Silke Hohmann

A talk with Christian and Karen Boros

Silke Hohmann: Your first presentation of the collection in the bunker stayed in place for four years. How did it feel to replace the exhibition with a new version of the Boros ­Collection? 

Christian Boros: For us, it’s very important that we can allow ourselves this kind of time. Museums and other venues would never be able to operate in such a slow way, but we can. And that in itself is unusual. 

Karen Boros: When the first presentation was taken down after four years, I was sad that I had to say goodbye to the works. Because even if the art belongs to us—who knows when we’ll see it again? There aren’t all that many opportunities to show a given work, and it can take quite a few years to include it in a new exhibition context. That was one of the reasons why we showed the first exhibition for such a long time. But then, when everything was empty again and we unpacked the works and had a look at them, we were incredibly happy. 

SH: Were there other reasons that the one and a half years originally planned turned out to be four?

CB: Quite simply because we received so many requests from people who wanted to see the presentation. 

SH: How do you go about planning the exhibitions?

CB: One key question is which of the works we absolutely want to see again. This goes for older works that we want to put to the test, so to speak, such as Thomas Ruff and Wolfgang Tillmans from the ’90s, 25 years ago. But it also goes for works we acquired recently, for instance Michael Sailstorfer and Alicja Kwade, which we already purchased while they were being installed. There are old and new loves, and combining them has been a marvelous experiment for us. 

SH: How does the “Boros Collection” work, actually? You collect as a couple. Do you always agree on your preferences?

CB: My answer is that there are three Boros Collections. Mine, my wife’s, and our joint collection. 

SH: So there’s no dictate to agree? 

KB: No, the family council does not decide with one vote. 

CB: Why should I block something just because I don’t ­really get it? I’m not drawn to Thea Djordjadze’s work, for ­instance, but follow Thomas Zipp avidly, whose work we also don’t agree on. 

SH: So does that mean you drop the subject, or do you sometimes feel the need to convince each other? 

KB: One another’s interest and enthusiasm in an artist or a particular work is already reason enough to explore it. ­
And so sometimes we change our minds or find some kind of access to the work. 

CB: Wanting to understand never really ends, of course. No, in that sense it’s never over. By the way, I had real difficulties in the beginning with the three artists I then went on to become most profoundly involved with as a collector. 

SH: Who were they?

CB: Wolfgang Tillmans, Olafur Eliasson, and Elizabeth ­Peyton were hard to stomach for me at first! But then my excitement became all the more lasting. 

SH: Did you find one another through art?

KB: Collecting played a role for Christian earlier than it ­did for me. I was always involved with art—I studied art history and worked in a gallery. I had a lot of contact with artists whom Christian had in his collection. Wolfgang Tillmans, Thomas Ruff, Elizabeth Peyton—right away, there were many points of intersection.

CB: I was your client. 

KB: You bought a sculpture by Tobias Rehberger that was on view in the collection’s first presentation. 

CB: I had no idea how to install the work. And so Karen came over with the work and the tools. And while she was standing there on the ladder with the cordless screwdriver in her hand, I fell in love with her. 

SH: You give special emphasis to Wolfgang Tillmans in the new exhibition. Why is that? 

CB: Wolfgang Tillmans made a very deep impression on me. His work proved to be essential to so much in my life, also professionally. Even in terms of how I think about beauty—­
he taught me to perceive the beauty in normal life. This eventually led to a greater reception for works like those of Klara Lidén, even though she does something completely different. But her garbage cans that have found their way into art, for instance, are connected to Tillmans’s aesthetic of the everyday, which taught us to see in a completely new way. In that sense, it’s a very important subject for us, and we value him highly. 

KB: I can still clearly remember the Cologne “Unfair” in 1992. The Buchholz Gallery presented Tillmans in their booth, and my first reaction was quite stark, because the work ­unleashed contradictory feelings in me: it was very good, that was something that couldn’t be disputed, but at the time it didn’t seem clear yet if it was really art. I had a lot of excellent discussions with friends on the subject. In a way, we developed our own criteria and honed them through this friction with Tillmans.

SH: What difficulties did you have with Tillmans’s work ­initially? 

