Since early in 2020, Portsmouth street artist My Dog Sighs has secretly been working on his most ambitious project to date, titled ‘Inside’. This involved the transformation of the derelict Kimbell’s Ballroom on Osbourne Road in Southsea into an immersive world inhabited by a range of his famous characters.
During the 1950s Kimbells was home to local dance bands including, Vic Abbot’s Palais Night at a cost of about four shillings (20p). Abbott was a regular along with Bob Lambie’s Orchestra in the early 1960s as the venue began booking local rock & roll acts including the Fleetwoods, Johnny & the Cutters and the Jaguars. In its later years the venue would go through a name change or two and famously hosted Fairport Convention and Led Zeppelin.
This immersive street art installation officially opened on July 16th and I was privileged to be welcomed in for the opening night. This was the first time Paul, Tristan and I had been able to share a beer in person since the start of COVID, making the occasion all the more special for me.
Prior to entering the old reception I donned my face mask and was shown upstairs to the old ballroom which is where the bulk of the sculptures were housed. As soon as I entered the room I could not help but immediately pause where I was stood to take it all in. Surprisingly there didn’t seem to be any collisions as everyone behind me was doing exactly the same thing.
My eyes are immediately drawn to a pair of dancing figures at the back of the room on a raised and rotating platform which is illuminated by a disco ball, a nice touch given the history of the room. Looking to my left there were two figures sat on a swing, looking in peaceful contemplation. For me, it made me think of a couple in love who were savouring a moment of happiness, although the beauty of My Dog Sighs’ work is that everyone can have their own justified interpretation of the moment or the emotions being shared.
My eyes are immediately drawn to a pair of dancing figures at the back of the room on a raised and rotating platform which is illuminated by a disco ball, a nice touch given the history of the room.
Through the main room and downstairs, every corridor or room featured a detailed sculpture or painting. The attention to detail is clear for all to see and I cannot begin to imagine how many hours of work went into creating the exhibition.
Speaking to My Dog, a lot of his initial work was around making the building safe to begin creating the exhibition and safe enough to welcome the public. He explained to me how he needed to gaffer tape his shoes to his trouser legs to prevent flea bites. Structural issues went on right up until opening night, a few days before he was finding parts of the ceiling that had fallen down after a storm.
He was initially also sharing the space with pigeons who’d made the building their home. These same pigeons inspired many of the sculptures which could be seen dotted around the room as they were when My Dog Sigh first moved in.
I could also hear them as part of the sound recordings being played in the main hall. The sound design was a collaboration with My Dog Sighs, Chris Whitear and the University of Portsmouth. The music playing is an extended alternate mix of the song ’Thames Frost Fayre 1814’ by Portsmouth band B of the Bang, of which Chris is a member. The band recently reformed after a number of years in hibernation and are releasing a new album, with the original song on there. Chris also worked with My Dog Sighs to record the voices of the different sculptures.
The lighting design was completed by VEL Lighting who worked closely with My Dog Sighs in creating an ever-changing visual story, with different rooms (such as the Scribe Room) become lit at different times, the hidden cloakroom painting and the glitter ball. The most noticeable change of light and mood is when the house lights darken and the pods light up to give a warm glow, escaping between the gaps in the wooden roof and leaving lines of light on the peeling paint of the ballroom ceiling.
COVID meant that the groups for each session were limited and those who entered were required to wear masks. From a visitors perspective, this didn’t interfere with the overall experience.
At one stage in the depth of lockdowns, it might have been that nobody could have visited the exhibition, which could also have been down to the hurdles (and costs) around health and safety and the building. In the ballroom, the work for sale was weaved onto the broader exhibition and downstairs the gallery area and perch bar offered the chance for people to buy original pieces.
With the local community in mind, special sessions were set aside for schools and people who may have difficultly accessing the arts locally, this included young people at risk of exclusion, care leavers and older groups.
My Dog also explained to me that he was nervous that no one would want to buy any of the work but even on opening night I saw plenty of dots popping next to lots of the artwork. I appreciated the fact that he’d made sure that there was something suitable for different budgets. This meant everyone could support My Dog Sighs in a number of ways, all helped make this exhibition sustainable. You can still browse available items at mydogsighs.co.uk/artsales and sales will open online from September.
Tickets for the event sold quite quickly and by the end of the run visitors queued round the block in order to get their hands on the walk-in tickets which were made available to allow as many as possible to experience the show. I had feared that visitors may spoil the exhibition for others by sharing images on social media but I must say that everyone was first class and kept their shots embargoed until the final day of the show. This meant that many others hopefully had that same moment of wonder when they first stepped foot into the ballroom.
This show will no doubt have inspired many, especially budding creators who can go on to push Portsmouth on to new heights.