One Man Anti Show
The following walk-through took place on Tuesday, January 24, at the exhibition Július Koller. One Man Anti Show at mumok, Vienna. The participants were Kate Sutton, a writer based in Zagreb, and Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović, two members of the curatorial collective What, How and for Whom? / WHW, based in Berlin and Zagreb, respectively. WHW is currently engaged in a six-episode collaboration with the Kontakt Collection, with the overall title my sweet little lamb (Everything we see could also be otherwise), running in installments through May 8, 2017. One of the artists they are featuring is Koller.
mumok’s sweeping, three-level survey, curated by Daniel Grúň, Kathrin Rhomberg, and Georg Schöllhammer, offers new insights into an artist who used his practice to undermine (if not entirely excavate) the institutional context governing the display of artworks. Rather than fall in line with the trope of the beleaguered Eastern European conceptualist, the curators argue that Koller strove not toward inclusion or recuperation, so much as toward a radical refusal of current systems in favor of some dreamy (often gravity-defying) potential alternatives.
Kate Sutton: It’s intriguing to see how an institution like mumok handles an “anti-artist” like Július Koller. For instance, the decision to introduce the exhibition here on the top floor with the famous ping-pong tables from Koller’s 1970 show at the Gallery of Youth in Bratislava—which, as I understand, marked the artist’s rejection of the gallery-show format. As a framing device, it’s aggressive and playful at the same time. How did WHW frame the Koller work shown so far in Zagreb?
Nataša Ilić: We have only shown a handful of Koller’s works so far. These we injected directly into the street, in the window of Booksa café or on that banner in Zagreb’s main square.
KS: Whereas here the curators have to grapple with the context of the institution. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen a Koller solo show in a museum.
Sabina Sabolović: To my knowledge, the only Koller exhibition prior to this was last year in the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. It was produced by the same curatorial team, but it was not as extensive or as elaborate as this—especially when it comes to the question of how to even exhibit this type of work in an institutional context.
NI: The first time I really saw Koller’s work was in 2008, after his death. They held a conference in Bratislava on what to do with his archive, which was just spread on the floor in these bags and plastic and carpet boxes.
KS: Like the way the archives are presented here at mumok, in the plastic bags?
NI: No, this plastic here is much more professional. That plastic was really just how Koller kept his archives. And while it was not completely public, certain people were invited to sift through things. This, I believe, was the starting point for this exhibition.
KS: One of the curators, Daniel Grúň, mentioned it took something like three years to sort the entire archive.
SS: I can imagine. I think there’s a parallel with the artist Tomislav Gotovac, whose own archive is now on view in his old apartment, which is now an institution. Not only in terms of Gotovac’s practice, but also this way of building your living environment as a kind of inhabited archive. And then there’s the type of work that this kind of archive requires—that someone first has to dig through all of this material and then figure out how to make it accessible, while still trying to respect the artist’s system, which is, of course, refusing to be accessible. This is the case for Gotovac, too. Though I guess Gotovac was also running naked through the city, which is something I think Koller would never do, so one would have to start from this difference.
KS: A minor difference.
NI: Yeah, very minor.
KS: I think it’s interesting to compare how the curators integrate the archive into the exhibition space. For instance, up in this first gallery, excerpts are laid out atop a stack of walls from previous exhibitions. As a display tactic, this reminded me of the David Maljković exhibition that WHW curated last year at the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana. There, the artist treated the piles of old podiums in storage like found objects, using them as readymade display cases. I couldn’t help but wonder if that exhibition was an influence on this one?
SS: No, I believe the curators here were working with an architect, who was tasked with trying to somehow reconcile the structures and exhibition strategies with Koller’s own reluctance to use any kind of straightforward gallery or museum display.
