Olaf Nicolai

Cula Performance, Kunstverein München (2011)

Olaf Nicolai‘s Cula performance at the Kunstverein München in 2011 was based on the experience of an interactive meeting ritual: a tea ceremony based on an imaginary script.

For this performance, Olaf Nicolai designed a limited edition in collaboration with the Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg. The limited edition comprises a service that includes a tray, a teapot, and a teacup made from black bisque porcelain. The porcelain set is complemented by a book written by a team of authors and a specially designed serving cloth.

In addition to the aesthetic aspirations, Olaf Nicolai conferred an interactive character on Cula: in a flow of text, the book about coral gardens that is part of the edition precisely describes the scene in which readers find themselves drinking tea. Nicolai reflects the tea ceremony and the rites of tea drinking itself. The reader becomes part of the action. During the performance at Kunstverein München two people sat before a Cula set at a long table with cassette recorders and two pairs of headphones. They could enter into the moment of a tea ceremony with the aid of the book the piece was based on and recreate the descripted feeling.

By combining recollection, anthropological research, and fiction, Nicolai creates instructions for a real moment in the present, in which, by listening to the audio tapes, participating visitors are encouraged in an experiment to witness an imaginary ritual through their own perception. The artist thereby calls on visitors to image a scene and thus project themselves into a fictitious meeting that could be become a tangible experience.

In the Cula piece, Nicolai deals with the economic aspects of time and trade. The work of art is connected to the ethnographic research by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who studied the social rituals related to trade and the barter economy on the Trobriand Islands in the western Pacific during the 1920s. In particular, the piece makes reference to Malinowski’s later publication, Coral gardens and their magic – an anthropological study on the economy, trade, bartering system, magical rituals, and expeditions of the local Kula tribe.

The surface of the tea service is reminiscent of the structured pattern of corals, while at the same time making reference to mathematical non-linear growth models. In fact, the design of the tea pot was developed using a medical software programme that simulates complex asymmetrical growth processes.

Cula is the Berlin artist Olaf Nicolai’s first piece for the Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg and the very first piece for which he has used porcelain.

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