Question Mark b. (Anti-painting, Anti-Text) is a wooden tray with two ornate handles that Koller covered in white latex paint, into which he inscribed a large question mark. He described this object as an ‘anti-painting’. It features two elements that recur in his practice, the question mark and the use of white latex paint, which became his material of choice: ‘I created basic contacts, traces and compositions using white latex, which I designated as my own personal colour (anti-colour), symbolic in its lack of colour and its materiality. Even at that time the colour white represented spiritual expression for me, and a place between so-called art and anti-art, between materiality and metaphysics’ (quoted in ‘Conversation between Julius Koller and Hans Ulrich Obrist’, in Kolnischer Kunstverein 2003, p.144). The image of the question mark was used by Koller to symbolise the uncertainty that surrounded the socio-political context in Czechoslovakia where Koller lived and worked. Question Mark b. (Anti-painting, Anti-Text) was one of the first works in which he used this symbol, and falls into a category of works 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 Country-City (Trencín) 1966 (Tate T13315) 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 paintings, 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.