NI: They have really managed to convey the sense of the archive being both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. Their choice to show the archive on the floor, in those plastic storage bags, while projecting some pages of the books as a slide show—I have the feeling that if you were to walk through the exhibition and didn’t really know much about Koller, there are so many repeating motifs, so many little details, that you could develop a narrative, even if it didn’t perfectly match the real story of Koller. Overall, I think this show is really successful, especially given how challenging it is to translate this material into an exhibition form.
SS: They manage to avoid the usual spines of solo shows. Yes, there’s a biographical approach—or, rather, a chronological approach—but the exhibition is primarily built through Koller’s own system of thinking about art.
NI: The structure of his art was structured through structuring his biography.
KS: But in that case, why would the show open with a later work like J.K. Ping-Pong Club, a concept he developed later in his career, right?
SS: It’s true, the Ping-Pong Club was first developed, if I remember correctly, for Koller’s last official show in anything resembling a gallery space. But I really appreciate this as a starting point, because it raises the questions of what constitutes an art gesture and what it means to deconstruct that gesture. It also zeros in on the issue of quality, which was constantly present in how Koller treated his material, in his work with amateur artists, and how he understood his own position as an artist.
NI: And these four tables here are not all from that first show. Koller was always revisiting his material. These objects are, for example, from 1980 or even 1989. This one with the stacked newspapers instead of a net, this is the artist’s collection of three years of newspapers from around 1989 through the dissolution of the country, which fell apart—I mean, divided—in 1993. So these tables represent different periods, but all rooted in that show from 1970. What we’re seeing is the same object evolving into different things through time.
KS: But then why pair these tables with the series of portraits suspended in that back corner? Or I guess they’re not even really portraits, but images of the artist holding various objects while standing on his balcony.
SS: I think this is also connected—at least as I read it—because what Koller is doing in these images is using his own body as a kind of display. This is just another way of showing him operating completely outside of an institutional exhibition context or the context of a gallery show.
NI: An “anti-show.” If you notice, the curators didn’t hang anything on the walls. I think this is a truly elegant solution for approaching material that in its essence opposes commodification of any kind. For a long time, Koller was not concerned with these things, but once it became a conscious interest of his, it became a dominant aspect of his work. Daniel was telling me that there were Koller pieces bought for a lot of money by famous museums and then some years later, replicas of the same pieces would show up in somebody’s private house. I know this was the case with many other artists as well, but for Koller, it was not just about commodification, it was this general anti-institutional stance. I think the curators manage to build this into the exhibition without dwelling on it.
KS: There are a lot of casual re-creations of things, too, within this exhibition. For instance, these ping-pong tables are not necessarily the ping-pong tables. And even some of the archival materials have been reprinted in different formats.
SS: I think that because this is the first big Koller show to be done like this, so extensively, the curators had to also probably negotiate a certain desire to educate their audience. So, you have all this material, and it is categorized a bit in what might seem to be an institutional way, with a certain, subtle hierarchy between the objects. Maybe the challenge for the next team tackling Koller would build on what Nataša was saying: how to give the material the freedom to exist in this kind of anti-commodified world. I’m not certain this can be done, but it would be so interesting to see Koller’s work outside the frames, outside the Plexi, allowed to be shown in the world that he was living in.
NI: There is a strong sense of experimentation in this exhibition, like nothing is really fixed.
KS: Well, Koller’s not really fixed. Daniel said something about how basically his whole practice was about trying to turn himself into a question mark.
NI: Yes. I mean, so far we have shown very few pieces in Zagreb, but one was his Universal Futurological Question Mark (1972).
SS: It’s quite nice but a little scary how strongly it resonates now, isn’t it? This Question Mark?
NI: I was actually imagining for a moment an exhibition in which everything of Koller’s was shown. All of the paintings, millions of them.
SS: All the elements in the archives.
NI: The exhibition would stretch from here to Graz. It would become its own city!
KS: They would probably have to use the walls for that.
Kate Sutton is a critic and curator based in Zagreb, Croatia.
Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović are members of the curatorial collective What, How and for Whom? / WHW, based in Berlin and Zagreb, respectively.