Bunkers trade NATO nukes for art

Bunkers trade NATO nukes for art
Photo: Michael Woodhead
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.

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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