Review of Dismaland at Weston-super-Mare Just as last summer seemed to be coming to an end, the press broke the news that Banksy, sometime graffiti artist, political activist and worldwide dauber of walls had somehow persuaded the local council at Weston-super-Mare to allow him free range on the derelict site of the Tropicana (once upon a time an open air lido with the highest diving board in England) to create Dismaland, a kind of theme park parody and a showcase for more than fifty artists whom Banksy had invited to display their work. As it might be expected, the news rippled across the media. Advance tickets could only be bought online a maximum of one week in advance, and the site crashed due to excessive demand –or maybe because the inability to buy tickets easily was meant to be part of the Dismal experience. In any case, the show was a sell-out for the few weeks that it was open, and, as is often the case with Banksy, not only were media reviews of Dismaland mixed, but the experience of a visit there posed numerous questions about the nature of public and political art: how we respond to the distortion of familiar images, and how relevant to our everyday lives art can--or should--be. Needless to say, as with most art, the questions asked are easier to formulate than the answers.
Dismaland has been well documented and does not need describing in detail here. However, to take one of the pieces as an example of both the problems and the delights of the experience might prove useful. The scene of the crash of Cinderella's magic coach is perhaps one of the most obvious, yet strangely subversive works. A fairytale coach, pink and yellow, is overturned and a very blonde Cinderella is leaning over one of the doors. Every few seconds the flashlights of the waiting paparazzi near the coach explode, filling the darkness of the enclosed space into which we have been herded. At first glance this seems to be an ironic piece aimed at a fairly easy target: the Disney coach and the references to Lady Diana and the paparazzi invoke the death of the fairy princess, which is never supposed to happen, either in fairy tales or in real life. The piece seems to be a stunningly blunt declaration about our relationship with the sugary world of Disneyesque life – the happily-ever-after fantasy sold to our children which we know to be flawed, in which happy endings are guaranteed, the good always triumph and the evil are always punished, forgiven and rehabilitated—but in fact it is significantly more subtle than that. After a few moments it was not the coach, Cinderella or the paparazzi that held my attention, but the horses.
In front of the coach are the bodies of the two horses. They are crumbled and bent, legs twisted and misshapen. Their ribs are visible, as if in their last moments they have been straining for breath. One lies with its head pointing upwards, with its mouth open displaying the large equine teeth, and then the reference suggests itself --is this the head of the horse in Picasso's Guernica? Suddenly this work takes on another dimension. Picasso's masterpiece is a hauntingly dark exposition of the Spanish Civil war, a savage indictment of the bombing of a beautiful city for no purpose but to kill and terrify the civilian population, and the horses represent the innocent victims of that tragedy. The domestic horse, like the dog, embodies the trusted and trusting companion, and this savage butchery destroys the basis of the relationship completely. A mutually supportive understanding has been torn apart. The fairy princess and her guardians are the victims of a tragic accident, and the world will never be the same again.
Dismaland was much more than Banksy, although he was obviously the inspiration for its creation. Here it is necessary to consider the location, the participants and the background together for, unlike with most art exhibitions, there were several conflicting forces at work. Let us consider first the entertainment factor, which led to sell-out crowds, computer system meltdowns, and a multi-million pound tourist boost to the town.
Apart from the international blockbuster shows at the Tate or the National, how many art shows sell their tickets in a few hours? How many maintain visitor interest for the whole run, or engage a community and even the local government and their officers? It is difficult to name one apart from Banksy's last show in Bristol, when he took over the museum and art gallery. So we have to deal with the very concept of Dismaland and what it was that appealed to many people who would not usually be attracted to an art gallery. The Dismaland/Disneyworld dichotomy is an obvious starting point. The Disney brand is known worldwide, celebrated and despised in equal measure for its vacuous films and theme parks. Somehow, despite their curious absence of any kind of engagement with the real world, they remain hugely popular, especially amongst families with children. The ironic naming of this show clearly confronts the nature of the Disney product and challenges its position as a universal vehicle of wholesome entertainment.
What happens when you enter Dismaland –should you expect a Disneyworld-type warm welcome? A security zone puts you into lines, with fake body scans and lots of belligerent staff shouting at everyone to stop smiling. We know that it is not real, but that in many situations it is unfortunately more than real. All the staff/visitor interactions are miserable and negative, with no smiles and no helpfulness – a deliberate reversal of what should be expected by a paying customer to an open-air amusement park.
The location plays its part as well. Without meaning to be unkind, it should be pointed out that Weston is not Monte Carlo. Incredibly popular as a seaside resort in the first half of the twentieth century, its appeal has declined, and although it still attracts summer visitors it has an old-fashioned feel, musty and slightly run-down, a holiday venue with its heart in the past, with the Tropicana at the centre of that heart. When it opened in 1937 the Tropicana boasted the largest open-air pool in Europe, and the highest diving board. However, it has been derelict since 2000 and the subsequent fifteen years have taken their toll on the mainly concrete structure. It is very much the shadow of its former self, but it is the perfect backdrop for the concept of Dismaland. As you walk around the open-air site you can take in a panoramic view of the town: the vast expanse of muddy sand, the refurbished and garish pier, and the fading September light sum it up beautifully.
And so to the other artists. In interviews with the media Banksy emphasised the importance of the other contributing artists, and around fifty were involved. Many were housed indoors in a cavernous hangar-like space, which worked for some but not others. As might be expected when more than fifty artists exhibit together, some were clearly more engaging than others. I found the highlight to be the huge model town by Jimmy Cauty: Aftermath Displacement Principle. From the main gallery you pass through a curtain and enter a darkened enclosed space, where you see a vast semi-lit city with people, vehicles, police and various desolate scenes frozen in time. It is a cityscape in the aftermath of a mass civil disturbance. There are crashed trucks embedded in a McDonald’s, many police roadblocks, and evidence of general mayhem. It is the sheer scale of the piece that impresses, and as you search the bleak landscape of a city under a self-generated siege you reflect on how our society deals with those who do not wish to engage in dialogue or discussion, or offer respect to our authority figures. All human societies are complex organisations, and this work enables the spectator to safely experience the consequences of what it might be like if it all went seriously wrong.
There were so many exhibits that deserve discussion: the Jeffrey Archer Memorial Fire Pit, the 1970s Northern Ireland water cannon vehicle stuck in a tiny lake, and various other less than tasteful takes on typical fairground attractions, in particular the boating lake with three motorised vessels containing ‘migrants’ who never get a chance to land –I’m not at all sure about that one. However, one installation seems to encapsulate the Dismaland experience for me. Amongst the fairground stalls was an inverted version of hook-the-duck. We all know what this involves: there are plastic ducks with hook-eyes under their beaks, you buy a rod – in this case for a pound – hook the duck, and win a rubbish prize. Not so here. The water is stained with oil and the ducks are cracked, broken and greasy. Two young men are attracting customers with less than enthusiastic calls; they really couldn't care less. Someone buys a rod and begins seriously attempting to land a slippery duck. The game takes over. If they can find a duck with an eye (not many), when they get too close to it, one of the custodians will catch their stick, push it away and then say 'bad luck'. We all understand that most fairground games involve an unspoken contract between the buyer who really knows he is being swindled but hopes he is not, and the seller, who knows he is offering a dubious product, but with a smile and friendly words suggests that he is actually being honest. This version of the game makes all this explicit – yet still people want to win!
Did I enjoy Dismaland? Of course. In some respects there was almost too much to take in, but the experience was thought provoking, mostly intelligent and very accessible. It was interesting to read the reviews of Dismaland in the national press, for they were very mixed. The negative criticism seemed to centre on the obvious nature of much of the politically or socio-economically focused displays. But this is how it works –much of the satirical material was bluntly funny and slightly childish. It was not based on serious intellectual criteria, but then again, neither is much modern political discourse. To make fun of national icons, institutions and individuals is, on one level, really easy, but to bring it to the point where it embraces good or even great art is something few achieve. Hogarth was perhaps the last English artist to manage this, and even he ended his life fairly neglected and ignored, having outlived his great era. While Banksy remains open to the criticism that some of his work is overly simplistic, I would rather celebrate the artist who is prepared to challenge many of our media-generated assumptions: a few of them may miss, but many still hit the mark. To persuade 150,000 people to visit the derelict site of an open-air swimming pool in the autumn in Weston-Super-Mare and make them smile over an art exhibition is no mean achievement. Whither next, Banksy? --Paul Flux