Universal Physical-Cultural Operation 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 several intersecting lines dividing it, and text in its upper and lower margins. The artist has written the title of the work above the diagram, and the year of its production and his name below. The large rectangle represents the outline of a tennis court, and the intersecting lines represent the markings on the court when seen from above, with the net running vertically down the centre. Directly in the centre of the court, the artist has drawn a circle, which, because of its longitudinal and latitudinal markings, recalls a globe. In this context, the globe seems to refer to a tennis-ball, suggesting that the game of tennis has been elevated to a symbol of universality. The work can be read as a symbol of Koller’s utopian and humanistic views on culture and art’s relationship with life, communicated through the medium of sport.

In the late 1960s, Koller made several works in which he physically transformed tennis courts by digging up the soil of the court or repainting its lines. He subsequently often referenced tennis in his conceptual works on paper. 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’. He has explained that in the political situation in Czechoslovakia at the time, tennis and ping-pong became,

a symbol of democratic communication, where it’s still possible to preserve, according to certain rules of fair play, a sort of possibility of communication, of comparison, and also rivalry, and at the same time some exchanges of opinions: in this sport’s case an exchange of blows using a ball which flies from one side to the other and is actually a sort of individualising of this attempt at communication, which at the time was visibly weakening and beginning to experience the first obstacles and was ceasing to function in the normal way.

(Quoted in Rhomberg and Ondák, p.137.)

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 with 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 traditional forms. 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 is very similar in form to the works Universal Physical-Cultural Operation (Ping-Pong) 1974 (T12440) and Universal-Cultural Physical-Cultural Picture 1979 (T12439). As in Universal Physical-Cultural Operation (Ping-Pong), 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 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,

, 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.