Universal Physical Cultural Operation-Defence (U.F.O.) is a black and white photograph mounted on a sheet of paper, with the title of the work, the year of its production and the name of the artist hand-written below it. It shows the artist leaning out of a window casement on a roof-top, with a ping-pong bat in his hand. The bat is absurdly out of place, giving the scene a Dada-esque humour, also found in Universal-Cultural Futurological Operation 1970 (T12430) and Koller’s other self-portraits. The title and content of the photograph place it in a close relation to the series Universal Physical Culture Operation-Attack (U.F.O.) (reproduced in Rhomberg and Ondák, pp.94–5) in which Koller is also emerging from a casement of a roof. However, whereas in the ‘attack’ series he holds a ping-pong bat aloft, in the ‘defence’ photograph, the bat is lowered and the artist appears dejected, with his other hand placed on his head.
Several of Koller’s ‘anti-happenings’ or ‘cultural situations’, as he called them, involved ping-pong or tennis, from installing a ping-pong table in a gallery or repainting the markings on a tennis-court. He was interested in the democratising aspect of sports such as ping-pong and tennis, in which two players interact strictly according to the rules of the game, ensuring ‘fair play’. He also often used ping-pong or tennis paraphernalia in his self-portraits. In the collage work Ping-pong Monument (U.F.O.) Project 1971 (reproduced in Rhomberg and Ondák, pp.84–5), a giant hand holding a ping-pong bat has been placed in a landscape of pre-fabricated Communist apartment blocks. As the critic Jan Verwoert has commented, ‘like the yo-yo, the ping-pong bat represents the possibility of a more playful society in the face of socialist standardization’ (Verwoert, pp.98–9).
The title Universal Physical Cultural Operation-Defence (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). 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’ in 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.