As dark clouds sweep over the clear blue sky, we’re ready to enter Dismaland, the Banksy curated ‘Bemusement Park’ that has appeared on Weston-super-Mare’s seafront.
It has rides and stalls, but really it’s an art show heavily disguised as a must see destination. Banksy was quoted describing it as “a festival of art, amusements and entry-level anarchism. This is an art show for the 99% who’d rather be at Alton Towers.”
When you enter the park, you’re stopped by cardboard weapon clad security and asked if you’ve packed your own bag and other personal questions, as if going through airport security. The piece is the work of Californian artist Bill Barminski. If it was supposed to be a comment on how our fun is policed, it was pretty paradoxical after you had real security in the queue telling you to get rid of any booze or marker pens you had on your person.
I’m not sure if it’s because we had tickets for a busy time slot or whether it was like this for all punters, but we were whisked through this in seconds, and considering the effort that has been put in to the small details, it seemed a shame to experience it for such a short time. But as performance art goes, I thought it was really accessible and set the tone for the rest of the park.
As we stepped through ‘security’ it started to rain, however the moody skies and raincoat-clad people milling about added to the old lido’s new dystopian make over. All the staff were told to act miserable; one woman stood in the sandpit writing NO in the sand with a spade looking extremely pissed off. It was this kind of humour and commitment to the role that helped to create an uncomfortable sense of apathy, and the stewards that stepped out of their obvious script made the whole thing a bit more interesting.
As expected, it wasn’t exactly a visual feast. We found ourselves lining up for a ‘play day’ loan, an installation full of fake posters for a loan company for kids. One of the artists was in a cubical selling reproductions of the posters and other little bits like greetings cards and comics. It was a cool installation that actually seemed to engage people and, bizarrely, the fact you could buy something in the kiosk seemed to make it all the more popular.
Some key pieces in Dismaland were given pride of place. The princesses castle held a Banksy artwork that’s a comment on princess Diana’s death, and as you walk in an employee asks if you want your picture taken with it, while tens of sculptured paparazzi take pictures of the princess falling out of her carriage. It was effectively creepy and uncomfortable, and with the addition of the photos of your reaction at the end, it provoked the desired response from most people.
All around the park there were hidden bits of protest posters and a particularly intense piece housed in a bus holding a disturbing number of facts about police brutality and surveillance in the UK, along with a tent that had different slogans and posters about political problems facing the world today. They felt separate from the rest of the park and there didn’t seem to be as big a desire to queue once people realised what they were about.
Throughout the park I found a lot of the art work to be hollow posturing, pieces making obvious comment on political issues, kind of the art equivalent of an online petition. There had to be a sense of humour to this to make it work and not come across as preaching (the fairground stalls, the employees etc.) but overall I felt I’d seen it all before and it seemed frustratingly apathetic.
However, there were a couple of great stand out pieces in the gallery itself, namely a series by Paco Pomet and Laura Lancaster which really jumped out from the rest of the work. There were also a lot of pieces by Palestinian and Israeli artists that were both eye opening and genuinely controversial. The model village that was right at the end of the main gallery was incredibly intricate and impressive, a great addition to the gallery as people actually had to look at it properly to spot things.
The fairground attraction pieces, although purposely rubbish, got everyone involved and engaged with the work. David Shrigley’s ‘Tip the Anvil’ piece was a particular highlight of this; watching two elderly ladies revel in the thought of throwing a Ping-Pong ball at the grumpy attendant was an enjoyable moment.
The game stall that has been talked about most was the refugee boat piece, where you steer refugees away from a police boat and towards the white cliffs of Dover. It’s a witty installation but there was something incredibly uncomfortable about seeing people laughing joyously about bashing the police boat into the sides of the refugees and getting competitive, which I would guess is part of the piece.The main issue I had with Dismaland was not how disconnected the different pieces felt, but how horribly wry the majority of punters behaved. In every section it seemed to be more of a priority to take a picture on their smartphone than to actually experience the park. This is what I now find difficult about Banksy though, as an artist so preoccupied in satirising our consumer culture, Banksy’s work has become the art equivalent to the Christmas Coca-Cola truck.
So many people attend the park solely to take pictures that they can then upload to social media; it doesn’t seem to matter what the message of the work is, it’s really all about telling people you’ve seen it. I can’t help but wonder if the paying public are who Banksy is laughing at here, and the inclusion of the balloons on sale saying ‘I’m an imbecile’ seemed to echo this thought. There’s too much irony in Dismaland for it not to be purposeful.
When it comes to Banksy, I think he’s adopted an ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it approach’ to all his ventures. When his stencils first appeared on the Bristol streets they were witty one-liners almost everyone could give a nod to. Now looking at Dismaland, it’s evident that his work has got bigger but not better. Dismaland wasn’t dismal, just a bit moody.