Except you’re not watching this from the Round Tower on the seafront – you’re in the nave of St Mary’s Church, Fratton.
And this is Ship of The Gods, part of the first ever We Shine Portsmouth.
The stunning light and sound installation is inspired by the Norse myth of Skidbladnir, a magical shape-shifting vessel which was large enough to carry all the gods and their equipment yet could be folded up small enough to fit inside a pocket.
Created by renowned Portsmouth-based artists Heinrich & Palmer using 3D laser scanning technology, film and lighting effects, they have drawn on artefacts of maritime culture and 3D Arctic mapping data to reimagine Skidbladnir through the scanned forms of life-size boats and ship models to create an ephemeral vessel of light, which like the mythical ship has the ability to transform and be folded down to move to other places.
The three-day art light festival kicks off on Thursday, November 18 and has been put together by the arts group Portsmouth Creates, with events across the city.
Anna Heinrich and Leon Palmer have worked together for 30 years, first meeting while both studying fine art in Cardiff.
They initially set up shop in Newcastle, but moved back to Anna’s home city of Portsmouth in the ’90s, and have been here ever since.
But over that time they have become internationally acclaimed artists for their incredible multi-media installations.
Leon recalls their early years: ‘We started projecting on to buildings a couple of years after Absence of Light – a lot of it was down to opportunity, and how you take those opportunities.
‘We got interested in working in public spaces or sites. We like to respond to sites, or make work that takes into account the site around it – like Ship of The Gods.
‘When we install it, you’ll see what we mean – the site is as important as the piece of work. It’s all part of the experience – it’s quite immersive.’
While the pair consider themselves artists first and foremost, the advance of technology has had a huge impact on the way they work.
‘It’s been really interesting,’ says Anna. ‘When we started doing large-scale projections on buildings, the video projectors were not of a high enough level at that stage.’
Leon chuckles at the memory: ‘They just weren’t bright enough!’
While they now use laser scanners and have learned how to use a whole host of hi-tech kit, the tech is a means to an artistic end, not the starting point.
‘In a way it extends the possibilities,’ says Anna, ‘and in some ways it makes it easier.’
Leon expands on the theme: ‘The reason you do it is that there’s something there that attracts you to it, rather than learning it for the sake of it.
‘I don’t necessarily think of us as technological artists, but we do use a lot of technology.
There’s been a lot of learning curves.
‘We look at it and think it’s doing something for us, it’s expressing something, so it’s not the technology so much, it’s what it allows us to do.’
They explain how they create digital twins, or a digital surrogate – digital representations of a physical space – which they then use to create their works.
‘What you end up with is something that looks like the building,’ says Leon, ‘but it’s something else in itself. And we’ve always been interested in that as artists.
‘You had an illusory architecture, and a real architecture, and when you brought the two together it formed a third thing, and I suppose that’s the basis of a lot of these installations.
‘You’ll see it with Ship of The Gods – it’s a projection, but it’s also somewhere between a projection and reality.’
Ship of The Gods was originally commissioned by Absolutely Cultured and supported by the Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project, and was shown in Hull Minster in 2018.
Anna explains how that the pair will be very hands on with the installation as set up Ship of The Gods in St Mary’s: ‘Although the film is already there, now we’re showing it in St Mary’s we’ll be there on site, setting it up, working with the lighting technicians to balance the light so it really works with the space, because each space is so different – the stonework is a different colour and it’s just finessing it and getting the colours to really balance with the projected imagery and the space, and how people move into the space.’
Leon adds: ‘If you get the light balance the way we want it, the screen sort of disappears and it’s a very odd feeling. When you really get it, it almost pops into place – it’s a theatrical device really, but it’s getting the lighting at the right level and you need to be on site for that, there’s no substitute for that.
‘And luckily it’s just down the road from us – unlike most of our work!’
Although Anna and Leon have worked on many projects in the area, including Wellspring in Havant in 2019, marking The Spring Arts Centre’s 10th anniversary, In Other Words with South Downs College on the Pompey dialect, and with Aspex Gallery and local schools, this is their first large-scale projection piece on home ground.
Anna says: ‘We’ve been in talks with the Portsmouth Creates team since back in 2019, so it’s really exciting.’
‘It’s just nice that the city has got something like this going on,’ adds Leon. ‘Where we’ve worked in other places you realise once a place warms up to these kind of events, it brings a lot of people together – whole generations come together.
‘It engages the senses, and it’s about the city and the place.
‘Once people get hold of the idea, they really take off. it takes a little while to get going, but I think Portsmouth would be fantastic for this sort of event.’
What to see at We Shine Portsmouth
Opening on Thursday, November 18 alongside the Commercial Road Christmas light switch on, visitors can wrap up warm and stroll through the city soaking up the sights as the streets and buildings of Portsmouth are transformed into a night-time gallery for the event.
Heinrich & Palmer’s installation Ship of the Gods at St Mary’s Church, Fratton and the international light art project, Rainbow in the Dark in Victoria Park will be on all three days, 5pm-9pm.
There will also be huge painted murals, large-scale light installations, dance performances, a lantern parade from Fratton Big Local, the return of the We Create craft market in the old Sainsbury’s building and much more.
For more information go to weshineportsmouth.co.uk.