CB: It was probably their incredible privacy. An intimacy that really hurt. I didn’t want to get that close to strangers. The era of the supermodels had just dawned a few years ­earlier, and people became the object of general interest solely because of their flawless beauty. And then, all of a sudden there was this work that was so normal and unpretentious. It almost scared me. 

SH: You’re concentrating exclusively on the portraits and stills from the ’90s. Why is that?

CB: I bought nearly 50 works from him over ten years’ time, but I didn’t buy later works, even the important ones. I’m interested in how he created images of people over a ­decade. Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees (1992), that’s the ­human image of a decade. At the time, I never would have guessed that it would become such an iconic image.

KB: These pictures were packed away in storage for many, many years, and when we unpacked them we were really surprised how contemporary they still are. I don’t think of the ’90s at all when I see these photographs. They’re still very contemporary; there’s nothing anachronistic or nostalgic about them. 

SH: The presentation comes across in part as a series of leitmotifs—his works are hanging on four of five floors. 

CB: We could have handled this on one floor, but we liked the idea of spreading his works out over four floors. Basically, we arranged him vertically. Because that means that walking through the show entails a repeated encounter with a work by Tillmans. 

SH: While visiting the show, I noticed that many of the newer works exert a physical force, as though they were trying to do something impossible. In a similar way to you, with the reconstruction of the bunker. 

CB: Sure, and today it’s no longer possible to think about new works for our collection as though the bunker didn’t exist. It’s always a part of the equation. 

KB: Now we have to debate whether or not a particular work would be good for these rooms. Like with Ai Weiwei’s tree—we had to really ask ourselves how it would look in 
a narrow, windowless space. The motif of the tree in itself as something that grows and has life energy stands in stark contrast to the bunker. This fascinated us. 

CB: Because the works often acquire another kind of power in these windowless cells! After one and a half hours in this series of chambers, people are exhausted when they leave. These are extreme conditions—it’s an encounter with the self, and perhaps even a type of torture. The tour is a kind of pilgrimage. 

SH: And how do the artists themselves evaluate the effect the bunker has on their works? 

CB: The artists make a huge contribution by deciding on the placement of the works and installing them themselves. We invite the artists to do this, we’d never do it ourselves. They are free to act according to their own preferences. In the case of Thomas Zipp, for instance, he always came around 10 p.m., when we were already tired, and he stayed until 3 a.m. Wolfgang Tillmans locked himself in and only requested tea. 

KB: We thought it was going to be extremely difficult, because the bunker is subdivided into so many small rooms, 80 immovable cells—nobody would build a ­museum like that today. Yet that’s exactly what turned out to be so ­positive. 

SH: Why?

CB: With a collection of works as diverse as ours, it wouldn’t be a good idea to just show them all together somehow. The particular qualities of the space help prevent the result from becoming a mere conglomeration. We view the presentation as a collection of small one-person shows. In this way, you can see works by Tomás Saraceno and Thomas Scheibitz one after another without them interfering with or battling one another. 

SH: The young artist duo Awst & Walther were the first to make two works especially for your space—how did this come about?

CB: We’re planning to do this more often in the future: to ask artists to work site-specifically for us. We discovered Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther in a gallery exhibition at Martin Kwade, the brother of the artist Alicja Kwade. We liked their attitude so much that we invited them. Both works toy with the given situation in a strict, yet playful way. Long metal pipes lead through several rooms, while on the other hand a bronze arrow is stuck into a wall, as though someone had shot it from outside through the hole in the bunker wall. 

KB: The hole, by the way, was already there, the result of a trial drill through two meters of cement wall. People feel drawn to this hole. Inside the bunker, one needs, I believe, to think about the outside every once in a while. 

SH: You yourselves live in a penthouse built on the roof of the bunker, above the exhibition. How do you live with the art and the visitors, and how has this changed your lives? 

CB: When we put up the first exhibition, we really couldn’t predict how great the public interest would eventually ­become. In the beginning, we were only open on ­Saturday afternoon, and we employed two people. Since that time, we’ve had 130,000 visitors, some of whom wait four months to be admitted. Which is no ill will on our part; the fire dept. only allows twelve visitors at a time. That’s why the visit is organized in the form of a tour. 80 rooms—­that only works with a tour, with someone who provides assistance. Now, we give around 55 tours per week. 

