to bring forth this fascination. There always have to be multiple reasons coming together, like a secret recipe, in order to fascinate: Wuppertal is cheap too. It does not explain the fascination for Berlin.
SH: What are the other reasons? Would you say that it is attributable to Berlin’s history, for example the Golden Twenties, another time that Berlin held this mythical status?
CB: Yes, I believe this ‘secret recipe’ consists first and foremost of history. A genius loci never loses its karma. Rome will always be strong, because it used to be strong. Berlin has a tradition, a mix of history and the fact that it is a capital city of a particular population size. And then there is this mix of imperfection and curiosity. The city’s imperfection is central to the fascination it inspires. Cities like Paris, which are so perfect, have a wonderful building structure and so on and so forth… - they are complete, society is organised, you know who belongs and who doesn’t. Structures that are complete are never as fascinating, because you cannot shape them anymore: they are at the end of their development. Berlin is not at the end of its development; it is in the middle of the process. Berlin is finding itself. The structures of who belongs, who are the opinion leaders, these structures are not yet completed. This means that, even as a young person coming in, you have the chance and opportunity to become part of the relevant set, which is very difficult in Paris. In Hamburg you need to have lived there for three generations to be able to participate. Berlin, on the other hand, is still a city coming into being. There are possibilities to become part of the game.
SH: You mean this openness, this equality of opportunity, where everyone can participate and fill the gaps.
CB: Berlin has these gaps that can still be occupied by artists. In cities such as London or New York that is a lot more difficult, because the relevant chairs are already occupied. Here there are still open spaces. Of course, there are also the cheap rent prices, and moreover, the cheap partying, the cheap going-out and drinking. I mean, artists don’t want to sit in their studios all day and fight with the canvas. They want to go out, they want to drink a beer and eat in company. I believe that people are even more interested in other people than they are in art. Berlin is a place where a social life is financially possible, even for someone who doesn’t have a lot of money. You can join the drinking and eating without having to be invited.
SH: What are the defining qualities of Berlin, would you say?
CB: Openness and curiosity. In other cities, when you’re getting to know someone, he will tell you everything that he is doing. In Berlin he listens to what you have to say. I experience this all the time: Berlin is a very curious city towards strangers.
SH: Perhaps you could also tell us a little bit about how you discovered the bunker [which now houses Christian Boros’ private collection] and about how much Berlin has changed since then. If you were to see the bunker for the first time tomorrow, would it even still be possible for you to build up your collection there, to transform it into such a great art space?
CB: There was a time in Berlin when you didn’t have to look, you just found. There were so many buildings screaming for a makeover. I think that was before the great real estate hype, when international investors flocked into the city. During that decade Berlin wasn’t taken very seriously, because it was just so cheap.
SH: Around 2000?
CB: Yes. It wasn’t like I was searching for a bunker; I was merely looking for a space that used to have a different purpose. I didn’t want to move my collection into a new building, but to a place with history. And there used to be plenty of those around here. I was offered former schools, hospitals, a rheumatism clinic, a swimming bath, and a bunker. I think it is very exciting to show how art can transform spaces. I liked the idea of doing this in a bunker which had been used in so many different ways. It was a great experiment to try and see whether the art could handle the building.
SH: Especially considering the long history, I mean, the bunker is really a symbol for Berlin’s history…
CB: The history of the GDR, the invasion of the Russians, and even the Nazis; there are traces of all phases of Berlin’s most recent history here, so this building has a lot to do with both Berlin and Germany. In 1940 they still believed in the final victory and constructed a building that appropriate for the proposed city of Germania. So it looks like a sacred castle: it reflected the utopia of expected victory, and the bunkers which could not be demolished were supposed to fit nicely into the majestic cityscape. During the war the building was bombed, which left plenty of wounds – a symbol of Berlin’s defeat. Then it became a Russian prison for the Nazis; that’s part of Berlin’s history as well. In the GDR, bananas from Cuba were stored here, and in the Nineties techno music was founded here, Wolfgang Tillmans took his first pictures here… The bunker represents every phase that Berlin has experienced since 1940.
Sven Mündner: How has Berlin changed since the Nineties?
CB: A lot has changed since this used to be a techno bunker and part of the ‘scene’. Thomas Scheibitz has lived only a couple of houses away from the bunker ever since the fall of the Wall. He says that this used to be borderland, a very tough area where you were not allowed to get close to the Wall without permission. It was no-man’s-land. Then the wall came down and this became the centre, the nucleus of the ‘scene’. Nowadays I am in the tourist centre of Berlin. There are no more artists around here, only busses with tourists that get off and take pictures of the bunker. It has almost become an art-free zone, because this centre here, these few square kilometres, have become the most expensive area in all of Berlin. There are no more artists, only tourists.
SM: Would you consider this a bad development and would you like to change that?
