Bunkers trade NATO nukes for art

Some of the world’s most prominent modern artists have been brought together in a unique exhibition at complex of Cold War bunkers outside Koblenz. Michael Woodhead reports.

Bunkers trade NATO nukes for art
Photo: Michael Woodhead

The woods surrounding Montabaur in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate have become an unusual cultural centre for artists. Instead of housing NATO’s nuclear warheads as it once did, a complex of abandoned bunkers is now home to a nascent artist colony.

Dubbed Project B-05, the centre has even attracted the likes of legendary German director Werner Herzog, who is known to be picky over where his art is shown. His short film on the hellish scenes of burning oil wells after the first Gulf War was the centre piece of the exhibition ‘Traces of the Sun,’ subtitled ‘An Apocalyptic Opera.’

“He was reluctant to allow us to have it at first and asked for a five figure sum,” said the curator Oliver Zybok. “Then when the concept of the bunkers now becoming a centre for art was explained to him it caught his imagination. After all his film is about the horrors of war, so he let us have it for what I can only say was a nominal sum.”

Zybok has also put together the current exhibition ‘Optical Shift – The Pleasure of Illusion and Deception.’

“People said they liked the first two shows which were serious and weighty themes dealing with melancholy and the apocalypse and told us what they now wanted was to have a bit fun. So I had the idea of showing the many aspects of the art of illusion,” he said.

For the first time at B-05 some twenty artists have been brought together covering an international field. They include Adolf Luther, Thomas Ruff, Anthony McDonald and Bridget Riley.

All play with the notion of deceiving the onlooker into believing what they are seeing when in reality the object of their fascination is not what it appears. For example, the work of Rowena Dring, who studied at Chelsea College of Art and Goldsmiths College, looks like a landscape painting but is in fact an incredible patchwork of thousands of cloth pieces sown together.

“I grew up in a family of needle workers, so I value the art of sowing and thought of a way of bringing this skill into my art,” she said. “When I began doing this in the late nineties it was actually quite a difficult time to be a painter. I began with patchwork of cottages around my home town in Bedfordshire, which I thought would be amusing to portray.”

Since then her work has become dramatically more complex and intricate. “Without a computer it would be almost impossible to work out the size, shape and colour of each piece,” she said.

The bunkers were part of a network of secret NATO munitions depots, some housing nuclear warheads, built under American supervision, to counter the threat of a Soviet attack on Western Europe. They are so massive that demolishing them was financially ruinous so they were left in place and the entire camp locked and deserted.

“I remembered the camp as a child as a mysterious place in the forest where nobody was allowed to go. And when I returned to Germany after living in Los Angeles for much of my adult life I came and looked having heard it was desolate and dilapidated and nobody had any idea what to do with it apart from let nature run riot,” said Jan Nebgen.

It was on his initiative that led to the creation of B-05, with ‘B’ standing for bunker and ‘05’ the year he had the vision to begin the project. Training as a designer, he had been instrumental in setting up exhibitions in California, which he admits with a smile somehow had, unintentionally, bunkers as a theme.

“It was raining and there was fog,” he said, recalling his first sight of the Montabaur munitions camp. “It felt very eerie as I reached the big main gates and saw the warning sign still there that said you would be shot if you came too close. I went around the site and the bunkers emerged one by one out of the mist still camouflaged and now overgrown with vegetation.”

Through sheer persistence and conviction Nebgen managed to persuade skeptical regional officials in Mainz and Montabaur to allow him to fulfill his dream of a creating an artist’s colony. The state of Rhineland-Palatinate eventually gave the project support through its ministry for education, science and culture.

“I think what appeals to anyone who comes here and everyone I have explained the concept to, is the notion that a place that was once used to store weapons of mass destruction is now a place where we celebrate life and culture instead of human destruction,” he said.

It took almost two years of hard work to clear the undergrowth and renovate the camp. During this time Nebgen persuaded several companies to sponsor the centre. His breakthrough came when Skoda Deutschland agreed to become the lead benefactor and partner.

“Every big city has its museum which makes these bunkers totally different,” said curator Zybok. “The area is perfect for showing every kind of media and here you see art in human and natural setting.”

Optical Shift – Illusion und Täusching

June 27 – October 17

B-05 in Montabaur

Opening times

Thurs 11:00 am – 6:00 pm

Sat 2:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Sun 11:00 am – 6.00 pm

Admission: €5 adults, €4 pensioners, €3 students

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Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays – and will it ever change?

Germany's strict ban on shops opening on Sundays can be a shock to foreigners. We looked at the culture around it, and spoke to one of the country's largest trade unions to find out if things are ever likely to change.

Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays - and will it ever change?

It’s Sunday. You’ve invited people for dinner, but you’ve forgotten the most important ingredient. Tough luck – you’ll either have to do without or wait until Monday because your local shops are shut. 

