Joseph Beuys, the late German Trans-Avant guard artist once said, “I think with my knee anyway”. What seems a quip remark at first sight actually contains significant wisdom in that we experience the world as embodied based on our ensemble of senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell and their combinations such as in our haptic capabilities that enables us to make judgements about the material qualities of our environment through the synthesis of visual experiences and the memories of tactile exploration of surfaces and object qualities. Our body memory stores a wealth of information and tacit knowledge that relate to its experience of being and moving in time and space.
With some experience in dance and an education in fine arts, Michaela Zimmer’s creative practice focuses on the exploration of how the human body moves in space and through this movement defines both the space and the perception of itself. In an age where virtual and augmented reality increasingly permeate our everyday life experiences, the relationship to our own bodies, the corporeality of others and our physical environment regains in importance.
Advancing her practice through light drawing, that is, the photographic interrogation of different parts of the human body in the early period and moving to a sustained practice in painting as both object and performance, she has worked with dancers since 2016 to explore and develop a visual vocabulary which enables the rendering of different types of movement and spatial experiences and vice versa, to animate the painted object.
Her interest in the embodied experience of motion in space and time has led Michaela Zimmer to establish a daily five kilometre running routine in order to track her body’s physical resonances – exclusively. After the daily jog, two to three drawing records are created to capture the physical and sensory traces of the exercise in lines, shapes, and symbols. Like dance scores, these recordings are analysed and regularly condensed into intensified linear, structural, and spatial gestures made on a range of carriers ranging from paper to traditional canvas and construction foil. The formal repertoire that develops through her systematic and repetitive approach seeks to crystallise proprioceptive stimuli and reactions of the musco-skeletal system perceived by the artist during her regular running exercises, which in/forms her constantly evolving body memory.
The development of objects made from and of these image carriers was motivated by her intent to transpose the codified two-dimensional knowledge and visual vocabulary into three and four dimensions.
Through collaborations, as for example with students of the MA Dance of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, Ireland, or residents of the village of Coaraze, France these specially crafted, soft and malleable objects are appropriated by the dancers. By wearing them or manipulating them the painted objects become animated through physical movement in time and space. The design of the objects, which oscillates between the skilfully tailored and rough make-shift fabric compositions, loosely proposes a scope for the dancers within the given physical environment for interaction with and through them as well as with each other. The space-defining corporeal performance is further stimulated in a directional way by sound collages created in further collaboration with local musicians.
Unlike in performative drawing and painting, Zimmer’s approach inserts layers of mediation between her own embodied experience and its manifestation through acts of making and performing by others that draw our attention to the sensory experience, to the corporeal memory and to the tacit knowledge anchored in our bodies that shape our movement in a space and our relation to it.
Prof. Doc. Kerstin Mey, President, University of Limerick, 2023
In the UK and the US, full-body suits are back in fashion: cosy and colourful as pyjamas or house suit. Featuring rounded ears or a stubby tail, the onesie then looks like a domesticated form of Heracles’ coat of the Nemean lion, which made its wearer almost invulnerable. Slipping into someone else’s skin has always proved advantageous to humans, be it from cows or crocodiles. Conversely, few Christian depictions of saints are as gruesome as that of Bartholomew, whose martyrdom consisted of being flayed. In murals and sculptures, he wears his skin over his arm like a limp, empty onesie.
Empty overalls also lie on the floor in Michaela Zimmer’s exhibition ON GOING, some hanging on welding rods as if waiting for their next assignment. How that might look like is shown in a sequence of images that runs in a loop on a screen: three figures dressed in Zimmer’s full-body suits roam the eerily beautiful industrial dystopia of Middlesbrough and its surroundings. Their faces averted or obscured by hair, they appear isolated and stern. Their suits become an incorporate uniform.
These onesies are not made of colourful plush: assembled pieces of shiny black cloth, as if covered with oil, grey painted canvas and white disposable protective suits made of polypropylene seem to shield their wearers from an inhospitable outside world in which the human body needs more than the strength of a lion—rather the constitution of soldiers: Each of her suits is still based on the cutting pattern of a British Army boilersuit, that Michaela Zimmer took apart some twenty years ago.
