Close to Potsdamer Platz and in the same cultural zone as Gemaldegalerie, is a large concert hall known as the Berliner Philharmonie. It is renowned as a venue not only for its architecture but its exceptional acoustics and the uninterrupted line of sight one gets from every seat.
One evening on a whim, I attended a concert there performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It was two hours of outstanding performances on works by Mozart, under the directorship of British conductor Daniel Harding. The concert began with the orchestra performing Symphony No. 32 in G-major, followed by two operatic pieces accompanied by male singers, first a tenor, then a bass.
After a twenty minute interval, savouring what I’d just heard over a drink in the foyer, I once again took my seat for the final performance. It was a Mass in C-minor accompanied by the two previous male singers, two female sopranos and at least thirty singers from the Swedish Radio Choir. It was an impressive finale both musically and visually to what was a unique and rewarding experience.
It is hard to find words to describe what listening to such a performance invokes. For me it falls into the realm of the very highest levels of human achievement; in the same domain as works from the Gemaldegalerie or the wondrous interior of an immense gothic cathedral. Just like great art, I experience classical music with a mix of awe and naivety. It is something I know very little about but when I listen to it I feel my senses awakening and my mind opening up to the possibility of something pure and grand, above and beyond the world of ordinary human experience. It is a realm that some humans have quite miraculously been able to tap into and bring forth for the rest of us to enjoy.
The next day I visited a unique contemporary art gallery in the central suburb of Mitte. Known as the Boros Collection it is housed in a converted World War II bunker and can only be viewed by appointment in small guided groups of no more than twelve people.
The entire private collection of contemporary artworks on display is only refreshed every three or four years. It is promoted as a very carefully curated and exclusive exhibition and for that reason visitors are asked not to take photographs of the work.
For someone who has considerable difficulty making sense of what is generally on offer in the world of contemporary art, the Boros Collection, even with the benefit of a guide, left me feeling no better informed.
One of the exhibits consisted of half a dozen empty egg cartons scattered randomly on the floor, each coated in pure gold. In another piece, part of the right fender and headlight assembly from a Porsche roadster, was mounted on a wall a bit like a hunting trophy. Another artist had filled a bunch of plastic water bottles with her own urine mixed with resin and lined them up against the wall.
Although the guide had explained the essence of what the artist was trying to convey in their work, something about this particular exhibition – the cost of the materials used and the time and effort required in assembling the ‘works’ – made me think that, in different hands, the same amount of money and effort could have been used to produce a far stronger and more meaningful experience. What made the visit worthwhile though was not just the setting but being immersed into such a strange world. The whole thing seemed to be more about fashion than art but I’ll freely admit I don’t know much about either.
What I found interesting was the history of the bunker itself. It was originally built in 1943 as a public air-raid shelter, designed to accommodate up to 3000 people from a busy train station nearby. The bunker, roughly the shape of a cube, is five stories high and has walls of solid concrete three metres thick. After the Second World War ended it was occupied by the Red Army and used to hold prisoners of war. A few years later in 1949 it was used as a textile warehouse and then as a storage facility for fruit and vegetables imported from Cuba.
In 1990 after reunification, the bunker became the property of the federal government and two years later was converted into a hard core techno and fetish club. In the years that followed ‘the bunker’ gained a reputation as being one of the hardest clubs in the world. The club eventually closed due to safety concerns and in 2003, German art collector and advertising entrepreneur Christian Boros, purchased the bunker and had it converted into a private art space. The expensive conversion maintained the original concrete bunker appearance as well as the intervening years of history embedded in its walls. On top of the building, Boros had his architects incorporate a rooftop penthouse apartment where he now lives with his wife.
Other Galleries and Cultural Spaces
There were several other places I visited in Berlin. One was the Museum of Photography in the Charlottenburg district. There I saw an exhibition of photographs by Helmut Newton and an even more interesting exhibition entitled Architecture and Nature by Sigrid Neubert. For over thirty years she worked as a photographer for many leading architectural firms and became one of Germany’s best known architectural photographers. In 1990 she began to focus exclusively on nature photography and has worked with nature ever since. The exhibition consisted of mostly black-and-white photographs of both architectural and natural elements as well as combinations of the two.
The same day I rode across the city to another exhibition space called the ‘me Collectors Room’ (the ‘me’ stands for ‘moving energies’). On display was an interesting collection of over 200 exotic objects obtained from the so-called ‘curiosity cabinets’ of private collectors during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The collection is owned by endocrinologist and lifetime collector Thomas Olbricht, heir to Germany’s Wella hair-care estate. Contained behind glass and displayed in rich dark cabinets are some truly unusual objects – carved skulls, crucifixion scenes made from red coral, narwhal tusks, medieval medical instruments, tiny wooden vessels inlaid with precious stones and a host of other exotic and beautifully preserved curiosities. If nothing else, the exhibit was a fascinating glimpse into the eccentric tastes of various collectors of art from the distant past.
To end the day I visited the Julia Stoscheck Collection, another private contemporary art space, that focuses on the moving image. They were exhibiting the work of US filmmaker, cinematographer and artist, Arthur Jaffa. Before entering the exhibition I was handed a pair of good quality Sennheiser headphones so that I could experience the audio in its most distraction-free form. In each room a large screen projection was playing video footage, and as I moved towards each screen, I could adjust the headphones to ensure I had its matching audio track. It felt like an immersive experience and beanbags were thoughtfully provided so that one could spend time and really engage with the work.
Jaffa’s art is essentially designed to challenge and question prevailing cultural assumptions about identity and race. In this particular exhibition his aim was to develop a Black visual aesthetic (through video imagery) equal to the ‘power, beauty and alienation’ of Black music in US culture. His works combine a mixture of segregation-era footage, Jimi Hendrix guitar solos, crime scenes of racially provoked murders, clips of Nina Simone and various other elements from Black American culture. All footage sequences were accompanied by powerful sound tracks from legendary Black musicians. The central question around his work is ‘how would it be if Black people were loved as much as Black music’?
‘Making music’, Jaffa says, ‘is the only place one can be Black without being marginal’.
It was an impressive exhibition and, just like the colonial-era-influenced work in the Hamburger Bahnhof, demonstrated just how powerful and thought-provoking contemporary art can be. It was an exhibition that brought me back down to earth and made me feel grounded again after my earlier excursions into the Boros Collection and the Cabinets of Curiosities.
My original plan had been to travel from Berlin to Slovenia by train, a journey for which I already had a ticket. I decided to cut my trip short and head back to the UK ahead of schedule. It was easiest to first make the train journey to Munich and fly out from there. It also gave me the opportunity to travel on one of Germany’s ICE trains, which zip passengers across the country at high speed and in total comfort.
In Munich I had a stopover lasting a few hours, so I made use of the time by visiting the Pinakothek der Moderne, one of the world’s largest museums for modern and contemporary art. Whilst my visit was constrained by time, I did get to see a temporary exhibition on Paul Klee, an artist whose work I have always admired. The exhibition was large and comprehensive in its coverage but I had to move through it quicker than I would have liked, so I didn’t miss my plane back to London.