The back courtyards of Berlin are full of surprises. A couple of weeks ago I discovered a ‘museum’ of a very different kind – a subterranean treasure trove of objects which tells the story of industrial, cultural and political systems through a series of artistically interpreted themes. The Untergrundmuseum U144 describes itself as a ‘small but subversive question mark within the monumental scale of Berlin’s museum landscape’. In essence, it is a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, defined in English as an art project or a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms.
The only way to visit U144 is to book a guided tour, generally available at weekends, but also by appointment. I called the number given on the website and got through to Rainer Görß, the East German artist who runs the place together with his partner Ania Rudolph, and he agreed to show us around. It proved to be a unique experience – a personal tour of a veritable Aladdin’s Cave, not of gold and jewels, but of ordinary objects which only a few decades ago represented the miracle of progress and shaped society.
The address is 144 Linienstrasse, a street in Berlin-Mitte originally built in 1705. Number 144 came into existence in 1795 and was variously used for living accommodation and then factory workshops. This area of Mitte formed part of ‘Feuerland’ (‘Land of Fire’), the heart of Berlin’s metalworking industry in the 19th Century. From the 1860 until 1990 the basement of 144 Linienstrasse housed a metal foundry which was taken over by East German artists after reunification and when the GDR industries were being effectively dismantled. In 1995 the buildings at 144, Linienstrasse were totally redeveloped, but the art project continued in the basement and in 2012 it opened as a museum.
Exhibits are arranged thematically in a series of nine rooms in the basement. Various guided tours are on offer: “The Fireland Route” traces the industrial history of this area of Berlin, or there are tours with a specific emphasis – “Art and Underground”, “Brands and Power” and “The Concept ‘Underground’ & Questioning the System”. The letter ‘U’ of U144 refers to its underground location, but also alludes to its subversive nature, similar to a U-Boot. Each room is a store of objects, based on the core collection of the foundries and from the dissolution of over 50 East German state-owned enterprises, and has a political message.
I was completely blown away by the sheer amount of items on display; piled up, arranged in drawers, cabinets or on shelves, covering the walls and floors. Most of the contents would have been destined for the scrap heap, but here they have been rescued and then made significant in the way that they have been sorted, labelled, arranged and juxtaposed. It was simply too much to grasp in one visit. These are not priceless treasures, but items which once formed the fabric of everyday life. They represent an industrial, political and social history and their thematic display poses a great many questions about how we are subconsciously manipulated by artefacts, by signs, by brands and by governments.
The German word for store-room is ‘Speicher’ and the verb ‘speichern’ means ‘to save’ in the sense of keeping for future use. We now constantly ‘save’ information in a virtual world, but U144 presents a much more concrete sense of preservation and gives it an artistic interpretation. At the end of my guided tour through this subterranean labyrinth I had a real sense of how important the concept of storage is and how it can give meaning to the present. Yet there is nothing pretentious about this collection, it has been put together with a great deal of honest toil, artistic vision and humanity. In the final room we visited, crammed full of post-war East German household memorabilia, there was a small bar serving home-made fruit drinks, including a tasty quince or ginger Schnapps.
Rainer Görß and Ania Rudolph make every tour a personal visit and run a number of seminars and educational workshops. The basement is also used for ‘Geheimclub’ (Secret Club) concerts on the 9th day of every month, for nine months of the year. For further information (in German) and pictures, take a look at the U144 website. There is also a detailed information sheet in English which you can download by following this link.