Universal Futurological Question Mark a–d (U.F.O.) 1972 is a series of four black and white photographs mounted on a single sheet of paper with the author’s name, the year of production and the title of the work handwritten below. The photographs show Koller approaching a blank wall, which is located next to a tennis court that he used for other interventions, and spraying a large question mark onto the wall with a substance resembling shaving foam. The final photograph shows the question mark left by the artist – a trace of the intervention depicted in the first three photographs. Koller reflected on his interest in the symbol of the question mark:
[it] actually asks generally not only about man’s relationship with the cosmos, which I then used under the name U.F.O.-naut, but also about the individual’s relationship to the collective, or the social situation. I made the question mark as a symbol in various ways, putting it on various materials and at various places: in the countryside, in the urban spaces of towns, even all around the part of the world that I could still get to at that time.
(Quoted in Rhomberg and Ondák, pp.136-7.)
The title Universal Futurological Question Mark a–d (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.’ (Verwoert, pp.98–9.)
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.
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.
Jan Verwoert, ‘Július Koller: Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, Germany’, Frieze no.79, November–December 2003, pp.98–9, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/julius_koller/
accessed 19 November 2009.
Supported by the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art.