The joy you get from looking at some of the key examples from the history of Conceptual art is similar to the fascination of an unsolved puzzle. The questions keep coming back to haunt you with undiminished intensity. It is this sense of encountering a vital intellectual challenge that characterizes the retrospective of Július Koller's work at the Kunstverein in Cologne. The exhibition, curated by Roman Ondak, traces the artist's development from the mid-1960s to the present day.
Born in 1939, Koller has lived in Bratislava since 1948. The repressive climate in Czechoslovakia after the quelling of the 'Prague spring' of 1968 forced him to produce most of his oeuvre outside the framework of the institutionalized art world. That he knew how to make a virtue of necessity is reflected in his economy of style: his work concentrates on Conceptual proposals drawn up on index cards, and casual performance pieces for private or public spaces. What distinguishes Koller's art, apart from its irresistible dry humour, is the consistency with which it has unfolded over the years, as he carefully and continuously constructs, tests and shifts the parameters of his own enterprise, with none of the haste dictated by the nervous twitches of the commercial market. His work seems both calm and measured, fresh and sharp.
In his 1965 manifesto Anti-happening (System of Subjective Objectivity) Koller defined his key idea of the 'anti-happening' as an act of 'textual designation' that raises a person's awareness of his or her cultural surroundings. Unlike happenings, these acts do not involve the staging of psychologically expressive performances. Rather, Koller's 'anti-happenings' create mini tableaux, or use concrete embodiments of abstract symbols to denote specific attitudes towards social reality.
In the photographic documentation of Casopriestorové vymedzenie psychofyzickej cinnosti matérie (Time/Space Definition of the Psycho-physical Activity of Matter, 1968) Koller can be seen repainting the tramlines of a tennis court with a chalk-dispensing cart. In his 1970 exhibition Ping-pong Club he invited visitors to play table tennis with him. Ping-Pong Monument (U.F.O.) (1971) is a collage showing a gigantic table tennis bat lifted heroically towards the sky in front of a dreary high-rise housing estate, a gesture echoed in Monologika - Jojo (U.F.O.) (Monologic - Yo-Yo (U.F.O.), (1982), a photo of Koller playing with a big white Yo-Yo in a drab concrete building among a group of tower blocks.
In this sequence of works Koller's constructs describe the relation between the individual and the social in the most basic terms - the tennis court becomes a model for a space defined through formalized rules of conduct. In Ping-Pong Club this model is then transformed into a proposition for a non-hierarchical and non-violent form of social communication. As a fictive Ping-Pong Monument this proposition is again transformed, this time into a symbol of protest: like the Yo-Yo, the ping-pong bat represents the possibility of a more playful society in the face of socialist standardization.
Koller first chooses simple symbols and then charges them with complex meanings by subjecting them to a process of continuous variation and transmutation. Koller himself has coined the perfect slogan for his conceptual method: Mini-Koncepcie maxi-ideí (U.F.O.) (Mini-Concepts of Maxi Ideas (U.F.O), 1974). This technique of constant improvisation on a 'mini-concept' is exemplified in a series of text pieces that play on the term 'UFO'. Postcard-sized, these mostly just show the title, the year and Koller's name, together with simple graphic devices such as a Möbius strip, question marks or ping-pong bats. The titles spell out the acronym U.F.O. as standing for Univerzálna Futurologická Organizácia (Universal Futurological Organization, 1972-3), Univerzálny Filozoficky Ornament (Universal Philosophical Ornament, 1978), Underground Fantastic Organization (1975) and so on. Contact is established when a flying saucer lands in a suburban high-rise in the cartoon U.F.O. Expedícia (U.F.O. Expedition, 1982), or by the transmission of signals in Demonstratívna kultúrna ituácia (U.F.O.) (Demonstrative Cultural Situation (U.F.O.), (1989) - a photo of Koller throwing a huge disc out into the open sky.
As a floating signifier, the term U.F.O. marks the difference between the future and the present, the possible and the real. Moreover, it becomes a metaphor for the invasion of reality by the imagination. As such, it captures the essence of Utopian thought: to confront the microcosm of an actual state of affairs with the macrocosm of infinite possibilities - to show that society can be changed.
First published in Issue 79