Strange vibrations rumbled across the West Country recently following an unexpected announcement from everybody’s favourite bastard graffiti artist.
Bringing the contemporary art world to his home stomping grounds, Banksy announced that Weston Super Mare’s long-derelict Tropicana lido would be hosting an exhibition for six weeks featuring a long list of artists from around the world. ‘Dismaland’ is a parody of Disney’s flagship theme park resorts repackaged as a family day-out that’s unsuitable for children—essentially somewhere between interactive art exhibition and fun fair offering as joyless an experience to its patrons as possible.
I was sitting at home last Tuesday whilst Twitter was kicking off about the ongoing fiasco of online ticket sales—purchasing pages presenting nothing but an un-clickable calendar image that most believe was part of an elaborate troll—and was quite enjoying everybody’s fury at having their afternoons wasted by an event entirely predicated upon disappointment. When a genuine sales page suddenly appeared I decided to book a bus down to the seaside for a day out at Dismaland.
Stepping off the bus at the seafront I walked down to the Tropicana and approached the entrance. Showing my ticket to the security guard I was quickly told, ‘Join the queue like everyone else’, then turning and noticing the massive crowd and intentionally snaking metal fences that took about five minutes just to walk down. Looking off to the right you could see a similar line for the day-ticket box office at an absolute standstill and full of miserable faces.
Does any of this come as a surprise? Of course not—the entire idea of this place is making sure that you have as unremarkable an experience as possible. Once you’ve finally gained entrance to the park through its elaborate cardboard security gates you’re presented with yet more lines; for the exhibitions; for the tents; for the educational exhibits. You queue for fifteen minutes to get into the main art gallery only to find yourself almost immediately lining up for the next room.
Once you’ve made it into that gallery, you have to navigate your way from artwork to artwork across yet another trailing line for Jimmy Cauty’s exhibit—placed in its own room with security hurrying you through faster than the Sistine Chapel. Combine all of this with the droning Hawaiian slide guitar that blares from the Tannoys at all times and you quickly become aware of the mind-numbing tedium that is being forced upon you at all times—at your leisure and expense.
What of the actual art and presentations on offer, though? There’s a lot to be said of some of the work on show. Cauty’s sprawling model village offers a glimpse of a dystopian landscape following an unspecified national incident, its fields and roads swarming with police officers and flashing lights. Laura Lancaster’s washed-out oil paintings transform found images and flea market photographs into anonymous blurs and faceless portraits that, for me, were really disconcerting and emotive. Zaria Forman’s fluid paintings of ice caps, glaciers and seascapes are also really interesting, distinctions between the water and ice often feeling vague and uncertain for obvious reasons. It’s difficult to tell if you’re looking at a landscape in stasis or at the very peak of its flux.
It was nice also to be quite impressed by one of Damien Hirst’s pieces on display, an inflatable beach ball suspended by a fan over a table full of upward-pointing blades. It’s a simple concept, sure, but the conflicted sense of security in its suspension and the anxiety that it could fall at any time effectively conveyed the sense of precariousness and uncertainty in the global zeitgeist that the event was trying to communicate overall.
What of Banksy though? I don’t know, I’ve become less and less enamored by him as of late, though he still has moments of fleeting genius. His ‘This Looks Like an Elephant’ water tank was a brilliant piece of social commentary with a rich backstory, for example, so I can’t write him off entirely, but one of the biggest problems of this event for me was that so much of it just seemed kind of… easy. So much of the show’s approach was very “surface level”.
Take, for example, what is arguably the show’s central and most controversial display—the castle’s “Cinderella/Princess Diana” sculpture, depicting the Disney princess’ corpse hanging out of a crashed pumpkin carriage as the paparazzi take photos at arms length. Poignant? Perhaps. Shocking? Maybe. Groundbreaking? Not really. Its value felt primarily one of “Oh, I get it!” rather than anything of real substance.
Similar comments have been made about his miniature boat fairground game, where players could insert a pound coin to drive a boat loaded with migrants across a pond, a handful of bodies floating face down in the water. There’s the obvious symbolism of somebody with spare money in their pocket quite literally “playing games” with the lives of migrants, but as I read in another review elsewhere, you’re still left asking what the point is exactly. There is no “destination” at either end of the pool, the two steering wheels are effectively playing against each other like bumper cars, the true victims reduced to faceless pawns, however reflective that might be of reality.
Some of the most interesting parts of the exhibition were those more grounded in direct, sincere communication. A museum housed inside a bus displayed different examples of architecture and design that polices and structures public spaces, such as benches designed to prevent sleeping or loitering and those notorious “anti-homeless” spikes that have been emerging across cities like London in recent years. Likewise, a tent containing a collection of protest signs and banners from around the world managed to provide some sense of optimism in an event otherwise mired in pessimism and despondency, even if it is entirely intentional.
