Adventures in Dismaland

For 6 weeks this summer the world’s most well known-unknown street artist, Banksy, masterminded the pop-up interactive art exhibit “Dismaland Bemusement Park” located at Weston-super-Mare, Somerset England.   The exhibit was billed as a “family theme park unsuitable for children” located in an abandoned amusement park on a beautiful and wide stretch of beach in this seaside town.

Those of you who know me know that I am a huge fan of street art. As such, I really appreciate Banksy and what he’s done to bring dialogue and awareness to both street art and many social/political issues. I enjoy his self-deprecating humour and sarcasm as well as the originality of his creations. I know there are lots of Banksy nay-sayers out there and I respect you…..but I’m a fan and, since we were planning to be in the UK anyway during the short run of Dismaland it’s only natural that I was determined to visit. This however, was easier said than done.

Tickets to Dismaland were almost impossible to get (which, some conspiracy theorists hypothesized, was part of the dismal experience). At only 5£ each, with limited daily quantities available and a website that kept crashing due to high levels of demand, the only way to secure tickets was to be ready with multiple computers and browser windows open the second a batch of tickets became available. Thanks to the BCO’s willingness to support my strange interests, Evan and I managed to secure 2 tickets within about 30 minutes of trying one morning.

To be honest I’ve tried to avoid reading the many articles and opinion pieces that have been written about this exhibit. I wanted to see it for myself. From a purely practical perspective Dismaland is something to be admired. Its’ scale is daunting and Banksy funded the entire thing himself as well as created 10 new exhibits for it. He also recruited 58 artists to exhibit their own works within the park. AND this was all done in secret – even to the people in the town!

From the moment you enter Dismaland it is obvious that we, the visitors, are as much a part of the show as any of the installations. The ”security” booth and scanning equipment are constructed entirely from cardboard yet we are still expected to pass through them. The “officer” checking us is wearing a paper costume with a cardboard cellphone. She never cracks a smile as she grills me to make sure that I’m not trying to bring in “explosives, oil drums or unicorns”.

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The “dismal” experience intensifies once we’ve actually entered the park. Trying to buy an event program is an exercise in futility. An old camping trailer is positioned immediately inside the front gate. A dismal looking fellow who seems incredibly reluctant to part with any of the programs he’s supposed to be selling staffs the trailer.

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Here is an excerpt from our dialogue:

T: “I’d like one
Guy: (dismally) “One what?
T: (trying to be dismal) “Whatever you’re selling” to which the guy lifted his shirt and showed me one side of his chest.
T: without missing a beat “In that case I’ll take 2
And to THAT, he did crack a slight smile before throwing me a program.

People have asked me if Dismaland was depressing. I wasn’t depressed by it as much as I was overwhelmed. The sheer number and diversity of exhibits, as well as the attention to detail throughout the entire park was incredible. And each of these exhibits is designed to ask questions and provoke thought/discussion. My senses were simply overloaded trying to take in and process everything. I wish I could have returned for a second visit because, even after spending a good 5 hours wandering around, I feel as though I still missed things.

Banksy has taken the stereoptypic “amusement” park and turned it on its head. Instead of a world where everything is seen through rose coloured glasses, Banksy and his colleagues have thrown us down the rabbit hole to a world that is dismal, and dark.   We are forced to look at our world from another perspective: Disneyland versus Dismaland.

Cinderella’s iconic castle stands at the centre of the park in the middle of a dirty pond where an British Police van lies half-submerged. At the entrance to the castle, also standing in the water, is a statue of the Little Mermaid, although her image has been distorted.

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It took us a while to figure out that the statue and its’ reflection in the water are actually inversions of each other, perhaps preparing us for what’s inside the castle. After having our photo taken against a green screen we round a dark corner and come face to face with a horrific scene – the carnage of Cinderella’s over-turned carriage. Her horses lie dead partly hidden under the carriage. Cinderella is hanging from one of the windows, her long golden hair immediately drawing all attention. Only her faithful birds seem to be hurrying to her aid. Paparazzi surround her and endlessly flashbulb the scene, stirring memories of Princess Diana’s tragic death in Paris. It is this image that becomes the background to our green screen photo – we too are included as witnesses to the tragedy.