From the beginning up until now, the overalls are closely connected to the movement of the human body — a theme that has long pervaded Michaela Zimmer’s art. The works 220605 and 220604 shown in the exhibition seek to make something as ubiquitous as the movements of our bodies perceptible. Michaela Zimmer approaches this phenomenon with the help of an annotation system inspired by choreographic notations recording the reverberation following movement repetition during her daily run. From the resulting archive of a movement vocabulary, she has transferred the memorised curves, lines and dots larger than life onto Lacktex Oil Cloth using acrylic spray. Michaela Zimmer abstracts the physical intuition of movement into a filigree visual immediacy that connects with the beholders’ through their mirrored black image.
With these works, Michaela Zimmer’s own powerful jogging movements become a stimulus for the boilersuit-wearing performers. If you look closely, her movements are to be found everywhere in the exhibition: they are present in the material of the disposable coveralls worn and spray-painted in previous performances, as much as in the grey or gesturally blue painted canvases, now enclosing other people’s arms and necks as parts of the coveralls. Zimmer’s own energy finds a transfer in this: the impasto layers of paint and the synthetic textiles promise protection and strength, but they also trail behind the wearers in a train of stretcher bars partly covered with canvas. To set this material from her past in motion too Michaela Zimmer equips it with heavy duty caster wheels. But movement proves difficult for the canvas frame: the asphalt of the industrial landscape is not its natural habitat.
Stretcher frames and wheels, movement and liminality, dance and boilersuits: in ON GOING, materials and techniques from Michaela Zimmer’s long artistic career in Great Britain and Berlin come together. Like a remix, the works inscribe themselves into each other, develop each other further and open up trains of thought: how does movement coming from within us influence the full-body suit made out of skin, fabric, space and environment that surrounds us every day?
Anika Reineke, Nov. 2022
The sculpture refers to the 17 steps that each form a section of the staircase at Lobe Block, the “staircase-“ or “terrasse-house” built by Arno Brandlhuber.
The visual realisation of physical movement plays a central role in Zimmer’s work. For 171717 she ran up and down 17 steps 17 times on 17 days and first recorded this process in notes on paper. After she had subsequently learned the “language” of this particular movement, its “alphabet” was transferred onto 17 metres of plastering grid. The sculpture is part of PORÖS, an exhibition curated by Sculplobe.
“Anything can happen for some weird reason;
yet also, without any reason, nothing at all can happen.”
― Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia ,2008
The intellectual history of western culture is based on a dualism between body and mind. Michaela Zimmer strives consistently to resolve the dichotomy of optional territory that emerges from these fields of diverging forces by focusing on the somatic – quasi natural – disposition of the human body as a condition of art. In early performances she utilized her own body for this purpose. Strictly speaking, at the time she rather created body- or human sculptures, excluding the public from the process which led the work to resemble research projects. In fact, there was no sign of a visible course of action but a succession of possible figures in space. Through the medium of the body, questions about form and space as well as about the perception of time and image were articulated via photography. Although Michaela Zimmer must now clearly be regarded as a painter and a non-representational vocabulary of forms prevails in her paintings, it is apparent that her works are constantly investigating the different possibilities of the spatial conditions we move in, and the images we create of these.
She continues to make targeted use of the specific memory-related capabilities of the body, i.e. the body is not only an object of temporal processes but also a carrier of information about them. Methodically, this automatically results in an oscillating interplay of painterly intention and pictorial elements that derive from Zimmer’s individual proprioception.