I guess my ambivalence towards the event’s affect was somewhat exemplified by a conversation I had with a fifty-something white guy whilst waiting in one of the queues. After telling me about how he had lived in Somerset his whole life and went to Glastonbury every year—“you should go, £220 for a ticket is quite cheap in the grand scheme”—he went on to explain how Banksy is a genius and the only street artist who uses humour and political commentary.
“Oh, but there’s some shit about police brutality in one of the corners which is bollocks and he doesn’t know how lucky the UK has got it.” Great art—particularly political art—whether it’s in a gallery, an alleyway, or a protest, should be challenging and unsettling. It should penetrate beyond its immediate audience and make people think. So much of the overall feel of Dismaland was that of being spoon-fed political commentary on such a level that it was quite easy to cheer “right on” if you got it and disregard otherwise. It’s difficult to call an artwork truly catalysing or engaging when Cockington Twatley from the valleys is disregarding some of its core messages whilst espousing the genius of its proponents.
But despite everything I’ve just said, I don’t want to seem entirely switched off by Dismaland. Returning to that initial idea of each visitors’ negative experiences forming part of some broader meta-performance art piece, there’s something really fascinating going on at the Tropicana. There are little seaside towns like Weston dotted all around the UK—once beloved annual summertime holiday destinations for the rest of the nation, since ravaged by neglect after the rise of cheap airfare and the global tourism economy.
Since then, many of these towns—Weston Super Mare, Blackpool, Clacton, Skegness, Worthing and so on—have seen their identities entirely transformed from idyllic seaside towns to tired, greying relics of a bygone era. Where one might have once visited Morecambe for a jolly maritime break, their expectations today would be something altogether less thrilling. Whilst I was at the exhibition this week I received texts from three people offering different versions of the same joke—“Hope you’re enjoying your damp and dreary day in a miserable landscape. But enough about Weston, how’s Dismaland?”
In 2015, few people from further afield in the UK would visit a town like Weston Super Mare and expect much more than a vanilla day out at a fading seaside town, but Banksy has set up an exhibit inside a dilapidated symbol of that town’s own decay, promised nothing more than what was already perceived of the town, and people are flocking from all over the UK to see it.
I’ve seen people from as far as Japan and the States booking weeklong holidays to the UK. Just to visit Dismaland. In Weston Super Mare. The town’s hotels and B&B’s are all fully booked, for fuck’s sake! And by charging a paltry £5 for Dismaland tickets, one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is surely seeing how much time, money and effort punters are willing to expend to make the arduous trip for a £5 event at a bland location that has been guaranteed by no less than the curator to be resoundingly mediocre and utterly underwhelming. His name alone has made a former generation’s holiday destination a holiday destination once more whilst offering no improvement upon the otherwise dismal experience.
This notion leads me back to criticisms of Dismaland’s format. For an event so dripping with sentiments that are wary of capitalism, neoliberalism and contemporary geo-political climates, one can’t help but feel tacitly aware of the commodified nature of the Banksy brand that has made such an event so broadly appealing and a surefire success. No instance better exemplifies the conflict between creativity and commerce than an art exhibition loaded with anti-establishment belligerence that feels to some degree fuelled by its own acceptance within that same establishment, and you can stick two-fingers up at the capitalist machine as much as you want, but when the difference between your theme park’s gift shop and everyone else’s is a gossamer-thin veil of rebellious satire, everything starts to seem a little bit creaky.
So what can I say? I think that overall Dismaland was a worthwhile experience and an interesting trip nonetheless. Whilst specific artworks and pieces carried their own impressions—good, bad and otherwise—there is an overall affect that the exhibition has that is cause for reflection. If you’re somebody who is already predisposed towards analysing their experiences and getting all meta then the duality of the Dismaland experience will give you plenty of source material. If you enjoy a more straightforward approach to life, there’s plenty socio-political artwork and interactive entertainment to pique your interest. When I got back on the bus to make my journey home I had mixed emotions of alienation from an event that never quite connected its punches the way I would have hoped and a feeling of having nonetheless enjoyed my day and feeling more enriched. The dual nature of Dismaland is probably summed up thusly; if you hate it, then Banksy achieved exactly what he promised you; if you like it, then it’s probably for the very same reason.
Tickets for Dismaland may only be purchased from the official Dismaland website, and are made available every week for the following week of shows. Tickets for September 8th—15th will go on sale at 10am GMT on Wednesday September 2nd.