Rory MacLean meets Roland Boden
'Is it really true?' I asked Roland Boden, one of Germany's most wry, bold and irreverent multi-discipline artists.
'There is no smoking gun,' he replied with a teasing glint in his eye. 'But I have found remarkable circumstantial evidence. I believe it could be true…'
The Kronos-Projekt is among Boden's most remarkable creations, an almost unbelievable experiment based on painstaking historical research in Berlin's Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute archives.
'I'm interested in the term "reality" as a media phenomenon, and in what people perceive to be real. I'm fascinated by the appearance of things on the fringes, things which are incredible or incomprehensible like the theory of relativity and the relationship between light speed and zero speed,' he told me. 'What would happen to a man travelling incredibly slowly? Would "real" time rush forward while he stood still? For me Einstein's theory is a means to an end - to question the meaning of reality in our post-modern society.'
Boden's wonderful, cheeky and ironic book Verkantung der Realzeitachse ('Tilting of the Real Time Axis') documents the history of this Totenschiff time machine, as well as the biographies of its scientist-inventors Senzmann ('scythe-wielder'), Koepplbleek ('skull head'), Bohnkramer (bone collector) and Todt-Schlieffen (Todt meaning death and Schlieffen from the mastermind of Germany's First World War battle plan). The book also details the limited success of Kronos' first trial run ('A rabbit was placed inside the machine, but afterwards it couldn't tell the scientists much of importance.')
'In part the time-travellers survival is due to the consumption of "Wilmersdorfer Kümmel", a powerful schnapps which preserves the liver's health,' Boden explained to me. 'I served it at the exhibition opening in the abandoned Innsbrucker Platz U10 station.'
If it does exist, Boden calculates that since its launch almost 80 years ago the Kronos machine has moved a total distance of only 317 metres.
As well as the time-travelling adventure, Verkantung der Realzeitachse documents other not-completely-impossible fictional realities. For Die Spur des Chrubukh – which he produced for a competition for Berlin's Natural History Museum – Boden uncovered the story of a wealthy, amateur palaeontologist named Gottfried von Lechsenfeld who'd accompanied a 1905 expedition to Africa, and captured a living dinosaur. In his story – which he documents with photographs and plaster-cast footprints – the Chrubukh dinosaur survived in the museum basement until 1945 when it escaped during a bombing raid and was killed (and cooked with garlic and eaten) by Red Army soldiers. Another story Des Friderici Hasenfreud und –pein (Frederick the Great’s Love Affair with Rabbits) records the king's previously unknown passion for bunnies, and their contribution to innovative military tactics and Prussia's victory in the 1757 Battle of Leuthen. To backup his narratives, Boden cites both real and seemingly-invented academic and literary sources.
Boden was born in Dresden in 1962 and graduated from the city's Technical University with a degree in civil engineering. After the fall of the Wall, he taught himself to paint and slipped into Dresden's buzzing post-Wende art scene, winning both a grant from the Stiftung Kulturfonds Berlin and a Philipp Morris Award for painting. He moved into photograph and three-dimensional work, pursuing an interest in the mobility and immobility of society (he has been especially influenced by the French cultural theorist and urbanist Paul Virilio). His remarkable series of animated and live action films includes Urban Shelter Units and – during a sojourn in Australia – Sweets for My Sweet.
While in rural Australia – 200 arid and dusty miles from the ocean - he also built a huge, unseaworthy submarine from scrap corrugated iron, and put it about that the vessel – which he called Deep Space – had been built by the Institute for Subreal Urbanism – a dubious underground organisation – and was to be used for nefarious maritime activities. The twelve-metre-long installation had to be destroyed to get it out of the Kellerberrin gallery.
In his provocative installations, paintings and films, Boden treads the border between invention and reality. He rolls yesterday into today, imagining surreal possibilities from historical facts, drawing together his knowledge of engineering, industrialisation, science and war. By creating and destroying myths, he plays with both uncertainty and ambiguity. Above all, and to the audience's delight, his unbelievable constructs could be true: the Kronos-Projekt could have been undertaken and then forgotten in the turmoil of the Nazi years, Soviet soldiers could have shot and eaten a strange, escaped creature at the end of the war, and Frederick the Great may even have loved rabbits.
Boden has been awarded stipends and residencies in Buenos Aires and at the Deutsche Akademie Villa Massimo in Rome as well as London's APT Gallery and then Stiftung Kunstfonds in Bonn. Most recently his work was exhibited at Berlin's Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Das mechanische Corps – Auf den Spuren von Jules Verne, a group show to be transferred to Dortmund in April. Next year a one-man show of his oil paintings will be held at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin and also at the Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst Trier.
'Life can be too serious,' he told me with a smile. 'My work isn't just about having fun; it's about humour and self-irony. I want to touch people, and then to make them think.'
Roland Boden is a Renaissance man, a multi-media artist and lapsed engineer who is at once humble and provocative, irreverent and respectful, ironic and sincere and filled with a joy for playing: with words, with juxtaposed images, with our certainties.
Is it true? Is it imagined? Don't ask Roland Boden; just enjoy the possibilities.