In terms of intellectual history, we are close to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s third path in the realm of phenomenology, which understands the actual body as decisive for perception, comprehension and reproduction. The philosopher speaks explicitly of the painter who provides his body and lends it to the world, for he sees him as a proven expert for the metamorphoses of the seeing and the visible. If one illuminates the origins that have expanded the idea of a purely intellectually operating memory to include the concept of body memory alienated from consciousness, one cannot avoid two patriarchal father figures of German-language based research – Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. The latter was of the opinion that there was probably nothing more terrible and uncanny about the entire prehistory of man than his mnemonic technique and found in his Zur Genealogie der Moral “Something is burned into [the human’s brain] so that it remains in the memory: only what does not stop hurting remains in the memory”. Almost simultaneously, body memory in psychoanalysis became responsible for affects, reactions and actions as a result of previously experienced traumas. Parallel to this version, now known as traumatic body memory, the concept of body memory has already been used sporadically in the context of habitual body memory. Both concepts interpreted the connection between body and memory as an extremely drastic one and were essentially derived from the tried and tested storage of movement sequences. The basis of this is that in early learned sequences such as playing music, cycling or swimming we come out of practice but do not forget how to do it. Milieus in which this form of memory becomes dressage and drill were and are sport, military and ballet. In specific contexts, members of these groups can use suitable impulses to retrieve movements from the kinesthetic memory virtually automatically and convert them into complex, always identical sequences. In a departure from this still prevailing discipline of the body, a kind of rehabilitation of the body has recently taken place, which is reflected in the contextualization of the body’s memory based on the neurosciences. Especially the historical sciences understand the exploration of this form of memory as a revision of the concept of culture, so to speak the resurrection of the disappeared bodies of the Age of Enlightenment. With regard to the musculoskeletal system, a certain focus can be observed on the gesture and thus on the hand as an organ of knowledge, which is directly related to the development of language. Findings from the field of music are revealing, some of which can be transferred to the visual arts. The composer Györgi Ligeti, for example, describes in detail the feedback loops between his tonal ideas and the motor activity of his fingers on the piano keyboard mechanism, which, enriched by new sketches of ideas, run through the composition process several times in each case. In this context, it is perfectly logical that since 2007 scientists from different disciplines in the working group Neuroscience & Dance have been discussing motor intelligence.
It is against this background that the artist’s current collaborations with dancers and choreographers of the British National Contemporary Dance Company Rambert and the Japanese dancer Fukiko Takase must be viewed. Here the partners gain their respective gestural substrate from the repertoire of individual depth sensitivity in a kind of parallel swing. In medical terms, depth sensitivity, or proprioceptive perception, describes the sensory absorption of stimuli from within. Muscles, joints and tendons regularly give the brain information about the position of the body in space, the direction of an executed movement and the resistance that acts on the body. The aim here is to refine the visual and visceral impact based on forms of action inscribed in the body. These generate their forms directly from the fundus of skills acquired through practice. What seems perfectly logical in connection with the strict discipline of ballet is not immediately obvious in painting. Nevertheless, the signs and traces of colour on Zimmer’s surfaces also result to a large extent from this process.
Merleau-Ponty already saw one’s own body (corps propre) filled with acquired knowledge, for the mediation of which the physical act of painting is of particular importance. Neuroscience has in the meantime clarified how important neurons and the muscles they control are in the acquisition and retrieval of accumulated impressions. For some time now Zimmer has been systematically activating the various possibilities that arise from this constellation for her paintings, which develop slowly in constant synchronisation between physical memory and motor execution.
Recent iterations use the potential of the body’s own memory more directly and immediately. To achieve this, the artist is currently undergoing daily running training and consistently fills three to four sheets of paper, rarely fewer, with colours and pencils from the previous day in rapid succession after returning to her studio without a break for reflection. The recordings functions here like seismographic drawings, traces or signs of sensory impressions that have just been shaped. This model of the transformation of memory into form stems largely from short-term memory, while the concept of body memory, in collaboration with the Company Rambert, picks up more on the idea of the body as an archive.
Without a doubt, we find ourselves on an experimental level when Zimmer applies physical memory, although undeniably available but, depending on the type, difficult to control, in the process of making art.
As if to test their own method, in some variations of the performances body paintings shift the emphasis of the participative exercises towards ritual, in others the dancers approach the status of the artworks in white, minimally drawn overalls. At this point one begins to see how strongly Zimmer’s work is anchored in important tendencies of the 1970s avant-garde, when the site-based arts turned into action and the time-based ones such as dance, music, poetry, and performance began to approach the installation and the object.
