Trained as an academic painter, Július Koller developed a profound critique of modernist painting in his early works. Koller already began to take a critical stance in his days as a student. He knew of 1920s international avant-gardes and their critique of modernism, and he knew Duchamp and 1960s Neodada, Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus. He developed a new understanding of the social space of the city. This was a starting point from which he was able to imagine a different position. Putting a glass of water on a plinth (1963), writing the word More / Sea (1963 – 1964) over a classical oil painting of the sea’s frothy surface on canvas, or just putting the word Obraz / Picture on a white surface. In 1966, Koller abandoned the canvas and started using fiberboard and ready-made textile fabrics. These works refer to international Conceptual Art, and they particularly reflect on the medium of painting. Opposing any painterly or stylistic mastery and sublimity, Július Koller’s aim was to achieve proletarian modesty. “The proletarian, the simple, even the primitive is close to me,” he declared. Thus, many of his works are defined by an amateurish style, with which they were to accomplish their mission to “engage instead of arrange.”
In 1966, as a “by-product” of his painting, Koller initiated the Junk Culture series, which he continued for many years and which became an indispensable part of his work as an artist. In this prolific series, the method consisted of dismembering and collecting waste paints and other materials from painting work, such as paper palettes or mixing bowls, and subsequently fixing them, or alternatively their photographic documentation, to a surface. From paper remnants, used albums, books, posters, and wrappers he created simple minimal compositions, based on a technique of decollage and dripping. Koller felt a natural closeness to junk culture and systematically surrounded himself with junk. This was related to how he perceived his personal situation, as he felt he had spent his whole life in the midst of culture of junk. Undoubtedly, junk represented the raison d’être of his artistic being. He collected surfaces with random paint stains and drips and textiles with marks from the rub of brushes; he was fascinated by the structures and imprints that remained after the upper layers were torn away. Koller tirelessly discovered a sensibility to materials and artistic processes in junk. Collection and accumulation made it possible for him to have a distinct mode of framing the painting process, where he amassed what was otherwise found on the margins or entirely outside the space defined for depiction. In contrast to the numerous series of Anti-pictures, where he used interventions with latex paint on found textiles with a variety of designs, Junk Culture was not focused on an individualized artefact but should rather be perceived as deliberate collection of records. What makes this work distinctive is that junk became an important motif in the performances and photographic documentations of Koller’s cultural situations. In the context of his Antihappenings he presented new works directly, held in his own hands in front of the camera, showing them not as materialized products but in each case creating a situational game between the subject (the artist) and the appropriated object.
Július Koller’s enormous archive documents his lifelong passion with acquiring and classifying the visual and textual evidence of the socialist and post-socialist worlds he inhabited. It also offers the key to understanding his artistic practice. He systematically responded to the reality around him and organized, manipulated, and transformed media images, advertisements, and all sorts of consumer objects by using a specific taxonomy. Formerly packed in the small apartment artist shared with his partner Květoslava Fulierová, the archive provides a fascinating panorama of visual culture on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Koller’s work in series aimed at a hybridization of high and low art, by fetishizing everyday goods and useless junk. Text collages, letters, notebooks, and transcriptions form an integral part of the archive, amongst them important texts of the Western neo-avant-garde. The layers of documents and transcriptions shed light on Koller’s practice of receiving and sending signals. He used them to comment on information and disinformation disseminated by the government controlled media, and also to negate the clear ideological separation into West and East. Koller’s archive is not just the source of his artistic œuvre but also an integral part of it. His “artworks” are just a small part of a multiform artistic landscape that destabilizes the status of the artwork, the file, and the documentary note all at the same time.
Július Koller started to use the term Antihappening in 1965. He distributed it in telegrams and on stamped postcards, and he declared it in manifestos, making the Antihappening a fundamental statement throughout his whole artistic career. The prefix “anti,” which Koller used in various combinations, is a way of distinguishing his work from all artistic actions that follow some kind of script. “Anti” stands for all the alternative ways in which art can use unspectacular means to have an effect on our awareness of social realities.
