Michaela Zimmer is a Berlin-based painter exploring the momentarily nature of physical movement, and energy. Her background in performance is strongly present in her current practice as a painter. She holds an MFA form UAL, Chelsea College of Arts, London. In the first half of 2018 FOLD, London, Kernel, Spain and fv, Berlin will show solos of her work that focuses on physical awareness of spatial conditions and the images evolving in this context. “labo(rat)ori”, an ongoing performance project with choreographer and dancer Miguel Altunaga was shown at PMAM, London and as part of Perpetual Movement at The Lowry Manchester in co-operation with Rambert, UK last year.
A 2 years residency at Liverpool Museum 2002 had laid an early foundation for her sculptural approach emphasizing on the performative. Shows following included Forum d’Art, Chateaux d’Vaudremont, France, Royal Society of British Sculptors Gallery, London, Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, Mies van der Rohe Haus and autocenter Berlin. More recently her work was included in exhibitions at Kunstverein Konstanz, Kunstverein Weiden, Germany and the Centre Pompidou Paris, France. CMYK, her last solo show at FOLD London, her representing gallery was in 2016.
Federica Torgano: During your career you studied sculpture at the Chelsea College of Arts, University of Arts London (UAL) Can you tell us how the sculptural element influences your current work?
Michaela Zimmer: “Physical awareness” of spatial conditions, is as much the origin as it is the content of my work. It’s through a sculptural approach that I resolve issues of energy in ‘still’ images. As I was trained in dance from early childhood, my interest in still images might seem at first contradictory. Looking closer though, it expresses a desire for the containment of fleeting energy as much as the longing for it to be shared. The transformative character of art provides the opportunity for me to create this oxymoron.
F.T.: In the evolution of your career we can see a sort of return to painting (after dance, photography and sculpture). If you had to define your painting work with one word, what would you choose between gesture, matter, conceptuality, abstraction?
M.Z.: Painting provides me with the opportunity to capture a corporeal energy in a visceral way. Regarding this aim, I presume the work must be seen in a rather conceptual context. In this sense the aim includes the matter of course.To me ‘gesture’ describes more the technique, while abstract painting happened to be the most challenging medium in this case. I never originally wanted to be an abstract painter and coming from sculpture based performance photography I was expected to obey a lot of rules and avoid taboos in that field at the beginning (happily ignoring them again very quickly).
Doing that at a time when painting was declared dead again wasn’t very popular, but to me it was a new gateway offering an extended area to my topics.
F.T.: Could you tell us about your process?
M.Z.:The process regarding the execution of the work can be divided into three steps. Preparing the canvases often includes building up many translucent layers, resulting in light and colour gradients. It is an intense procedure aimed at only one thing: to prepare the ground for something else. I then go through a lot of physical preparation, in order to reach a point where I am able to move in a highly concentrated way. Surrounded with a couple of often quite beautiful canvasses, I then use all sorts of tools to record traces.
The marks on the canvasses left from that stage are either combined directly with Polyethylene film (PE film) or covered with more layers of paint, in a very painterly manner.
F.T.: In a traditional way, sculpture seems to be related to an idea already present in the mind of the artist, who then works on the material to extricate it. Since your paintings are composed of different layers and materials, I was wondering if it is the same to you: while working on theme are you thriving towards a preconceived idea or it is something that just happens in the process?
M.Z.:Rather than having a preconceived idea in my mind, I strive for keeping my perception as open as possible at any time for whatever happens in the process. I always know when a piece of art requires something else, but sometimes it takes a long time to realise what the “missing link” is. Usually the hints are evolving directly in the process. The challenge is to be alert enough to embrace them and adopt appropriate measures.
F.T.: Is time an essential element in your work? And what about the speed of your gestures?
M.Z.:Terms like energy and movement in general are usually associated with speed. Some of the gestures executed in my paintings are indeed performed quickly. They are based on a high level of physical concentration and completed in one go. If this is to happen on a purely white primed-only canvas it can easily go wrong without a chance of correction. The scale of those canvases is rather large, with their measurement aligned to my physical reach in order not to restrict the movement in any direction. I refer to these paintings as my “fast” paintings. Almost contrary to them are the multi-layered paintings that take months to make. They relate to surfaces conveying traces of usage over time. A concrete wall in urban space, a work bench… Still the surface of my paintings always appears quite smooth and even. It takes time for the viewer to discover all sorts of different traces layer by layer. In that respect they can be called “slow” paintings.
