Rebecca Swirsky finds British street artist Banksy has pulled off an incredible, amusing feat at his ‘bemusement park’ Dismaland at Weston-super-Mare beach
21 August -- 27 September
Review by Rebecca Swirsky
'Is there any happiness on you, madam? Stop your smiling, then.' This is my stern welcome after ducking through Dismaland's papier-mâché security gates. On a papier-mâché desk are an assortment of (papier-mâché) items including handcuffs, walkie-talkies, a 'datascan' box, Dismal-crisps and Dismalmilkshake and papier-mâché machine guns line the wall. Created by artist and filmmaker Bill Barminski, it's an entrance fit for a Kafka story, setting the tone for Banksy's 'Bemusement Park'. Inside, visitors in flip-flops and shorts, pints in hand, wander between a blown-up ice-cream van, a graffitied police tank dunked in the pond, and a Comrades Advice Bureau.
It's situated on Weston-super-Mare's beach, a site which originally housed Europe's biggest outdoor swimming pool, The Tropicana, a major tourist attraction in 1937. Having fallen into disuse, the lido was discovered by Banksy after he peered through a crack in the surrounding wall. Six months on, the artist's dystopian 'funfair' presented work by more than 50 practitioners from 17 countries, all of whom convey darkly political or uncanny messages.
From journalist Julie Burchill's biting prose poem performed daily for the domestic war zone of 'Punch and Judy', to artist Jenny Holzer's eery Hunger Games-esque tannoy announcements - in which an eight-year-old girl proclaims dictums such as 'planning for the future is escapism' - to the miniature, fear-constricted town under police lock-down created by Jimmy Cauty (see Blueprint 331), whose Nineties' pop group KLF once infamously burned a million pounds in the name of art, this is agit-prop art serrated by ferocious punk undertones.
By inciting so many people to visit and talk about this anti-capitalist vision, Banksy has pulled off an incredible feat. Unlike art-institution exhibitions that command high entrance fees, democracy anchors this experience. On the fair's first Friday, 2,000 locals were offered free entrance, and tickets were thereafter capped at £3. Visitors could purchase wood-fired pizzas dressed with salads grown by recovering addicts. Banksy's vision - what Wagner would have termed a Gesamtkunstwerk, a 'total work of art' - feels both coherent and angsty. It seems he even controls the weather dials. As the rain spits down, adding to the general malaise, one Dismaland staff member dressed in Mickey Mouse ears sarcastically warns us, 'Don't get sunburned'. A typical British summer, but an untypical British fairground.
As a graffiti artist in the Nineties, Banksy made his name by stencilling Bristolian walls with popular-culture images repurposed for wry social commentary. Some of his Dismaland works reference SeaWorld and Disneyland with his Killer Whale and Little Mermaid pieces, and his standout piece Cinderella, an incisive take on Princess Diana's death.
Punch and Judy is presented as a domestic war zone, with a daily reading of a poem by Julie Burchill
In an unlit, grim-looking castle, long-lens cameras gripped by black-uniformed paparazzi fire like gunshots. Their focus is a life-size upended carriage, pulled by horses, its passenger Cinderella draped out the window. The effect is impressively poignant, with carriage spokes and broken horses' necks creating a grotesque shadow play on the ceiling. In a stroke of genius, Banksy offers visitors the option to pay £5 for their picture to be Photoshopped among the paparazzi, yoking us in complicity by commenting on our own desire to feed the image culture. Dismaland staff members were doing a roaring trade - a few hours before we arrived, one of those paying for their photograph was the comedian and activist Russell Brand.
Dismaland's raw, politically inscribed vision resonates with current moral concerns, particularly the sobering migrant boat exhibit. Themes of oppression and loss of freedom were further explored in the Museum of Cruel Objects, a bus presenting objects designed to cause harm, curated by art historian Gavin Grindon, who co-curated the V&A's Disobedient Objects exhibition. It is hoped the bus will be used to tour schools, museums and community venues.
In the Dismaland catalogue (currently being sold on eBay with other merchandise for extortionate sums), Banksy quotes German dramatist Bertolt Brecht: 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.'
Banksy may have emblazoned the old lido with the word 'Mediocre', yet the contents of his Dismaland were anything but. As I exit through this particular gift shop, clouds collect above the fairground's gothic turrets while minor-key Hawaiian music floats out like a warped record across empty sand dunes. Disturbingly, Dismaland feels less like a bad dream and more like waking up to the realities of a nightmarish present.