The question mark was Július Koller’s signature, subject matter, and medium from 1969 onward. The artist defined himself as a question mark, and he turned his work into a question mark. This sign appeared repeatedly in Koller’s work as a symbol of questioning, doubt, and uncertainty. It was also his own response to the cultural and sociopolitical situation in Czechoslovakia. “Hence I chose the question mark as my symbol, which actually asks not only generally about man’s relationship with the cosmos (for which I then used the name U.F.O.-naut ), but also the individual’s relationship to the collective, or the social situation. I used the question mark in various ways, in various materials, and at various places.” In this sense the question mark is a symbol of communication, by means of which Koller addressed his direct environment and the whole of humanity.
Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations (U.F.O.)
In 1970, two years after the suppression of a possible third way of socialism in ČSSR, Koller introduced the three-letter concept U.F.O. to his work: “Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations”. Over the next three decades he created his major group of works under the same name, while he himself became the subject of U.F.O. The extra-terrestrial flying objects became the medium for communicating his individual engagement in shaping cultural situations. With U.F.O. Július Koller introduced a complex reference and relationship system into which his whole work is inscribed. For him the science-fiction ideas meant the world of the future and the possibility of enriching the present reality with imagination.
In 1970, upon receiving an invitation to take part in the first exhibition of the unoffcial art scene in Bratislava, Július Koller sent out a two-word tele- gram reading Ume? Nie!, with which he announced his “participation by artistic non-participation.” Splitting the word UMENIE, which in Slovak means art, into UME and NIE—for “no,” he introduced a dialectical game with art defined by its own self-negation. This was his way of distinguishing his own practice from artificial artistic formalism and academia. Although he believed in the transformative capacity of art, he did not see any potential in the existing art world and its institutions, considering them corrupted by power. From this time on, Koller frequently announced and distributed UmeNie in his telegrams, textcards, manifestos, and Anti-Paintings.
In 1980, Július Koller founded a fictitious gallery, Galéria Ganku. He located it at a peak of the same name in the High Tatras, an almost inaccessible mountain area. He invited friends to become members of the gallery and formed an artists’ committee with them. Statutes were drawn up, and a series of fictitious exhibitions were organized. Galéria Ganku was a continuation of the artist’s conceptual project Cosmo-Humanist Culture and Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations, which started in 1969 and 1970. With this “non-institution” Koller also developed his notion of the Non-exhibition, transgressing the conventional definition of an artwork and an exhibition by making them dislocated cultural practice.
J.K. PING-PONG CLUB
In March 1970, Július Koller used the invitation for a solo show at the Gallery of the Youth (Galéria mladých) in Bratislava to transform the exhibition space into a sports club—with a ping-pong table, sports flags, and a written announcement of his fair play rules—and invited the visitors to play table tennis. The J.K. Ping-Pong Club erased the boundaries between art and non-artistic activities, creating an action environment both metaphorically and literally. Furthermore, it was a statement against conservative communist consolidation after the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. By playing a game, and either respecting or disrespecting its rules, the visitors could take part in an activity that opened up an artistic and political space for action in which the alternative and emancipatory idea of the participation of everyone was evoked. On the occasion of One Man Anti Show (November 25, 2016 - April 17, 2017) at mumok in Vienna the legendary ping-pong club was restaged in order to reactivate Július Koller’s goal of transforming art and its institution. Visitors were invited to play, exchange shots, opinions, and positions. In light of the crisis of democracy, Koller’s fair-play game seems all the more topical today.
SELF-CHRONOLOGY AND MANIFESTOS
Július Koller’s “Self-Chronology,” a file the artist worked on continually in various versions from 1963 to 2007, shows his method of self-historicization. The “Self-Chronology” introduces key terms in Július Koller’s artistic vocabulary as well as his future-oriented activities. All the aspects and motifs of his work are deeply linked to the methodology and language of the “Self-Chronology”. Associated with the text are the U.F.O.-nautic self-portraits from 1970 to 2007, and also archive materials, texts, and manifestos that were intended to announce and disseminate the artist’s dialectical and critical positions towards society.
Július Koller - Antihappening (System of Subjective Objectivity), 1965 - 1969
Subjective cultural activity creates a new cultural reality by a cultural demarcation in the entire spatio-temporal and psychophysical reality (the Duchampian principle of the “readymade”) and by a cultural anti-artistic treatment of objective reality. The programme of a cultural synthesis of art and life is a subjective-objective civilistic culture which moves from ways of implementing artistic actions (happening etc.) to a new cultural forming of subject, awareness, way of life, the natural environment, surroundings and the real world. By means of text information (making known) the cultural demarcation becomes part of the cultural context.
