Country-City (Trencín) comprises a shallow, flattened cardboard box at the bottom of which is a small painting of Trencín, a city in Western Slovakia. The box is stained and crumpled at its corners. It belongs to a body of work that the artist made between 1963 and 1966 in which he painted onto found and discarded objects. It typifies his interest in the appropriation of base, non-art objects. From 1966 Koller used the terms ‘junk’ and ‘junk culture’ to describe such works. More recently he has explained: ‘I felt allied to “junk culture”. De facto, I constantly live within a “junk cultural situation”. In junk situations no “grand art” or beautiful painting is born.’ (Quoted in ‘Introduction to Work of Julius Koller’, in Slovak National Gallery 2010, p.122.) Country-City (Trencín) falls into a category of work which Koller called ‘Anti-Happenings’. He first used the term in 1965 in his manifesto ‘Anti-Happening (System of Subjective Objectivity)’. This proposal described a practice that aimed to evoke the universal through the personal and the everyday, in order to produce work that would ‘engage instead of arrange’ (quoted in ‘Engagement Instead of Arrangement …’, in Kolnischer Kunstverein 2003, p.128). Other works which fall into the category of ‘Anti-Happenings’ are Question Mark b. (Anti-painting, Anti-Text) 1969 (Tate T13312) and Con(end)ception 1972 (Tate T13314).
Koller’s work explores human life situations through humorous and absurd actions performed in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, photography, works on paper and found objects. Koller typically worked on a modest scale, raising questions about the status of the art object. During the 1960s and 1970s, his native Czechoslovakia was undergoing great social and political change. Before the offensive of the Warsaw Pact in 1968, the country had enjoyed a moment of relative freedom, which allowed artists to access ideas that had been generating in Western Europe. After 1968 the political situation became more repressive and avant-garde artistic production became primarily a private activity. From very early in his career, Koller rejected the formal and traditional principles of academic art, choosing instead to follow the movements of dada, nouveau réalisme, Situationist International and Fluxus, which had become known to him through the momentary lack of restriction in the country.
Throughout Koller’s career he produced works that fell into two main conceptual groups. The first was the ‘Anti-Happenings’, while the second was a project titled ‘U.F.O. (Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations)’, a term coined by the artist in 1970. For Koller, this body of work was a means by which he coped with the harsher socio-political landscape of Czechoslovakia after 1968. The works assigned to ‘U.F.O.’ allude to the existence of extra-terrestrials in order to draw on the possibilities of existence beyond our own experience. In doing so, Koller aimed to show the impossibility of situating his practice in the present, by suggesting that his actions were part of a trajectory which continued into the future. Within this category is Universal Futurological Opening (For a Red Chickadee) 1978 (Tate T13313).
Kathrin Rhomberg (ed.), Julius Koller: Univerzalana Futurologicke Operacie, exhibition catalogue, Kolnischer Kunstverein, Cologne 2003.
Christine Macel and Natasha Petresin-Bachhelez (eds.), The Promises of the Past: 1950–2010, A Discontinuous History of Art in Former Eastern Europe, exhibition catalogue, Centre Pompidou, Paris 2010.
Petra Hanáková and Aurel Hrabuický (eds.), Julius Koller Science Fiction Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava 2010.