I visited Dismaland last week, the open-air “bemusement park” exhibition by British graffiti artist Banksy. Situated on the seafront of seaside town Weston-super-Mare, the park features work by an assortment of artists, including Banksy himself.
The exhibition makes a mockery of the tourist attraction experience from the outset: the staff members wear gaudy fluorescent pink jackets and cheery Mickey Mouse ears, yet are sour and aloof and chime catchphrases like “have a dismal day”; the queuing barriers for the limited set of pre-booked tickets are unnecessarily long, taking about five minutes to zig-zag through; and the ride that simulates zero-gravity is housed in a battered caravan.
Upon entering the exhibit, you pass through Bill Barminski’s cardboard security room installation, with actors playing the parts of security guards. The staff order visitors not to laugh or smile, and one even passive-aggressively smacked the paper ticket out from the hand of the woman in front of me as she passed by. Some visitors were also searched by the ‘security guards’ using a metal detector wand: one which — as with everything else in the installation — was made entirely out of cardboard.
Once inside, you’re presented with a drab assortment of attractions. Souvenir programmes are sold from a shabby ice cream van by a staff member who spends most of the time ignoring the queue of waiting customers. To the right, a bulky riot police van sits in the castle’s moat with a bright-green children’s slide plunging into the vegetation that’s accumulated around the abandoned vehicle. A few lonely deckchairs lounge in front, their freying fabric perhaps a nod to the declining British seaside resort.
Cinderella’s castle protrudes straight ahead of you with a grubby exterior and torn bin liners stretched over the scorched, wooden shell of the turrets: a crumbling, dilapidated parody of the Disney emblem. Inside the castle lies an overturned pumpkin carriage, Cinderella hanging out of the window and pitiless model papparazzi snapping picture after picture. The room is pitch-black, so the only light comes from the cacophonous flashes of light from the photographers’ cameras.
The main exhibition space is located in another building, where, upon entering, you are taken into a dark antechamber filled with installations such as a mesmerising animation which morphs infinitely between various iconic cartoon characters, and a grim reaper doing a dance-like performance in a bumper car to Stayin’ Alive. The larger exhibition space includes pieces by Jimmy Cauty, Josh Keyes and Jeff Gillette in a variety of media, including paintings and sculptures. All have a political, satirical or otherwise dreary message much in the vein of Banksy’s street art: the piece by Damien Hirst features a beachball floating on a stream of air above a sea of knives, and a piece by Banksy depicts Mickey Mouse being devoured by a snake.
The model village by artist Jimmy Cauty is located at the end of the main exhibition and is very impressive, filling a large room. It depicts a riot with upturned cars, wrecked buildings and a church that is ablaze. It also features 3,000 miniature models of riot police, with clear chastisement of both the police force and modern society: some figures are looking at their phones or are otherwise disengaged.
The backdrop to the park was awash with political or sardonic statements like “love the way you caress my
body ego”. Some were on signage, whilst others were made into posters or sprayed on walls. Although funny, I found some to be superficial and gimmicky much like a lot of the pieces in the main exhibition area — they made either very broad and undirected statements like “un-fuck the system”, or had a very obvious or literal interpretation, both which made the result feel lacking in substance. However, some of the more nuanced or observational statements like “home screen home” were quite witty.
Earlier in the day, I’d noticed some of the attendees wandering around with balloons emblazoned with ‘I am an Imbecile’, and — finding it hilarious — desperately wanted one for myself as a souvenir. After asking one of the staff members (who told me to go away and then started throwing things at me when I didn’t) where I could buy one, I finally spotted someone selling them.
As I walked away, content, having spent £5 on a black and white balloon, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony of it all: here I was at an exhibition that ridicules tourist attractions and the unwavering devotion of visitors and fans; the aggravation, irritation and hassle they’ll put up with; and I’d just handed over a fiver for a balloon — one that mocks those who relentlessly buy crappy souvenirs — because it was from Dismaland. Wherever Banksy is, whoever he is, I’m sure he’s laughing.
Dismaland runs until 27th September, and tickets are available on the official site.