Enter Portsmouth street artist My Dog Sighs' world as his major new exhibition, Inside, opens to the public
Peering through the gloom with his torch, My Dog Sighs notices a hole in the wall.
Pulling away at the rotten plaster, he scrabbled through to find a staircase hidden behind the wall – blocked off decades earlier.
Inching onwards and upwards he turned the corner at the top of the stairs and was faced with the cavernous ballroom.
Home to 300-odd pigeons, the floor strewn with broken glass and the whole space reeking of faded grandeur, it was then that the Portsmouth street artist knew he had found the perfect space to realise his plans.
Now, after 18 months of painstaking work, today he reveals the fruits of his labours to the public for the first time with the exhibition – Inside: We Shelter Here Sometimes.
Housed inside the former Grosvenor Casino building on Osborne Road in Southsea, The News was invited to have a sneak preview of the show, and the scope and scale of the project is incredible.
After months of hints being left around the city, from paste-ups in a language created just for this show, to cryptic small ads in the pages of The News, it all leads here.
An immersive work over two floors, it goes far beyond the eye murals, or the Everyman figures and tin-can people he is already known and loved for.
This is like stepping inside the artist’s mind – combining paintings, sculpture, sound and light on a grand scale. There is artwork tucked in alcoves, round corners, in hidden rooms, on every surface.
Speaking with The News, surrounded by his work, My Dog Sighs explains the idea behind the show: ‘I'd been looking for a space, and I'd been wanting to move from painting murals on the street and I knew I wanted to do it in my hometown.
‘There were a few other venues where I got part of the way through negotiations, but trying to persuade the owner of a derelict building to let an artist they don't know to come in and do something obviously had its own challenges!
‘And then we stumbled across this place.’
Before being a casino, it was Kimbells nightclub and as a music venue it had played host to stars such as Led Zeppelin and The Yardbirds. The building even had a stint as a Playboy Club. But by the time My Dog Sighs came across it, the upstairs had been unused for decades – blocked off behind that sealed up doorway.
‘As soon as I walked into this space, it was that dawning realisation that this was way more, way better than I had ever imagined it to be as a venue, and that my bar had to be raised in order to do the building service.
‘It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a building like this – so close to home, in my hometown, with a building owner that's willing to let me come and try out my ideas.’
The building is owned by Farid Yeganeh, who also owns the neighbouring Queens Hotel. As part of the deal for using the space, My Dog Sighs agreed to paint a mural for the hotel.
‘I think that's a fair trade-off,’ laughs the artist, ‘and The Queens Hotel are really happy to have the mural.’
‘The first time I went inside I had no idea what the building was going to be like.
‘I entered through what was the old casino first of all and was really excited by that.
‘Then I found this hole in the wall – like a kid you just want to explore – if there's a hole you want to climb through!
‘So I literally climbed through the wall and found this staircase, I had to go really slowly because I could only see a little bit with this tiny torch.
‘Eventually I got to the top and looked into that ballroom and it was just the most incredibly breath-taking moment.
‘I knew at that moment that this was the opportunity of a lifetime, that this was going to be the show of my career.
‘At that point, I knew it had to be the very best I could produce.’
For the next five months he worked in the gloom with battery-powered inspection lamps, until they got mains power hooked up again.
‘From that point we could get the festooned lights up and see properly what the space was like and how to work in it in the longer term.’
One key theme he had was, that ‘I loved the idea that the art leads the way, not the artist – this puts the art back on centre stage.’
And so it is that his creations, the Quiet Little Voices are the driving force behind the exhibition.
‘I don't remember it as being a light-bulb moment as such, but I do remember sitting on a chair I'd found, in the middle of the ballroom surrounded by pigeons and dust and rubbish and thinking: what lives in this space? What occupies this space? How do I as an artist use this space to the best advantage?
‘And then it was the realisation that although I might be more known for the eyes or the cans, or the Everyman, these Quiet Little Voices that have been ticking away in the background quietly. It was that realisation that THEY can be the occupiers, they can be My Dog Sighs.
‘They can take over this space and it can be this whole wonderful story of how they have found this space, made a community there, they work together in unison.
‘They try – they might not succeed at everything and they can't just order things from Amazon – they've got to raid skips and build things from the trash they find around them.
‘They're triers and they're going to do their best to make that community work.
‘I suppose that echoes what we're like as humans, maybe we don't pull things out of a skip to live by, but we have to try to be the best people we can be, and it was about trying to echo that in the show.’
As the show finally opens, he admits that his emotions ‘swing somewhere between sheer panic and fear and moments where I'm so proud of what we've been able to achieve.
‘I never imagined for a minute that it would be like it is.’
When not working on the actual art itself, he’s been busy with everything else from learning how to eradicate fleas, to removing several inches of pigeon poo, and working with health and safety.
‘It’s been a real rollercoaster of a journey – highs and lows, getting funding, having funding pulled, thinking it would never happen, Covid coming along and maybe never being able to open it up to the public.’
In that other world, where Covid didn’t intervene, this would have been a very different beast.
‘We were originally due to open October last year. It was a five month project, we pretty much secured all the funding and had it in place, and then it was all pulled.
‘But I've got an amazing fanbase, so I put the crowdfunder together and I said: “I can't tell you what I'm doing, but it's going to be really, really cool.”
More than 700 of his supporters put their money down, raising a whopping £54,000 – without even knowing what it was they were backing.
‘That really helped put a chunk of what made this project happen together. I couldn't have done it without them.‘From there the snowball started rolling and picking up speed, and there was no chance to stop – no matter what Boris was doing or telling us we could or couldn't do. It had to work in some form, so we've been ploughing on in order to make it happen.’
He also admits to moments of doubt where he felt he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
‘Oh yeah – absolutely, massively!
‘I remember all the funding disappeared in a week, and I’d invested huge amounts of my money with the expectation that the funding would come in, and I was ready to pull the plug. I’ve been ready to pull the plug a few times!
‘It's been really really tough, but we have to adapt to the situation.
‘Once the seed of the idea was planted for that installation, I couldn't shake it off.
‘I couldn't not do it – in whatever format. At one point we were even going to do it and never open it up to the public, just because it was there!
‘It was in my head – I just had to do it, even if no one sees it, I've got to crack on, I've got to make it. I kind of think that's quite cool, how underground is that that you make something that no one ever sees?’ he laughs.
‘Now, we are at the stage where we can let people in and I'm so excited to see the expressions on people's faces, unsure what's going on, and they turn that corner and they look into that room and step into my magical world.
‘It's been my world for 18 months. I've lived and breathed this every day for 18 months and I just can't wait to show people.’
With the show only running for a fortnight, what happens next?
‘Lots of people are asking, are you going to extend the show? Are you going to try and make it last a little bit longer? And my wife said: “I've just booked us a holiday.”
‘She hasn't seen me for 18 months, and she said: “You're going to keel over and die if you don't take a break”.
‘So we're going to go and float in the sea for 10 days off the north Devon coast and then when we get back I can deal with the fallout from the show and see what the future holds, because I've got no idea at the moment!’
Inside: We Shelter Here Sometimes runs until Sunday, August 1. Adults £10, concessions £5, under-18s free. A limited number of walk-up tickets will be available for each session on the day. Go to mydogsighs.co.uk.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron.
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