KB: In other words, we’re never alone. You can hear that we have guests downstairs through the air vents, through our door. Yesterday, at 9:30 in the evening, Thomas Zipp’s bell rang because we’re open until 10 p.m. We not only live with the art, we also live with the guests. 

SH: And besides the guests? 

CB: There are different smells on every floor, which also ­follow us around on a daily basis. We smell the rubber from the friction in Sailstorfer’s work Zeit ist keine Autobahn, Frankfurt (2008), we smell the popcorn, and also the tree hanging upside down and its leaves and branches, which scrape slowly against the floor due to the continuous turning. 

KB: Also, each floor has its own very special sound ambience: Alicja Kwade’s clock, which ticks, or the fluorescent lamps that make a noise when they switch on. The art and the guests are practically our roommates. 

SH: Does it bother you when visitors are mainly interested in the spectacular building, a Second World War bunker, and not the art? 

KB: Not at all. We’re happy over the fact that political ­figures, for example the Israeli ambassador today, come here because they’re interested in how an example of building ­history is dealt with today. If they leave with even a little enthusiasm for contemporary art, all the better. 

CB: I still remember when Lech Kaczyński, the Polish president, was here. Now, due to the special history of the building, we’re on the agenda of many state leaders. You can’t ­really fail to notice that it’s a Nazi bunker. Foreign guests want 
to see how a new generation deals with the fascist legacy. No one can or would want to deny the origin of the building. 

SH: You made the decision to leave the various different traces of usage from the past as is. 

CB: It makes the bunker into a vessel of history. There are legible traces of how the bunker has been used: traces 
of a prison, a techno club, a darkroom. That’s always there. The art we exhibit has to be able to withstand that. 

SH: Do some of the artists have second thoughts?

CB: Thomas Ruff was a little worried when I said: hey, how about hanging the black pictures in the old darkrooms. Because there were darkrooms on the first floor at some point, the walls were painted black, and you can still see that pretty well. Then there’s this horizontal line, and beneath it was the techno floor, with a lot of graffiti. Thomas had never shown his work on such rough walls. And ­despite this, it came out resembling a memorial chapel. 

It was Karen’s idea to show these works on these very walls, like windows to an imaginary outside, into the night.

KB: Thomas Scheibitz also struggled with the former darkroom. The rough walls, partly black, posed a challenge to his works. He finally decided to give them a smoother background, a stretched fabric surface. 

SH: While the first collection presentation had an air of pop, there are surprisingly mystical moments in this one, 
for instance in the works of Thomas Zipp and Dirk Bell.

KB: Dirk Bell’s ceiling work was the first one we bought 
from him, when we still knew absolutely nothing about the bunker’s dimensions. We were completely fascinated by 
the way the work is conceived as a ceiling piece. By these incredible mythical figures, the fantasy, this old master quality, the symbolism. 

CB: Actually, this collection presentation embodies contradictions. This exhibition is more difficult than the previous one—it’s less obvious, when I think of the Anselm Reyles and Olafur Eliassons from the former exhibition series. They were all far more opulent. This time, though, it was important to us to counter that. 

SH: And do viewers react differently, too?

KB: They’re surprised, and many have said that it’s not ­typical for our collection. The exhibition does not clearly articulate preferences. 

CB: But preferences change, that much is obvious. Two people collecting for over thirty years—think about how unexciting it would be if we always remained predictable. 

SH: To what extent did your interests change? 

CB: Things I thought were important thirty years ago no longer interest me today. When I was 25, I was heavily influenced by the Young British Artists. I was young, and I found 
artists like Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin fantastic. The sexual component, the loudness, this screaming out of emotion, the eruptive power of it all. Conversations with Tracey Emin about being raped, about her abortions—­although I was shocked, I found it all very important and relevant. Today, I’m more interested in nuances, quieter ­approaches such as that of Marieta Chirulescu, very different from the motifs that really hit me in the gut back then.

KB: For me, it’s more about sculptures and installations that fascinate and challenge me today. The appropriation and ­alteration of a room and the effect that has on our own physical presence is an intriguing aspect of sculpture. Each time I enter Klara Lidén’s Teenage Room (2009), I get a chill from all the different feelings I have—anxiety, curiosity, mysteriousness. 

