The heavy door of a World War II bomb shelter in central Berlin shuts with an ominous metallic clang as you turn a dark corner and step gingerly over Olafur Eliasson’s driftwood logs in the twisting entrance tunnel.
This dungeon-like monstrosity of a building is a maze of corridors, stairwells, and 2-meter-thick (6 foot) concrete walls. With an absence of windows it should not, logically, be a good place to display art. Built in 1942 under the direction of Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, it was designed to protect as many as 2,000 rail passengers from allied raids.
It has since served as a Soviet jail, a banana depot and a venue for hardcore S&M raves. Then Christian Boros, who amassed a fortune in advertising, bought it in 2003, and turned it into an exhibition space for his extensive contemporary-art collection with a family home in a glass penthouse on the roof.
His quirky new exhibition is part adventure playground, part treasure hunt. A turned corner reveals whimsical treats such as Wolfgang Tillmans’s photograph of Kate Moss brandishing a broccoli as though it was a perfectly normal thing to do in a portrait. The oppressiveness of the architecture dissipates as the homely smell of popcorn wafts down a staircase from Michael Sailstorfer’s installation -- a popcorn machine.
The creepiness returns with Alicja Kwade’s atomic clock, its amplified ticking following you down one corridor like the relentless footsteps of time, impossible to escape.
Boros calls the overground bomb shelter “a hobby cellar” for himself and his wife, Karen Boros. In the four years since it opened, the “Boros Bunker,” as it’s known locally, has attracted 120,000 visitors, with tours in 11 languages.
“Nothing better could have happened to this ugly building than to be taken over by the free-spiritedness of art,” the 47-year-old entrepreneur said at the opening of the new exhibition, the first time the show has changed in four years.
Ai Weiwei’s tree is the biggest piece in the show. Actually a collection of sections of different camphor trees, it is fitted together using ancient Chinese joinery techniques. Boros said he bought it the day before Ai was arrested. The price may have been higher if he’d delayed a week.
Boros said he hands over the keys of the place to the artists to install their own works. The night before the new exhibition opened, he came home late from a reception to see a light still burning. Thomas Zipp, whose dark paintings portray clouds and skeletons, was adding a layer to the mortar in the bricks of a wall. His sign saying “Please paint it white” was still there in the morning.
A collection of Klara Liden’s trash cans recalls the days when the building was a club. They look completely at home here, in a way that they wouldn’t in a pristine white cube.
The only artwork produced for the exhibition is wittily site-specific. Instead of windows, the shelter has ventilation holes drilled into its thick walls. On the wall opposite one of these, Manon & Benjamin Awst & Walther embedded an arrow for their work “The Line of Fire.”
The first reaction on spotting the aperture and the trees outside is to duck to avoid the next shot.
The Welsh-German artist couple has also installed long tubes of metal, blocking an upper corridor and forcing you to step over them. It came as a surprise to realize the poles really penetrate the concrete walls, and that you can peer through them from one room into another across the hallway.
Visits to the Boros bunker are by tour only. To reserve, go to http://www.sammlung-boros.de.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on art, Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art and James Russell on architecture.