It would be wrong, given the extensive body of images and drawings created in recent years, to interpret them exclusively through the application of body-related memory culture. Undoubtedly, the traces of the performative have always been inscribed in the multi-layered, fragmented layers of her works, which consist of canvas, coloured plastic films, packaging and adhesive material. Nevertheless, the result is regularly an abstract painting, some of which have recently emancipated themselves from the wall and hang freely in space like flags. They seem to complete the topos of presence that determined the iconoclastic project of abstraction from the very beginning. The sublime, which is generally imported with exactly this attitude, is effectively outwitted by the artist using dazzlingly connotated materials. At this very point Zimmer differs notably from comparable research in the minimization possibilities of the painterly gesture, which in the end always strive for the auratic canvas. The fact that some of her subtle painterly backgrounds are thoroughly worked through in time-consuming processes of multiple layering only proves an ostensible contradiction. It is precisely in the fruitful shifts and conflicts generated through different approaches where the process of the visual quest profits most.
Susanne Prinz, 2019
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Das Auge und der Geist, 1961 (Deutsch 2003)
 Friedrich Nietzsche: KSA 5, S.295
 https://www.tamed.eu/ausbilden/wissenschaft-dance-science/ abgerufen 10.1.19
A surprising number of artists have worked with synthetic material in the past. However the material often appeared as a one off and was not used in a methodical fashion. The use of PE films in particular had some bizarre outcomes at times. As this industrially produced material has appeared so frequently in contemporary art over the past few decades, it hast to be considered a classic material not just for sculpture but for painting too. Indeed, for a long time it seemed to modernise anything it touched. However, by now the use of plastic in art has become ambivalent. Nowadays, it seems to be a material that points both to the past and to the future at the same time. There is no longer the celebration of novelty or naïve optimism attached to its use. It has a striking ability to hover ambiguously between the three-dimensional world of objects and the two-dimensional world of images, making it exceptionally attractive as a contemporary material.
It seems reasonable to assume that Michaela Zimmer’s specific interest lies right here, given the fact that her work has always explored the different possibilities of the spatial conditions we move in, and the images we create of these. It is through this exploration that her paintings bring the body forward as an argument. This is not necessarily visible at first, but it is palpable, because the format and interior structure of the canvases are based on the artist’s height and reach. Thus a performative space is portrayed which corresponds directly with each viewer, since like Le Corbusier’s Modulor, it takes man as the measure. If one engages with it, not only does a fusion of pictorial and actual space occur, the painting support and the picture also become one. For a lack of a fixed source of light in the picture, the distance collapses, which separates the viewer from the location of the visual experience. Instead, there is an infinite succession of reflections in a countless number of paint layers. What is specific about these canvases, characterised by a virtually incorporeal, floating chromatic space, is the fourth dimension inscribed within them; time manifested as traces of the performative between the multi-stratified, fragmented layers.
The introduction of sculptural elements enhances this remarkable oscillation of spatial awareness. Details get blurred and stay hidden behind semi transparent PE film. The dichotomy of abstraction and corporeality disappears in the merging of image and object – illusionary space and material. Looking at her past work it is obvious that it has always required an active viewer, someone who does not only decipher in a linear fashion by means of syntactical and lexical rules, but who puts themselves in direct association to the objects and signs defined by the movement and energy in the work. From this perspective the extension of the image to a further level of objectivity is coherent and convincing.
Susanne Prinz, 2016
When we look at the painting of Michaela Zimmer it is apparent that there is something visceral tied to the process of viewing. Not only are we aware that the canvases often have materials draped over them, with plastics stretched and twisted around corners, but also that the works have a strong relationship to the body. The size and dimensions of the works, we notice, are corporeal by nature – they link to the body, and are directly related to the artists’ own physical constraints, namely her reach.
Elements of performance are utilized to construct her work; continuous painted lines, applied in one stroke, with dashes and reflections that often produce multiple layers and make up a surface that is fluid but also precise. When talking about her painting process Zimmer reflects on her past as a performer and the state one goes into both mentally and physically when focusing on making movements or gestures. She uses this energy in the studio as part of the process of creating and often works on many paintings at once.
The corporeal in her work is not necessarily one we are aware of within the dogma of discussing abstraction. Although her paintings are certainly abstract, what is prevalent is how the materiality and mark making invites us to focus on the body of the artist during the creative process: Zimmer presents corporeal meanings that relate to more visceral aspects of the body and the visual language of abstraction. The space the work occupies affects us as a viewer, while the interference from the draped material forces us to move bodily around the work to engage with it. Never appearing quite the same when viewed from different angles, the transient nature of the surface encourages us to react to the work physically, which in a way, reflects the act of making.