CB: No, no, I think that is simply the way it goes. It happens. You cannot turn this into an artificial island again, and build a wall to keep out those from Swabia and Wuppertal, just because they increase bread, butter and rent prices. It is perfectly normal that things change and that there are phases in which things are cheap, then they get more expensive, then too expensive and finally it becomes uncool again. That’s how cities change. I don’t think we can talk about good or bad developments here.
SH: Are you specifically interested in artists living in Berlin? I am thinking of Anselm Reyle, Olafur Eliasson, Wolfgang Tillmans…
CB: Absolutely! I am currently collecting Klara Liden’s work, for example. It’s so much easier to meet up if someone lives in Berlin. On Monday I met Wolfgang Tillmans, yesterday it was Thomas Scheibitz, next week Klara Liden. You get together for a glass of wine and some cheese, and that makes collecting easier, because you can have a chat without making big arrangements or flying anywhere. You just meet up. That’s great!
SH: It allows you to discuss the work with the artists more intensely, I suppose. Have you noticed any particular changes recently, with regards to artists moving in the city? Or any new trends in artists’ practive? For example, performance art is a big topic in London these days…
CB: Well, Berlin stays exciting. Someone from London or Paris will hardly notice that artists move around in Berlin; that they move from Mitte or Kreuzberg to Neukölln and Wedding. In Berlin you always feel like everything changes, but the artists stay in Berlin, and that certain areas get more expensive or that people move, that’s quite normal, I believe. It’s a Berlin view, to think that everything changes. But internationally Berlin has been a centre for art production for a long time and will continue to be so, because there are still hundreds and thousands of square metres of space. I believe Berlin will continue to bring forth great art for many, many more years. That is one answer to your question. The other answer: ten to fifteen years ago there was a trend towards making large work. Franz Ackermann used to paint on 3m x 3m canvasses; Olafur Eliasson made large installations in gigantic studios with fifty assistants; Anselm Reyle with forty assistants. The most recent exciting confrontations I had with art were in smaller studios with smaller works and sparse materials. Last night I talked to Dirk Bell about a work that is just 15cm x 20cm, highly concentrated. I think that the materials and the aesthetics will become more sparse and demure…
SH: I remember visiting Anselm Reyle’s studio and he employed so many people, he even had someone searching on eBay for interesting objects to use in his work! The artists had become the supervisors to their assistants. What you mentioned sounds like a return to more traditional means of production…
CB: I think it has something to do with the crisis as well, and that studios have become more expensive and artists can’t afford the big ones. That’s a normal development, too.
SM: How do you explain the near-mythical status that Berlin exerts on contemporary art practice?
CB: The mythical status of Berlin is based on the fact that you have to fight with very few limitations. A lot is possible here. To feel free is very attractive and erotic. On top of that, the city is bursting with artists. The artists are connected: they don’t work in solitude but in conversation with each other. They know each other und that creates a very healthy competitive atmosphere in which they stimulate each other. I know artists who work in complete solitude somewhere in Denmark; that is a completely different production process to here. When you meet each other at King’s Size on the dance floor or at a bar somewhere in Kreuzberg… - this healthy rivalry and competition sparks off the production. The fact that Berlin is still developing means that there are still a lot of possibilities for participation here.
SH: Which means the myth can be filled anew constantly. In London we are still talking about the YBAs, even though that was such a long time ago. That myth is so outdated, whereas in Berlin the myth is constantly being refilled and reanimated and enriched with new aspects. That is what keeps it so alive.
CB: Yes, you’re right. I started buying art in London after the Frieze exhibition by Damien Hirst. I met Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin and Mark Quinn, but it was a very short time. It was a brief window – there was a lot of poverty, unemployment and fatalism in London – when the artists came. Everything popped up very quickly, and then the chapter was closed. It’s different in Berlin, because Berlin is still in the process and not completed yet. Cities are considered dead and boring for art production only when they are completed, and that’s still far off. The myth is still being created here.
SH: Is there an art work that captures this Berlin spirit for you?
CB: I think the work of Manfred Pernice really reflects Berlin’s patchwork, crafty and process-like state. His work deals a lot with architecture; his cans and blocks reflect what is often called the Verdosung [‘containerisation’] of society.
SH: A last question: What do you consider will be the next ‘mythical’ city or art capital to replace Berlin?
CB: Complement. Not replace, but complement. Istanbul and Warsaw, I think.
BERLIN / CITY OF COOL
+ SOHO HOUSE
+ DAS STUE
+ HOTEL LENIN
+ BUNKER BOROS
Art aficionados will find their compass on perpetual spin in Berlin. Home to 440 galleries, scores of world-class collections and some 10,000 international artists, it has assumed a pole position on the global artistic circuit. Adolescent energy, restlessness and experimental spirit combined and infused with an undercurrent of grit are what give this ‘eternally unfinished’ city its street cred. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin’s abundant space and relatively low cost of living have made it a haven for international emerging artists. Most labour in obscurity but there have also been some notable breakthroughs.