Summary

Universal Fantastic Orientation 1–6 (U.F.O.) is the photographic documentation of a ‘cultural situation’, as Koller termed his conceptual installation and performance works. It consists of six black and white photographs 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. In the first five photographs the artist is pictured standing in various locations in the countryside, as if he were a hitchhiker by the roadside. He is holding a sign with the fictional place-name ‘UFOMANY’ painted upon it. The prefix ‘UFO-’ refers to Koller’s concept of ‘Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations’. In this title, the concept has been transformed into ‘Universal Fantastic Orientation’ to reflect the work’s use of topographical points of reference. The suffix ‘-MANY’ is a suffix in the Slovak language that indicates a place. The critic Tom Holert has suggested that it is a reference to Čičmany, an ornately-decorated Slovakian heritage village (Holert, p.147). An indication of distance in minutes (45 min., 35 min., 25 min., 15 min., 05 min. and 00 min.) is provided on each sign, accompanied by a question mark. In the final image, Koller is shown standing outside a traditional wooden house. He is covering the question mark next to ‘00 min.’ with his hand, to indicate his arrival at his destination, but is surrounded by question marks that have been painted onto the photograph, covering the original ornate carving of the wood.

The question mark as a universal sign of questioning is a key symbol in Koller’s work. He comments, ‘during my subsequent artistic activity, the form of the question mark has come to represent an idea – a sign that changes according to the context of an individual mythology’ (quoted in Dzúrik and Stephen, p.40). Universal Fantastic Orientation 1–6 (U.F.O.) relates to Koller’s interest in fictional spaces – including Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle and his invented gallery in the High Tatra Mountains – as sites for artistic questioning. Whilst Koller often used urban spaces for staging his ‘anti-happenings’ and ‘cultural situations’, a significant number took place in the countryside. Here, the inclusion of the traditional wooden house implies a questioning of the relationship between the artist and his cultural heritage.

The title Universal Fantastic Orientation 1–6 (U.F.O.) is one of Koller’s many variations on the initials U.F.O., which he began to use in 1970 to describe the ‘cultural situations’ he created. Koller originally used the initials to mean ‘Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations’, but created many variations: the ‘U’ has stood for ‘universal’ or ‘universal-cultural’; the ‘F’ has become ‘futurological’, ‘fantastic’, ‘functional’ or ‘fictional’; the ‘O’ has stood for ‘object’, ‘question mark’ (‘otaznik’ in Czech) or ‘revival’ (‘ozivenie’ in Czech). The critic Jan Verwoert has commented on the significance of this constantly shifting reference: 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’ (Jan Verwoert, ‘Július Koller: Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, Germany’ in Frieze no.79, November–December 2003, pp.98–9, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/julius_koller/

accessed 19 November 2009).

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.
Tom Holert, ‘Julius Koller; Kolnischer Kunstverein’ in ArtForum vol. XLII, no.5, January 2004, p.147, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_5_42/ai_112735009/?tag=content;col1

accessed 19 November 2009.

Elizaveta Butakova
November 2009

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