Akad. Mal. (Antihappening), 1965
Subjective-objective cultural reality. The practice, function, existence, issues of social determination and person of the “educated, professional” painter is a living cultural sculpture (an original). The visual artist’s specialized activity is realized as a cultural process in the space-time of objective reality. Subjective cultural activity forms, from the personal specialized calling, a professional artistic culture.
In 365 (Antihappening), 1965–66
The period of army service. Concept and carrying out of critical-active forming of life in a given situation, conditions and possibilities. Several exemplars of textual announcements (only for personal documentation of the author).
Artwork (Antihappening), 1965-66
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Personal professional painting practice determined by the system of the state monopoly trading institution. The “work” is a non-artefactual, temporal-spatial, psychphysical cultural work. Subjective cultural activity forms, from the personal painting production, a professional popular culture.
Games (Antihappening), 1967
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Personal non-professional activity based on interest (sport, science, technique, technology, history, philosophy, theory of art, enlightenment) is a cultural game. Subjective cultural activity forms, from the non-artistic practice, a personal universal culture.
Confrontations (Antihappening) 1968
Subjective-objective cultural reality. My activity of art education is a confrontation of the professional visual artist with the people’s current amateur work in visual art. It is a cultural synthesis. Subjective cultural activity forms, in a context of pedagogic practice, a new popular culture.
Illusionism (Antihappening), 1968
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Cultural information on pseudo-democratisation in anti-democratic society is at the same time a cultural consciousness that analyses the political (social) system of totality, its political (ideological) domination over culture, and its political happening that manipulates the public. Subjective cultural activity forms, from the contradiction between individual consciousness and false collective consciousness, a new democratic culture.
Permanent Mystifications (Antihappening), 1968
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Cultural demystification of the rule of politics (ideology) over art. Analysis and warning of the cultural-political mystification (production) of the new collective artistic entertainment of “avantgarde happenings.” Warning of the blending of individual and state interests in current (modern) artistic manifestations (events, demonstrations, ceremonies, festivities).
Time-space definition of psycho-physical activity of matter—Tennis (Antihappening), 1968
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Personal tennis playing (a tennis match) is a cultural performance. Cultural delimitation of the phys-cultural performance demonstrates its psychophysical reality of rules of play, setting and activity in subjective-objective totality. Subjective cultural activity forms, from sporting activity, a new psychophysical culture. (Saturday, 15. VII. 1968. Tennis courts in the “Pravda” Club in Petržalka.)
Shockialism (Antihappening), 1968
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Cultural information on the historic transformation of socialism to shockialism (a politico-military international happening, in which we are all the involuntary and manipulated participants).
Question mark (Antihappening), 1969
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Visualization of the question mark sign by various modes and means in a variety of settings and situations is a cultural demonstration of personal cultural consciousness. Using the symbol of subjective, social, natural-scientific, philosophical, cultural-political and civilisation questions signalises the cultural communication of the subject with objective reality. Subjective cultural activity forms, from a synthesis of visual, conceptual, symbolic, material and spiritual information, a communicative culture.
Contact (Antihappening), 1969
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Connections of civilisation products (human manufactures) with Nature (natural productions) are cultural installations. The realized encounters of diverse parts of material reality create cultural spiritual energy. Subjective cultural activity forms, from the communication of artificial and natural Nature, a spiritual-material culture.
Non-exhibition (Antihappening), 1969
Subjective-objective cultural reality. The non-realization of an art exhibition of artefacts in an anti-artistic objective social situation is a cultural exhibition. Personal cultural consciousness analyses exhibition events, which in actual reality are artistic graveyards and a cultural anachronism. Subjective cultural activity forms, from an anti-exhibition cultural idea, an anti-artistic culture.
Season Ticket for Shockialism (Antihappening), 1969
Subjective-objective cultural reality. Cultural information about the permanent shockialist social reality. In the form of a fictive ticket of admission, there is communication with the social-political situation.
J.K. Cosmohumanist Culture (Antihappening), 1969
The realization of an individual, universal non-anthropocentric humanism in the universal reality is a cultural process of creating a personal realization of the sense and place of man in nature and in the cosmos. An active transformation of the individual outlook on life into a new cultural reality.