Július Koller, Munich Cultural Situation (U.F.O.), 1991. Performance view.

Július Koller, Munich Cultural Situation (U.F.O.), 1991. Performance view.

Július Koller

Univerzálne Futurologické Operácie” (Universal Futurological Operations) provided an unprecedented opportunity to get acquainted with the full range of work by Slovakian artist Július Koller. It turned out to be quite a revelation. A singular figure, Koller developed highly sophisticated (and often uncannily funny) conceptual tools to maintain independence in Communist Czechoslovakia, where cultural production was divided into institutional and so-called free art, i.e., the public sphere of official Socialist Realism and the private spaces of, as Koller once named it, a “subjective objectivity system.” Throughout postwar Slovakian history, marked until 1989 by political and cultural outlines drawn in Moscow and then (after a time of euphoria) by the sobering reality checks of the “free market,” he continued to explore this “system.” Always interested in gestures of universalism from a position of both voluntary and forced marginality, Koller has now become recognized internationally as the exceptional outsider he is.

However, his work’s uniqueness should not suggest that he’s an artist without context. Born in 1939 in Piest’any, he studied painting in Bratislava from 1959 to 1965. Around 1963, he began to combine painting and text, concentrating more and more on strategies for leaving behind the myths of subjectivity and authenticity associated with painting and even with the extension of painting into the three-dimensionality of Happenings in the 1950s and ’60s. Though the self-proclaimed Dadaist continued to paint, Koller opted also for an interventionist sign making, a manipulation of the meaning of the most inconspicuous situations.

One model of Koller’s move toward a particular poetics of place was Group 42, a proto-Situationist collective founded in Prague during World War II. Deploying painting, photography, and poetry, its members reacted to the changes in urban life caused by the war. Twenty years later, Koller invented methodologies for making sense (and sometimes nonsense) of life under Communism. Without ever becoming sentimental or, to the contrary, overtly sarcastic about the social realities of his urban milieu, he performed “Anti-Happenings” by leaving “textcards,” handmade with a children’s printing set, in Bratislava and elsewhere—as “invitationcards to an Idea.” The very term Anti-Happening (written on the first textcard, from 1965) is typical of Koller’s skepticism, which is symbolized by the question mark, one of his early emblems, presented on a flag above a deserted swimming pool in 1969 or formed by Koller and a group of kids on a hill in 1978 (Universal Futurological Question Mark [U.F.O.]). Koller claims that even the most single-minded intervention reveals a dimension of universality—and thus activates the connections between the vernacular of the present and the continuous flux of historical times as well as the communication between different states of existence. Filtered into the everyday, Koller’s idea-actions suspend or interrupt its seamlessness, applying to it a touch of virtuality.

Exhibiting these intrusions into the fabric of reality—hardly visible when they took place for the first time and even more difficult to reimagine from the distance of today—is a highly ambitious endeavor. Artist Roman Ondák, who curated this meticulously compiled retrospective for the Kölnischer Kunstverein, showed, roughly chronologically, photographs, collages, and other printed matter, but also white chalk on the floor (a long line, drawn by Koller, “framing” the exhibition space in the main hall of the Kunstverein), a Ping-Pong table (standing in for the Ping-Pong Society project of 1970, the transformation of an art gallery into a Ping-Pong club), and, placed throughout Cologne, thirty billboards with blown-up photographs of Koller’s historical “operations.”

Though simple in presentation, the show conveyed the impressive scope of Koller’s creations of “cultural situations.” For Universal Fantastic Orientation, 1978, Koller stood in various locations holding a metal sign displaying changing directions and distances (measured in minutes) to the fictional town of “Ufomany” (a pun on the homophony of the Slovak “many,” indicating a location, and the English “many,” but also on the name of Cicmany, a village and a national heritage site in the former Czechoslovakia). Elements of his longtime project of mapping the unknown and picturing the impossible can also be found in Flying Cultural Situation (U.F.O.), 1982, a photograph of which was in the show (and was mounted as a billboard in front of the Kunstverein): Koller and a little boy stretch their arms like wings, as if to become flying objects taking off from a hill, on the outskirts of Bratislava.

Koller’s semiological manipulations of landscape and topography, of places and (his own) faces, investigate the possibilities of shifting meaning by the simplest alterations. In deadpan-humorist fashion, most poignantly displayed in a series of photo-portraits that cover a period of more than four decades, he systematically explores the relationship between art and alienation, or the idea of art as alienation. “U.F.O.-naut J.K.” becomes the artist’s altered ego, an extraterrestrial maker and distributor of universal signs: question marks, Ping-Pong balls, or wave lines, a more recent signature symbol, formed by tennis balls in a swimming pool in 1992 or drawn on the floor in the “antiperformance” Nová váznost’, 1991.

Inviting comparison to outsider-absolutists like Marcel Broodthaers, André Cadere, and Bas Jan Ader, Koller’s contribution to the art of the deterritorializing “minor” in late modernism cannot be underestimated. Eventually, the art world itself becomes increasingly deterritorialized. The installation of the hypothetical U.F.O.-Gallery, 1971–72, in Slovakia’s High Tatra Mountains (inaccessible to all but expert climbers) plays on the fictional geography of art institutions. “‘Gallery,’” Koller explains in an interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “is the name in Slovak of a narrow plateau on the Ganek peak which is a very demanding challenge for mountaineers.” Finally, with this admirable exhibition, the challenge of his own enterprise is open for debate. Koller’s work, developing for more than half a century with astonishing rigor and consequence, is by its very intransigence and incommensurability one further reason to clearly reassess what it means to talk about the other, alternative modernist art of the East.

Tom Holert is a Berlin-based writer.