Issue 2/2003 - Time for Action

Engaging instead of Arranging

Július Koller's erratic work on the reconception of the aesthetic space 1960ff

Georg Schöllhammer

At the start of the sixties, an optimistic spirit of modernism pervaded the art scenes of Bratislava, as elsewhere. From 1956 on, the existential fears that had prevailed under the Stalinist dictate of realism were already being worked off in the extreme subjectivism of Tachist painting. And the groups and movements that now came into being, with their kinetic objects, light works and structural, geometric abstractions, could feel themselves once more to have been taken up into the international canon of modernism. In the second post-war decade, a generation of neo-constructivist artists on both sides of the Iron Curtain had joined to form a sort of International.1 Július Koller studied painting with Jan Zelibski at the conservative academy in the Slovakian capital from 1959 to 1965, at the time of this first upheaval. Even as a student - at this time, he painted homogeneous urban landscapes for himself, spatial analyses pressed into concrete form - Július Koller took a critical stance towards the modernist principles of organisation prevalent during the political and cultural upheaval in the CSSR at the start of the sixties. Koller was not interested in the abstract construction of space within which his artistic work evolved. Rather, the concepts of international avant-garde movements with a critical attitude towards Modernism, Dada and Duchamp, Nouveau Realisme and the Situationist International provided him with themes that he was able to use as a basis for thinking out a different approach.In contrast to the cynical, technoid, megalomanic fantasies of the socialist state apparatus and its shapers, and the gestalt-therapeutic endeavours of the fashionable modernists, the direct experience of the reality of the art work was once more returned to the individual. Until today, Koller has consistently taken this idea as a starting point for his approach and work, whose strict logic, obsession and individuality make it probably one of the most erratic and consistent oeuvres in European contemporary art, the closest comparison being perhaps the universe of Marcel Broodthaers.

In the Bratislava of the sixties, Koller was not alone in his rejection of the modernist pathos. His approach contained a number of parallels in theme, form and content with, for instance, the works of the Happsoc Group, based around Z. Kostrova, Stano Filko and Alexander Mlynarczyk, who developed a local version of object happenings from 1964. The various stimuli - Pop, Flux, Nouveau Realisme, Dada - and the euphoric notion that everything could be made into art, that everyhing could be integrated into the art system, nevertheless underwent a reversion in the works of the young Jœlius Koller. In 1965, the same year that the Happsoc manifesto appeared, Koller published his own: »Antihappening (System of Subjective Objectivity)«: In contrast to the happening, which is a »way to put an artistic action into practice«, the anti-happening aimed at a »cultural re-formation of the subject, awareness, the environment and the real world. By means of textual designation ('making known'), cultural demarcation becomes part of the cultural context«, writes Koller in »Antihappening«.


In Koller's manifesto, a performative act of designation - a conscious act of subjectivisation by means of a designation - an act of cultural demarcation at the level of production, so to speak, contradicts the myth of the reclamation of actuality in theatrical self-presentation, of the discovery of identity in a liberating psychodramatic act, such as was envisaged by the protagonists of the happening developed from Fluxus. However, Koller's attitude runs counter to the then current concepts not only at the level of aesthetic actions, but also with regard to the analysis of the status of the art work as object.

In a formulation that could be seen as definitive for the Situationist Internationale as well, Koller suggests that the textual existence of a poetic impulse cannot develop the full potential of its radical, anti-hegemonic power. The anti-happening presents conceptual actions or objects. In presenting them, it creates situations - cultural situations. The performative act that Koller carries out with his demonstrative operations reflects upon forms of functional or emotional usage of and investments of meaning in a place or situation. Every real or imagined viewer can behave in a way that, so to speak, runs counter to the cultural situation created in this act of designation, but also experience the designation as a characteristic that defines the identity of his/her cultural body.


This strategy makes it possible for Koller to extend the act of designation universally to various media: in 1965 begin the textual works on paper, stamped using children's stamps. These works, which occur in various editions, refer back to the conceptual framework of the anti-happening. This practice was inspired by the Dadaists and the Surrealists, who used text and collage extensively in their work, and by the Lettrists. From 1967/68, Koller executed the first pictures in which he uses white latex paint instead of oil paint, and in which the question mark makes its first appearance - a symbol of Koller's approach to designation that occurs later in many different guises, media and aggregates. These pictures are thenceforth called anti-pictures. Koller renounces any form of technical mastery. The anti-pictures have an amateurish style. In this way, they are meant to fulfil their task of »engaging instead of arranging«. Koller is not interested in pure painting, but in working out a pictorial, emblematic typology for the body of text. He lines up question marks, or plus and minus signs, or dots and ellipses that join to form a question mark, writes the word »Realita« or »Illusionismu?« several times over each other; later, wavy lines, the swastika, rune-like signs etc. appear.

