A Visit to Banksy's Dismaland as It Closes Its Dark Doors
THR visits artist-provocateur Banksy’s ode to ennui and discovers a funny, disturbing and meticulously crafted indictment of modern life.
“Do you want a souvenir photo? No? You don’t have to buy it, I don’t care if you do or not.”
Welcome to Dismaland, the latest and without doubt most elaborate project from the UK’s elusive anti-establishment clown prince, Banksy, that will close its doors on Sunday evening. A mock theme park and vast conceptual art piece rolled into one, it’s a rampant satirical skewering of the corporate, political and media worlds and, obviously, Disneyland. (The logo is a dark and rather sinister version of the Disney castle, while the “legal representatives of the Walt Disney Corporation” are strictly banned from entering, according to the small print.)
Sublimely located on the site of a disused resort in Weston-super-Mare, a fading British seaside town now known more for its mobility scooters than donkey rides and just a short train journey from Banksy’s home city of Bristol, Dismaland, as the name suggests, is a joyously comical celebration of 21st century monetized gloom. It’s a “bemusement park” according to the man himself, and the U.K.’s “most disappointing new visitor attraction.”
Fake security guards welcome guests with a “shut up” or “get your hands out of your pockets,” while perennially bored looking staff members — clad in pink high-vis vests and Mickey Mouse ears — display their utter contempt for everyone, snarling, throwing their change on the floor and, as THR discovered, not caring remotely if they wanted to buy a souvenir photo or not. “Can’t you see I’m trying to have a conversation,” sighs one to customers hoping to buy a drink at the bar.
The centerpiece of the “exhibition” is the Dismaland castle itself, a forlorn, evil-looking citadel housing an upturned pumpkin carriage from which Cinderella’s lifeless body hangs, lit up by the flashes of a paparazzi scrum. Elsewhere there are similar “should we laugh or not?” plays on more contemporary post-Diana affairs. Over at small pond, remote-controlled boats are packed with miniature asylum seekers, some of whom float face-down in the water, while a van advertises “Pocket Money Loans” for children, boasting interest rates of 5,000 percent.
But it’s not all socio-political sarcasm, with pointed cultural references at times jostling with Python-esque farce. One stand takes the classic fairground ‘coconut shy’ but replaces the coconuts with iron anvils and offers ping pong balls as missiles. Even for £1, people still have a go. They lose.
Having opened on August 20, Dismaland is shutting its miserable doors for good following a sell-out six weeks that has welcomed (or, well, not) 150,000 visitors. Such has been the demand for the £5 ($8) tickets — 4500 for each day — that the website crashed when six million people tried to log on simultaneously. Some joked that Banksy had successfully trolled his own fans. The first batch eventually sold in under 10 minutes (the later ones in even quicker times), with enterprising sorts seemingly forgetting the artist’s anti-capitalist ethos by immediately sticking them back online for up to 30 times their face value.
Herein lies one of Dismaland’s main issues. Banksy’s message of anarchy and disorder could well be a victim of his own insanely huge popularity. Inside the park actors may put on security costumes and play up for the visitors with cardboard batons, but outside stand very real security guards checking bags, alongside non-ironic snaking queues and signs informing people that the park is "cash only."
Reviews have been rather mixed. Among the most harsh was via the provocative Huffington Post headline “Dismaland Is Not Interesting and Neither Is Banksy,” which slammed the artist for “easily accessible” messages made for those who want to seem deep without putting in the effort (a common Banksy slur). The Guardian, meanwhile, said it was “sometimes hilarious, sometimes eye-opening and occasionally breathtakingly shocking.”
When you’ve got millions of fans frantically clicking the refresh button to get through to the ticket page, however, winning over the critics probably isn’t something to lose sleep over.
And even the most cynical Banksy detractors would struggle to appreciate the genius behind some of the pieces, which were created with the help of 58 other artists — including the likes of Damien Hirst. In the large gallery building, an entire room is dedicated to a vast and exquisitely detailed model village experiencing the aftermath of a mass riot, with 3,000 tiny hand-painted riot police and windows “individually smashed by the artist.”
For all the subversive messages, however, there’s still the question of whether they actually have any overriding effect, or whether they’ll simply be snapped on an iPhone, given a nice sepia coloring and posted to Instagram, owned by Facebook, whose market value recently topped $245 billion. Any swipes against selfie culture seem somewhat weakened by the sheer number of actual selfies being taken within Dismaland’s walls.
Sure, it’s not Banksy’s fault, but his anti-corporate larks have been well and truly hot-wired by the corporate machine, ready to be snapped and published on social media between carefully targeted commercials or hung in auction houses for the highest bidder. Just next week, a piece of graffiti Banksy put on the side of an abandoned Detroit car factory is going under the hammer in LA, expected to fetch $400,000.
Perhaps the most telling part of Dismaland is on the way out, where in a potentially entirely non-sarcastic hat tip to his own Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary, guests do indeed exit via the gift shop, where genuine Dismaland T-shirts can be bought for £20. Unsurprisingly, many of these have ended up online for far more than their purchase price.
But does Banksy, or anyone else for that matter, really care? Probably not. Dismaland has been among the most buzzed about “must attend” events this year, and rejoiced in Weston-super-Mare for bringing flocks of visitors — and an estimated $30 million — into town.
The artist’s only disappointment is likely that the recent scandal about U.K. prime minister David Cameron — incredible allegations that he once stuck his penis into the mouth of a dead pig while in college — didn’t erupt before he started work on the project. Perhaps next time…