Anti-Performance (U.F.O.) is the photographic documentation of a ‘cultural situation’, as Koller termed his conceptual installation and performance works. It consists of a black and white photograph mounted on a single sheet of card, with the work’s title, its year of production and the artist’s name handwritten along the bottom. The photograph shows Koller standing in front of a large white screen on an empty stage, facing rows of empty seats in the foreground. The large blank screen is reminiscent of a blank canvas. Many conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s investigated the artistic possibilities of exploring ‘nothingness’ or ‘blankness’ in their work. Such works were often linked to exploring the tension between visual and verbal communication, as in Joseph Kosuth’s Blank 1967 (reproduced D. Marzona, Conceptual Art, Cologne 2006, p.7). Although Koller often used painted symbols such as question marks, or plus and minus signs, rather than investigating systems of meaning, his ‘anti-happenings’ aim to question the cultural context the artist was working in.

The blankness of the screen on stage and the emptiness of the auditorium suggest not only a reaction against the generic constraints of painting and performance respectively, but also reflect the impossible position of unofficial Czech and Slovak artists during the period of ‘normalisation’ (repressive measures taken by the Communist regime to counteract liberalising reforms undertaken by President Alexander Dubček in 1968). When Koller installed a ping-pong club in the Galerie der Jungen in Bratislava in 1970, he was seeking to demonstrate the possibility of ‘democratic communication’ (Koller quoted in Rhomberg and Ondák, p.137). Increasingly, however, he says: ‘I was looking for that partner more and more in the large space of our surrounding cosmos, because that free communication really ceased to function here’ (quoted in Rhomberg and Ondák, p.138). The absent audience in the photograph reflects the increasingly difficult political situation that artists in Czechoslovakia faced throughout the 1970s and beyond, and the impossibility of communication in such a context.

The title Anti-Performance (U.F.O.) refers to Koller’s 1965 manifesto, ‘Anti-Happening (System of Subjective Objectivity)’. In opposition to the notion of a ‘happening’ as a way of actualising group identity, in his manifesto Koller stated that his concept of the ‘anti-happening’ aimed at a ‘cultural reshaping of the subject, at awareness, at the surroundings and the real world’ (quoted in Rhomberg and Ondák, p.126). As art-historian Piotr Petrowski has noted, it is part of ‘an attitude that aims to erase the boundaries between different art tendencies (art and anti-art, modernist and neo-avant-garde painting), between different forms of neo-avant-garde practice (performance, conceptual art, Fluxus) and, above all, between art and life’ (Piotrowski, p.219).

Born in Piestany (formerly in Czechoslovakia), Koller studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava from 1959 to 1965. He has defined his thinking as ‘de facto ... a sort of anti-academicism’, an approach evident throughout his artistic career (quoted in Rhomberg and Ondák p.141). The curator Georg Schöllhammer has pointed out that Koller was sceptical of group activism, despite his work containing ‘a number of thematic, formal or subject matter correspondences’ with the Slovakian Happsoc group (quoted in Rhomberg and Ondák, p.126). In 1965 this group of three artists (Zita Kostrová, Stano Filko, born 1937, and Alex Mlynárčik, born 1934) published the Happsoc manifesto, proclaiming the whole city of Bratislava to be a ready-made work of art during the week of 2 May 1965. From 1968 onwards Czechoslovakia entred a period of so-called ‘normalisation’ by the ruling Communist regime, and Koller’s work became increasingly ambivalent. Around 1967–8, he began to use the symbol of the question mark in his works (see T12441), and from 1970 he started to take yearly self-portraits of himself as a ‘U.F.O.-naut’. During the years 1980 to 1989 he ran the fictional U.F.O. Galéria, in his own words, ‘a challenging and hard-to-reach fictitious space for spiritual communication between earthly beings and the unknown cosmic world’ (quoted in Documenta Magazine, no.1–3, 2007 Reader, Cologne 2007, p.476). Koller’s work aims at a constant questioning of the world and the cultural context, opening up possibilities for a humanistic Utopia in unexpected places.

Further reading:
Marian Dzúrik and Ann Stephen (eds.), After the Spring: Contemporary Czech and Slovak Art, Sydney 1994.
Kathrin Rhomberg and Roman Ondák (eds.), Julius Koller: Univerzálne Futurologické Operácie, Cologne 2003.
Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989, London 2009.

Elizaveta Butakova
November 2009

Supported by the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art.