[b]U.F.O. and U.F.O.naut[/b]

In 1970, two years after the dream of a possible third way of socialism in the CSSR was brutally quashed by the tanks of the Warsaw Pact, Koller introduced a new, three-letter concept into his work in another manifesto: »U.F.O.«. In this manifesto, which, for the following thirty years and more, formed the basis for the development of Koller's main group of works, »Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations« - U.F.O. -, the realistic, anti-illusionistic principle of the anti-happenings and anti-pictures is emphasised once more. Its potential realisation is however shifted to a future time and ironically embedded in a cosmology of the uncertain, of the pseudo-science concerned with extra-terrestrial flying objects.2 The concept of U.F.O. thus suspends any connection of Koller's defining, performative work of designation with the passivity of the social situation in the CSSR during the years of normalisation. With U.F.O., a complex space of reference arises between the acts of designation and their potential for transfomation. In the diverse works of the following years, the O. takes on a wide variety of names: object, or ornament, or orientation, or observation, or opustane obrazu (release of the picture) or Otaznik (question mark) etc. etc.; the F. mutates to become functional, folkloric, factographic, f(ph)ilosophical, fantastic, flyer, etc..

The universal cultural situations designated by U.F.O. can become typical cultural situations, new cultural situations, transitory cultural situations, cultic cultural situations, objective cultural situations. Universal Functional Expertises are imaginable. The figure of the artist also emerges in U.F.O. from 1970 (and until today) from the signature, taking on a pictorial presence as »U.F.O.naut J.K.«.

For a month in 1970, instead of an exhibition, Koller set up a ping-pong club in the cabinet at 'Gallery of the Young' in Bratislava where visitors could play. Like other demonstrative elements in this work, such as the writing by hand of a question mark on the sand of a tennis court one year previously and the work with the chalk and the line-marking machine (Contact, 1969), this act of transformation was not intended as passive representation, but as active representation that was to trigger an existential movement - a momentary existential creativity that expressed itself in a cultural situation.


The Ping-Pong Monument (1970-72) is also one of the many works by Koller in which he uses items from the world of sport. In this photo collage, Koller's hand, holding a table-tennis racket, stretches monumentally in front of the silhouette of a modernist satellite city as if the black hole described by the shape of the racket was announcing the void after the congress of the Association of Slovakian Artists (ZSKU) of November 1972, at which a number of artistic practices were banned and the de facto reestablishment of the socialist realism of the fifties took place.

Koller's re-decoration of the Slovakian wooden houses with question marks in a photo collage of 1978 - which made a national tourist symbol of the CSSR of the seventies a Universal Folkloric Object - reacts directly. And, again, with a performative act. In these years, symbols of infinity increasingly appear in the text works next to the question marks and the negation »NIE« (art: umenie becomes umeNie or nevermore). Endless edges of Mobius strips, round, in loops or pressed into a triangle, spirals and ying-yangs represent U.F.O. even more forcefullyf than a self-referential act of designation. Koller carries out performative balancing acts, containments »levellings«, in which, for instance, he subordinates his body to the scale of the survey marks on houses in the old part of Bratislava. A child and the artist stand with outspread arms as if about to fly, as poetic Icaruses on a hill in front of a school in Bratislava.

[b]The void of art history[/b]

In the same way that so much of the art of the late sixties and seventies does not fit any of the standard categories, the work of Július Koller also has to re-interpreted from today's standpoint. The established critical categories that have grown up around Post-Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Land Art and Process Art barely apply to it. As early as 1991, in a catalogue essay for an exhibition devoted to Koller at the Povazka Gallery in Ziline, which marked the start of the post-communist rediscovery of Koller's work, Aurel Hrabusicky wrote that, with regard to Koller's multi-faceted practice, one could not speak of conceptualism but of a contextual, refracted aesthetic practice with many interwoven references, a practice that barely had any parallels this side or the other of the Iron Curtain then still in place.

Koller's use of the universal as a metaphor for the real, his disregard of the local idiolect, of the local variations of universalistic formal figures of late modernism, such as body-oriented happenings, abstract painting, kinetism and geometric abstraction, were based on an idea of the transparence of the aesthetic act as a pure event. By citing this transparence of the performative act - and the simple possibility of transformation, such as in the table-tennis tournament or other works related to sport - Koller investigates, in a manner similar to that of artists of his generation in the sixties on the other side of the bipolar world, the possibility of a radical transformation of the concept of the »work« away from the object towards the trace of an action or the instruction for an action. The works from the mid-sixties, the anti-pictures, the »Textextiles« or the U.F.O.s at the start of the seventies, redefined the aesthetic experience as a variety of non-specialised ways of approaching the question: what is really and authentically »modern«?

After 1972, Koller's actions seem more melancholy. But they, too, create very rigorous situations. Koller's ostensible fictions depart from the conventional genres of illusionistic representation and refer back to the process of production and reception, which exists in the reality of the designated moment, in the present. However bizarre and clownish the actions may sometimes seem, all of them create a direct picture of the times that maintains all the power of differentiation. Koller never operates within the framework of the so-called »big« themes with regard to the body: pain, sexuality, death, injury, psychological limit situations of relinquishment. Rather, he operates within the limits prescribed by everyday schemes of control and order. He thus exposes the imperative that art is there to disclose a deeper truth about us, our body and our culture, and replaces it with one of the performative act: Engaging instead of arranging.


Translated by Timothy Jones


1 This text is a shortened preprint of the catalogue essay of the same name that is to be published for the first retrospective of Július Koller's work ever to be held in western Europe (12 June to 21 September, Kölnischer Kunstverein), curated by Roman Ondak.
2 In the manifesto he writes: »subjective cultural actions-operations which in the universality of objective reality form cultural situations directed into the future. the operations will effect psychophysical projects of cosmohumanistic culture and instead of a new art-aesthetics will create a new life, a new subject, awareness, creativity and a new cultural reality.«