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The games and rides throughout the park offer equally “dismal” experiences. We rode on the small Ferris wheel and, after an extremely long time going round and round, we began to wonder if we would ever be allowed off. The merry-go-round spins incredibly fast and includes a butcher wielding a knife. One of the ponies from the ride hangs above his head and there is a box marked “lasagne” sitting beside him.

And then there’s the game of steering remote controlled sail-boats around a small pond only, here, the boats are bleak looking vessels filled to capacity with migrant figurines and the specific boat you are controlling changes randomly. Bodies float in the water.

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There’s also the classic game of “Hook-the-Duck” now called “Hook-the-Duck-in-the-Muck” as the ducks struggle to float in a pool of filthy water. I played “Topple-the-Anvil” for which I was given three tries to knock over an anvil with a ping-pong ball. Unfortunately I didn’t win which is too bad because I could have really used the anvil.

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Some of my favourite installations were located inside the large, more conventional, “Art Gallery” tent covering the length of one side of the park. In the tent we were greeted with work by Jenny Holzer, a witty 65-year old American artist whose main focus is on the use of words and ideas in public spaces. At Dismaland her messages were being projected one at a time on a giant screen and being broadcast randomly over loudspeakers throughout the park. Although the list of messages was incredibly long, some of my favourite included:

  • Boredom makes you do crazy things
  • Class structure is as artificial as plastic
  • Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest
  • Description is more valuable than metaphor
  • Categorizing fear is calming
  • Wishing things away is not effective
  • Drama often obscures the real issues
  • Action casus more trouble than thoughtYou get the idea. Makes you stop and think, right?

But my absolutely favourite exhibit within the Art Gallery was by Jessica Harrison a 37-year old UK ceramic artist. At first glance her exhibit appeared inconsequential, a curio cabinet filled with ceramic figurines of women in gowns that look like those ones your grandmother collects. The dolls were lovely, well made and were perhaps even expensive at one time – but not noteworthy. However, on closer inspection I noticed that all visible areas of skin (arms, shoulders, hands, décolletage, etc.) for each of these figurines had been intricately and beautifully tattooed with paint. Don’t ask me to explain it but I simply loved the juxtaposition.

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A good example of the amount of time and effort these artists put into their installations is no more evident than in a model town created by 59-year old UK artist/musician Jimmy Cauty (formerly of the band KLF and renowned for publicly burning 1 million £ as a live art demonstration years ago). At any rate, Jimmy’s exhibit is called the “Aftermath Displacement Principle” and depicts an entire town frozen in time in the moments just after a huge period of civil unrest. Think of one of those giant model train villages you sometimes see and multiply it by 10. This thing is huge! It includes 3000 tiny riot police and other characters, each painstakingly recreated and painted from track worker models. It took Jimmy nine months and a team of six people to create. Imagine.

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There are so many more exhibits I could tell you about but I think this post is long enough. A lot of people have argued that Dismaland is not art. I disagree. Sure it’s gimmicky and sure it’s political but can’t the same be said for 99% of all art? What distinguishes Dismaland from the work of other artists is its’ total irreverence in concert with its’ in your face confrontation of issues. It never takes itself too seriously – in fact, it laughs at itself and begs us to laugh along. What could be more British or more Banksy?

Dismaland is a fascinating and moving ride. It asks us to re-examine our world and to consider the role we want to play in it. Do we want to simply stand on the sidelines or do we want to jump in and try to make things better? The issues raised by the artists include the environment, terrorism, migration, student loans, government control, privacy, racism and everything in between. To this end Dismaland is both timely and relevant. It is a critique of present day society by the artists involved. It is disturbing, thought provoking and indeed, fun. I’m so glad I had the chance to see it.

(I’ve put a few more photos in Des Photo Gallery although, I must admit, I was so involved with Dismaland that I actually didn’t take that many photos.  This was something that was really meant to be liv

 

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