Most of us are familiar with this inconvenience, and perhaps you’ve even found yourself screaming: “Why?” in frustration in front of a locked-up supermarket. 

But it’s something us adopted Germans have had to get used to. We decided to take a look at the reasons behind Germany’s ban on Sunday shopping – and to find out if it might change in future. 

Where does the rule come from?

The Sonntagsruhe or ‘Sunday rest’ principle is an integral part of German culture, so much so that it is enshrined in the German constitution (Grundgesetz).

Article 140 of the law, which has remained unchanged since 1919, says: “Sundays and state-recognised public holidays remain protected by law as days of rest from work and spiritual upliftment.” 

But the practice of not working on Sunday has been around for much longer. The idea that the seventh day of the week is a day of rest dates back to the old testament and was declared a general day of rest across the Roman Empire as early as 321, by Roman Emperor Constantine.

In the centuries since, however, most of Europe has gradually relaxed the strict ban on commercial activities on Sundays. 

But in Germany, the rules remain restrictive. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon partly because of religious reasons, and also in relation to the interests of workers.

Germany’s biggest trade union Verdi spelled out their view. “It’s not ‘modern’ to work seven days a week,” they told The Local. “That’s the Middle Ages.” 

What exactly does the law mean?

On the face of it, the German law forbids all forms of work on Sundays and public holidays, though numerous exceptions are laid out in the Working Time Act. 

As well as emergency and rescue services, hospitals, nursing and care facilities, exceptions include cultural and sporting activities, and the hospitality sector. 

Another notable exemption to the rule is bakeries, which are allowed to open for three hours on Sundays – which is why you may often find a long queue at your local baker if you want to get your freshly baked Brötchen on Sunday morning. 

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery.

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

Illustrating how seriously the rule can be taken in Germany, there have even been cases of bakeries being sued for selling bread for too long on Sundays.

Shops, however, aren’t exempt from the rule and, the only way they can legally open on a Sunday is on a so-called verkaufsoffener Sonntag – Sunday trading day.

In most federal states, shops are allowed to open on between four and eight Sundays per year, and the States can decide when these should be. The chosen days must, however, be linked to a relevant occasion – such as a local festival, a market, a trade fair, or a similar event. 

Sunday openings also have to be recognisable as an exception to the general rule and Sunday openings that have already been approved can often be later overturned by the courts.

How strictly is the rule enforced?

Retailers who break the rules and open for business on Sunday can face fines ranging between €500 and €2,500.

The strictness of enforcement can vary widely between different regions.

In Berlin, for example, you can still find lots of Spätis (late night shops) open on Sundays. Although this is technically illegal, the authorities in the capital seem to take more of a relaxed approach to enforcement than in other states. 

A "Späti" late-night shop in Berlin.

A “Späti” late-night shop in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Florian Schuh

In the traditionally Catholic state of Bavaria, for example, the law is much more strictly guarded and enforced.

READ ALSO: Why Germany has strict shop opening hours

Is the law likely to change?

A survey by Spiegel in 2017 showed that 61 percent of Germans wanted to be able to shop on a Sunday, and this desire is shared by the trade industry.

The German Trade Association, for example, which represents around 400,000 independent companies, has strongly criticised Germany’s refusal to budge on the issue of Sunday openings on several occasions and argued that Sunday opening is also popular with staff, with many shop assistants appreciating the work in a more relaxed atmosphere.

In its latest statement on the issue, the association stated that, especially after following the economic impact of the pandemic, many retailers would benefit greatly from being able to open on Sundays. 


“It is remarkable that in no other EU country Sunday opening is as restricted as in Germany,” the association said. “Even in strongly Catholic EU countries such as Italy and Poland, shoppers can generally shop on Sundays. The same applies to France, although they place great value on culture and socialising.”

However, even if there is a widespread desire in some quarters to allow Sunday trading, an amendment to the constitution would require the consent of two-thirds of the German parliament. Also, there remains strong opposition to changing the rule from many workers’ groups and trade unions.

Trade union Verdi, which regularly files complaints against states and organisations which seek to deviate from Sunday trading restrictions, said that Sunday rest is still very important for workers.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb | Arne Dedert

A spokesperson said: “We have just one day a week when employers can’t stop us from going to football together, meeting friends, attending cultural events, or spending free time with the whole family.

“And we want to keep it that way. There are six days a week when we can go shopping, take the car to the garage, do our banking, or get the package delivered from the online retailer. On Sunday, there has to be peace and quiet.”

The Verdi spokesperson added that it’s important to think about “work-life balance, and not about being available 24/7 for a company”.

We also asked the union if the law looks set to change in the near future.

The spokesperson said: “Sunday, which is a non-working day for most people, has so far been protected by the majority of political parties in Germany.

“Verdi, with its almost two million members, continues to work to ensure that working on Sunday does not become an everyday occurrence.”

So it appears that the culture shock for many non-Germans of shops being closed on Sundays won’t change anytime soon. 

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches – the biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany