Is Dismaland a self-indulgent charade, a poignant class statement, or both? Not wanting to miss an ‘art’ event that people will probably be writing dissertations on in 10 years time, I actually trekked to Weston-Super-Mare to tick it off. Banksy has assembled a ‘Bemusement Park’, in part simply to rile Disney, and in part to create a genuinely immersive experience about anarchical and pessimistic British attitudes, peppered with topical issues (toy boats filled with black migrants seemed particularly raw in light of recent news stories about Syrian refugees) and recent historical events (a huge sculpture of Cinderella being photographed by paparazzi in her post-crash pumpkin was an uncompromising reference to Princess Diana’s death in 1997).
Wandering around the central Dismaland plaza – if it can be called that – what seemed most true about my own experience was the realisation that I had gone not only to look at the site and Banksy’s ‘attractions’, but that the people too were on display. The plot allowed certain visitors to stand out as culture pilgrims, while others looked entirely lost and out of place, and still others appeared utterly at home amongst the greyness, having apparently stumbled inadvertently into some foreign yet truly entertaining fantasy. Banksy’s scenery is constructed meticulously like a detailed stage set, while the roles of the ushers are convincingly executed by people whose lives are unnervingly similar to the ones they ‘act out’ as part of the Dismaland production. That is the greatest reality: that unlike Disneyland, where staff enter an overtly dream-like world concealing anything of their own identity, the workers at Dismaland are actually vulnerable, their lives exhibited in a kind of class exposé.
Banksy treads a fine line between the selling-out of an artist – and it is interesting to note the inclusion of works by Damien Hirst – and the greatest extension of his brand image, that of a maverick street artist creating humour which consistently bears a grittier undercurrent. His transition from an anonymous character endlessly teasing Hackney’s street cleaners to a name attached to 6-figure prices in auction houses and a solo exhibition at Sotheby’s Mayfair S|2 gallery last year, has perhaps been one of the most fascinating developments of an art world figure in the last decade. This makes Dismaland all the more ingenious as a personal dig at the saccharine corporate façade of Disney, one which at this stage in his career has certainly not been overlooked. However, in his mocking of the Disney conglomerate, Bansky also stumbles into the money-making vortex of merchandise and memorabilia (no receipts were issued, everything was paid in cash, and even the Dismaland castle had an actual green screen for souvenir photographs in card frames), and fundamentally, happiness.
The premise of Dismaland is an experience that will dissapoint, a concept that for some inevitably works well. In fact, one couple so aggravated by the semi-feigned rudeness of a staff member began shouting back at her. For others, however, Dismaland is a paradise – a beacon of left-wing discourse and artistic subversion, the former acknowledged through a giant scrunched billboard poster of David Cameron clasping a champagne glass. Everything is placed there to be noticed, and perhaps this is at times too literal. We look for the obvious because we have been trained to identify Banksy’s trademarks easily, and we remain gratified. However, as a totality the realisation of the project was surely close to Banksy’s vision, down to the miles of pointless and farcical security barriers visitors were told to snake through before reaching the bag check. The cheesy lines of staff, which occasionally felt awkward and uncomfortable, were sometimes pulled off too. The project bears narcissistic qualities, but there is also something about it that verges on heartfelt. One thing is for sure: it will be a grace if Dismaland is never reincarnated elsewhere after it closes at the end of this month.
Dismaland runs until 27th September on the Weston-Super-Mare seafront.