SH: Your collection is largely western—the artwork by ­
Ai Weiwei is the only one from an Asian country. Why is that? 

CB: Admittedly, until recently we’ve had little contact to Asian culture. And we thought about whether or not to integrate Ai Weiwei into the collection for a long time. He was the only artist, probably in part due to the fact that he lived in New York, who was able to create a connection to things that are also important in our society. 

KB: For us, it began with the works he showed at Documenta 12. We explored his work for a long time, and we knew about this tree—a key piece, and huge. 

CB: Then everything happened all at once. One Saturday afternoon, we decided that we wanted to buy this work of Ai Weiwei’s, and the next day, Sunday, Ai Weiwei was 
arrested at 10 a.m.

SH: It’s important to you that you were already interested in his work before the huge media attention began? 

CB: It’s important to him, too, as he told us when we visited him right after his release in Beijing. 

KB: But he had already visited us once before that. Before he had the show in his Berlin gallery, ­neugerriemschneider, Tim Neuger called and asked if Ai Weiwei could come over and have a look at our collection. Afterwards, he came ­upstairs to us, and we liked each other right away. 

SH: What role does liking someone play for you as a ­collector? 

CB: A big one. We always have to get to know the person. 
I can’t buy art from someone I don’t like. It’s like adopting 
a person’s thoughts, their attitude. To me, these are expressions in visual form, and I don’t want to spend time with expressions by someone I don’t value as a person. That’s the beautiful thing about contemporary art—that you can meet its makers. 

SH: How important is the location of Berlin?

CB: The intellectual friction that occurs here is pretty extraordinary. I wish there were more colleagues here in the presentation of contemporary art, that more people would come to this city and that the scene were more international. It’s getting increasingly concentrated, and I find that to be incredibly enriching, also because of all the different environments in which art is shown. 

KB: We hope that Berlin will become even more of a magnet for the whole world. We’re always glad to have New Yorkers ­or Brazilians come here, when they love the city and we can add something to that. We love this city, we’ve chosen it, and we like to share this with others. 

SH: What part does sharing play for you in collecting? 

CB: Over time, we’ve let art completely enter our lives. It determines our whole world. Working with art has changed both our professions. To share art, to give interested people the opportunity to become involved in it—this was the ­impulse that led me to become a publisher of art books two years ago. I have a great need to share, to inform, I like to do the tours in the bunker myself, and I often receive feedback that my enthusiasm is infectious. And so it seemed logical to produce artists’ monographs, to invite authors to write, and to pass along my love for art in this form, too. 

KB: We want that the things that are important to us are seen. And that’s far more than a hobby or a well-tended interest. A stance has grown out of this that has influenced our whole life.

CB: I’m not a connoisseur who savors. I am more like a politically motivated individual who acts. It’s a conscious decision to share the collection with others. Not only to make it more accessible, but to employ 21 people, to school and direct them to convey our intention. I want to infect. And I was always aware that the art is never for me alone. 

KB: That reminds me of a story that your mother told us: once, when you got a chocolate bar as a child, you could have gone away to eat it all by yourself. But you marched off and didn’t stop bothering everybody until your sister, your aunt, and your mother also tried a piece. You weren’t only trying to be friendly, you also wanted to convince them of the chocolate’s quality. 

CB: In any case, I didn’t have too much chocolate left in the end, but my satisfaction was much greater this way. That’s how it is with our guests today. 

SH: You never call them visitors, you always speak of guests—why is this distinction so important to you? 

CB: In the museum, you’re a visitor: you decide how much time to invest, how intensively or superficially you want to become involved. In the Boros Collection, however, you have to make an appointment, agree to spend 1.5 hours of your time with us. 

KB: You’re greeted as a guest, everyone knows everyone else’s name. The entire tour takes place without signs, but not without a personal conversation. People talk to one another. Here, the guests also thank us—a museum visitor would never do that. It almost never happens that someone interrupts the visit in the middle. 

CB: I also thank my guests, by the way, when I’m downstairs in the collection and a tour has just ended. One should never take this interest for granted! Our guests take time for something Karen and I find important! One can hardly imagine a greater measure of respect, a greater joy. It’s wonderful that this interest is not merely our interest, but that it’s shared.