Summary

Universal Physical-Cultural Operation (Ping-Pong) is a postcard-sized piece of white paper on which the artist has drawn a diagram in marker pen. The diagram consists of a large rectangle with two intersecting lines dividing it into equal quarters, and text around its periphery. The large rectangle represents the outline of a ping-pong table; the vertical line represents the net, and the horizontal line represents the markings on the table. At the point where the lines intersect, the artist has drawn a small circle containing the word ‘art’. In this context, the circle may refer to the ball used in ping-pong. The work’s title is written above the rectangle, and the artist’s name and the date of the work appear along the bottom. The writing down the left-hand side reads ‘Július Koller’, and down the right-hand side, ‘Igor Gazdík’, the name of a fellow Slovakian artist (1943–2006). The two artists are therefore positioned as opponents in the game of art ping-pong represented by the diagram.

Koller 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’. In 1970, he was invited to exhibit in the Galerie der Jungen in Bratislava. He installed a ping-pong table, and visitors were encouraged to play against him and against each other. In this instance, ping-pong became a metaphor for communication, but Koller also often used ping-pong paraphernalia, such as bats and balls, in his self-portraits. Ping-pong was also therefore a part of his personal lexicon and self-mythology.

The format of drawing a diagram in marker on paper was used by Koller from around 1973, following on from his works on paper using ink-stamps begun in 1965, which he termed ‘an invitation to an idea’ (see T12436). Many of these works on paper played on the format of the postcard, with a diagram on one side and space for text on the other. This engagement with mail-art related to Koller’s insistence on working outside of official institutions. The marker drawings often incorporated his name or initials, question marks and the letters U.F.O., references to ping-pong or tennis, and fictional geographical locations (see reproductions in Rhomberg and Ondák, pp.86–92). Universal Physical-Cultural Operation (Ping-Pong) is very similar in form to the works Universal Physical-Cultural Operation 1975 (T12440) and Universal-Cultural Physical-Cultural Picture 1979 (T12439), although its demarcations refer to a ping-pong table rather than a tennis court. As in Universal Physical-Cultural Operation, the ball is placed at the centre of the markings, transforming it into a symbol. Universal-Cultural Physical-Cultural Picture was made several years after the other two works, indicating Koller’s ongoing interest in tennis and ping-pong, and the postcard format.

The title Universal Physical-Cultural Operation (Ping-Pong), 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’; and the ‘O’ has stood for ‘object’, ‘question mark’ (‘otaznik’ in Slovak) or ‘revival’ (‘ozivenie’ in Slovak).

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’ (quoted in Rhomberg and Ondák p.141), an approach evident throughout his artistic career. 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, and Alex Mlynárčik) published the Happsoc manifesto, proclaiming the whole city of Bratislava to be a ready-made work of art during the week of 2–8 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 1980–9, 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, nos.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.
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.

Elizaveta Butakova
November 2009

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