F.T.: Could we say that the process, the genesis, is the subject matter itself to you?
M.Z.:I’d rather say the act of making the work, as much as the act of viewing it, is essential to my subject matter. Gesture to me is foremost associated with mere physicality. Regarding the range of physical activities a body can perform from basic movements of the lungs when breathing to high performance- sports I am interested in the various levels of energy that are generated. The human body is in constant motion. Even on the lowest energy level it is still in transition. And despite also happening in the brain as a biological process, physical movement interacts with and strongly influences the psychological system. Performance shows these processes directly, while my concept of painting is a translation of it. In that sense “physical thinking” is the source of my paintings.
F.T.: Is the relationship between your work and the public a key element? If yes, what’s the difference between the performative act executed in private, in your studio, and the one fulfilled in public? Here I’m also referring to the Liverpool Museum project, in which the public was not involved in the performative act.
M.Z.:I am mainly interested in physical acts that are performed for the sake of their energy and no other immediate purpose. When I am working with others, whether dancers or people with no background in professional physical disciplines, the biggest challenge is usually to get rid of the deliberate gestures, to achieve a state of ease and play in their movement.
During my residency at Liverpool Museum my work was focused on exploring borders between our perception of „inside“ and „outside“ via performance photography. The camera enabled me to capture the moment when bodies and objects would merge through movement and become single sculptural entities.
Although I experimented a lot by performing myself, leaving the camera on a timer, I also invited other people quite often to work with me. I would provide a protected space and setting for them to get into a state of playfulness. They chose the fabric for a dress and an object they wanted to perform with and once I had built them, we met for the actual performance. The fact that this happened in the protected space of a studio allowed for undisturbed playfulness which benefited the results largely. Speaking of results: here it were photos showing sculptures that only existed a few seconds and were generated through movement.
Sharing such a result publicly is a next step.
To me a successful artwork needs to be both: convincingly finished in form and open enough to invite an audience in at the same time. Only once it is talking it’s very own language it can trigger curiosity at the least or really any other emotion. This is the gateway through which the creative process opens up to others.
To which degree further creative processes are generated and nurtured then, depends of course largely on how much the audience is willing to engage with it on an active level.
With recent performances we created a tension by crossing the borders between mingling with an audience and presenting results at the same time.
As for me personally I would say that I love working with others as opposed to in front of others.
F.T.: Can you tell us something more about Labo(rat)ori?
M.Z.: Labo(rat)ori is a good example for what I described before. Labo(rat)ori as a title refers to experimenting, improvising, responding. It is a collaboration between choreographer Miguel Altunaga and myself, but also a collaboration with dancers Jacob O’Connell, Liam Francis and Stephen Quildan and composer David Preston. The piece is in constant flux, it develops each time we show it in different spaces. Miguel and I have a deep mutual understanding of art which builds the basis of our joint venture. The mere trust in each other’s work prevents us from “illustrating”: I am not creating the stage setting for a dance performance, nor are the movements of the dancers directly related to the gestures in the paintings to talk straight.
We have a basic structure on which we improvise, both in dance and painting. Our offer to the audience is to share the experience of our common space and energy.
F.T.: What are you working on now?
M.Z.: With three solo shows coming up in the first half of this year I am of course very busy in the studio. Since I always prefer to show new work this phase is extremely tense. Hardly anyone else is allowed to enter the space while it turns into a real laboratory. I am permitting all sorts to happen and I leave the studio with disgust and panic more than once a week. But I also know that nothing new would happen if I wasn’t brave enough to go through this and start all over again the next day. After a while lots of work starts to pile up and I realize that there’s something in every single piece that is important and leads to a next step, even though for a long while I don’t have a clue what the next step might look like. Then, all of a sudden, everything falls into place. I am simply doing something, and it turns out to be right. No, I am not going to tell you in which stage I am right now while we do the interview, but the next show ahead is at my London gallery FOLD and will open on the 2nd of February.