Digital Practice: Michelle Poonawalla

Digital Practice: Michelle Poonawalla

Michelle Poonawalla's work is cross-cultural, reflecting an adolescence split between India and the UK. She studied at the American College, London, before her first solo show in 2016 at the Gateway School, Mumbai. She has since exhibited widely in solo and group shows across India, as well as at Dubai Art Week and the START Art Fair in London.

Poonawalla retains many hallmarks of traditional two-dimensional media in her digital work, giving it an almost painterly quality, and she also works in non-digital media. She regularly incorporates mixed media into her practice, including sound, digital mapping and motion sensor technology, and her most recent major work was a large-scale immersive piece entitled Introspection – one which she describes as “an all-consuming sensorium”.

The artist spoke to Thomas Barrie as part of our Digital Practice series of artist interviews, where we speak to artists whose practice tests the boundaries of the physical and digital worlds. Read a recent interview with Francesca Fini which was also published as part of the series here.

What’s the significance of the butterflies in Love, Hope and Peace? Can you explain your thinking behind the iconography of the work? Where did the idea for the form come from?

Love, Hope and Peace were digital videos made as an inspiration and part of an installation called Introspection, which was at the Start Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery. 

Introspection developed on my journey with digital technology, turning to sound and using a combination of audio clips from newsreels and ambient recordings to uncanny effect. Combining these sounds with motion sensor technology and digitally mapped visuals, the experience created an all-consuming sensorium. The end result was a work of art that created an intense immersive experience, which pushed the audience into a contemplative space of action and reflection. 

The work was born from my sense of discomfort and unease with the way images of violence and displacement are consumed today, usually in endless news cycles. 

Freedom - The red rain is an indication of all of the turmoil that we live in today. The white butterflies signify the beauty and fragility of life flying in love, hope and peace. 

Love - The white butterflies gravitate towards the light, signifying there is hope, there is a light amongst all of the chaos of this world. A quick reminder to all that love is the answer.  

Hope - The butterflies emerge from the light source bursting towards us reminding us that there is a way for freedom and hope in this world around us. 

Peace - The white butterflies emerge in a peace formation, reminding us that amongst the chaos of this world, there is a hope for peace.

The Introspection collection by Michelle Poonawalla, available on Sedition

Peace by Michelle Poonawalla on display at Saatchi Gallery as part of START Art Fair, 2019

How long do you spend between conceiving of a piece and executing it? Can you talk me through the process?

I wanted to make 3 digital videos for Sedition; two of them were shown at the START show at Saatchi. 

The inspiration was taken from Introspection; Love, Hope and Peace are many of the reactions of the spectators.  

The first step was conceiving each idea. Next was to sketch out the flow of each video. Think about colour, direction, movement, mood and style.

Do you want people to take a particular lesson away after experiencing your art?

Most people leave with a positive, powerful feel after seeing my art. I always intended to be impactful and to make people ‘stop and think’ and it is very important for me as an artist to allow my spectator to “feel”. As what one ‘feels,’ I say, one tends to remember.

Introspection by Michelle Poonawalla at Saatchi Gallery as part of START Art Fair, 2019

You describe your work as “marrying a more formal paint-on-canvas style with experimental digital technology” – do you see it as an evolution of painting, then? Or as a totally new medium? How do the two relate?

I do video mapping with art. Like in the piece called Freedom, where butterflies rest on the frame, and as the spectator moves towards it, they fly away. It allows my pieces to come alive, it can also be motion censored. I read a sentence, ‘Digital Art is the last form of magic that exists’ and they normally leave the spectator wowed. I also do digital videos, which are also in keeping. Introspection was a 360° immersive installation.

Technology in art allows one’s imagination to be endless and limitless. Today’s younger generations relate to technology from a young age. They respond to art which touches their senses. Children are on iPads. AR, VR, motion censored etc. are things they relate to. For an artist, it gives us an immense scope for creativity.

With the proliferation of digital images and the ease with which we can access and consume them, do you think digital art has a shorter lifespan than physical art? How does the physicality (or lack of it) of a work of art affect the interaction between the viewer and the work?

Digital works can be with or without a physical work. It is a challenging concept for the older generation, but the younger generation are understanding and welcoming to it. Digital Art will not replace a canvas but there is space for both to exist.

Introspection by Michelle Poonawalla at Saatchi Gallery as part of START Art Fair, 2019

As an artist who spends time in both the UK and India, how do you see the reaction to digital art differing between the two? Is there a more widespread engagement in one country or the other?

With my installation as well as with my digital videos, I have shown in India, Dubai, the UK. People are always fascinated, like I mentioned digital art has a quality of being magical. The immersive installation left many with a feeling of freedom, peace and hope. And even though the subject may be heavy they all left the install at peace. This has been universal, despite country culture. I think art is a universal language.

Following the three pieces on Sedition, do you plan to make any more pieces in a similar format? What’s next?

Yes it was a great experience to make videos. One needs to think in a 3D space. I would like to license the videos and make many more.

Michelle Poonawalla in a panel discussion on Art and Digital Technology with Sedition Director Rory Blain and Dr. Rory Hyde of the V&A Museum during START Art Fair, 2019

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