On the wings of butterflies: Michelle Y Poonawalla transforms hurtful emotions into cathartic reactions

Michelle Y Poonawalla’s art is all about taking hurtful emotions and turning them into visceral and even cathartic reactions.

Jaideep Sen Published :  02nd March 2019 08:25 PM   |   Published :   |  02nd March 2019 08:25 PM
Michelle Y Poonawalla

Michelle Y Poonawalla

Michelle Y Poonawalla’s multimedia installation, Introspection, held at the Cochin Club, Fort Kochi as a collateral project at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018, concluded earlier this week, following a tremendous response, and even an extension of the show. 

Born from a contemplation on the barrage of images of violence and displacement on endlessly repeated news cycles, the project Introspection builds on Poonawalla’s interest in larger-scale interactive installations, and the use of new digital technologies, particularly mapped projections and motion sensor technology.

At the work, the audience is led through a sensory journey that begins with sound, using fragments of audio clips from the news, combined with ambient sounds. 

The compositions transition into an immersive 360-degree projection of torrential blood-rain — a symbolic representation of the violence and trauma in the clips. 

As the viewer walks through the space, strategically placed motion sensors trigger a dramatic cacophony of butterflies, signifying the final liberation of the soul, as they wash over the surface of the screen, creating a visceral, cathartic experience.

Poonawalla intends to take the audience on a journey that creates a moment of pause and a space for contemplation. “The experimental atmosphere of the Biennale has been the perfect setting to share the sound and video mapping technologies I’ve been working on,” she explains. “It has been an incredible experience to see people engage and respond to the immersive world of this installation.”

While Michelle’s style is varied, experimenting with techniques and technology remains a constant in her approach, even as she marries a classic paint-on-canvas style with digital technology.

Last year, she also illustrated and published a children’s book, The Adventures of Harvey Mouse Sleepover, with her daughter. The artist took time off to speak with us about the Biennale.

Michelle Y Poonawalla at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

What is the larger role of art at the Biennale?
What has been great about the curation at the Biennale is the opportunity it gives us to look at the work of artists from India and all over the world, in an entirely fresh context.

Each installation has been carefully selected, and they all come together to create an immersive experience that is open for everyone to interpret and enjoy in their own way.

It was great to see so many young art enthusiasts take the time to engage with all that the Biennale had to offer. It’s definitely one of the key game-changers in the cultural scene in India right now. 
Tell us a little about the subjects of discussion that you engaged with, at the festival.
Introspection was meant as a comment on the images of violence and displacement that we endlessly see in news cycles. I often feel this has a numbing effect on the audience, and you start to normalise these events. I wanted to create a moment of pause, honouring the gravity of these stories.

The installation combines audio clips of news pieces on the subject with digital visuals and motion sensor technology, to create what I hope is a compelling narrative and immersive experience for the viewer.

More broadly at the festival, I think Anita Dube was always going to bring a strong political aspect to her curation. As the first female curator of the Biennale, it was interesting to see how she addressed issues of gender representation in the art world. 

It was great to see work by internationally renowned feminist artists, the Guerrilla Girls, alongside Indian artists, who were also addressing issues of social justice. I found Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation particularly powerful.

Michelle Y Poonawalla

How do you see various streams of art coming together — from visual arts to installations, performance and video? How much of this will open up art from inside white cube galleries to a larger platform? 
For me, the Biennale has been a refreshing change from the usual ‘white cube’ experience. Of course, the white cube model has its place and relevance, but it can be quite an isolating experience for some.

I liked that the Biennale opened up the work of internationally renowned artists — be it William Kentridge, Lubna Chowdhury or Shilpa Gupta — to an audience who otherwise may not frequent 
galleries or international museums.

The curation made the most of the character of the spaces where the artworks were being displayed. For my installation, Introspection, we chose to create a ‘black box’ under the open skies of the Cochin Club, people stopped by if they happened to pass the Cochin Club, and leave with an experience.

Viewers at Michelle Y Poonawalla's installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Give us your personal notes about your stay, and time spent at the Biennale. 
What’s special about the Biennale is that the epicentre of Fort Kochi, and the areas around it, really come alive and everyone seems to be living art.

The Biennale is really site-specific in its layout and curation, and works within the context of Kochi. It is beautiful to see an international audience of art world insiders blending with locals, and all enjoying the same thing.

There’s a real sense of camaraderie, in conversations on the street, on the walls of coffee shops, on the backs of auto rickshaws. The town generously opens up to people from all over the world, and it has so much to offer — the charming architecture, delicious local food.

For anyone visiting, I’d recommend staying in the Fort Kochi area, with its old charming houses, some of which are converted to galleries and charming old hotels, like the Brunton Boatyard or the Old Harbour. 

Introspection by Michelle Poonawalla

Do you believe it is necessary that contemporary art must be political or activistic in nature, to make a seemingly greater impact?
For me, my art must be engaging and leave an impact on the viewer. That is the power one can have through art. It may not have to be political, but it has to touch the souls of those who see it, and make them think.

And, how would you like to get youngsters to spend an extra minute, and enjoy the art for themselves?
As new generations move on and change, so must my art practice to continue engaging with them.

The next generation is so much more aware of what is going on worldwide, and similarly, artworks are increasingly viewed by broader audiences of all ages from all over the world. I have enjoyed exploring the possibilities of new technologies in my art, whether it be mapped projections or motion sensors.

This is something that can interest newer generations, and help create engaging artworks that can spread a message.

— Jaideep Sen