To the fabled few Dismaland is an experience worst endured alone and in the rain.
That’s exactly what I did, except along with several other hundred people who had the same idea earlier this week one particularly miserable rain filled morning as I queued along the sea front at the Somerset seaside town, Weston-Super-Mare. Dubbed the UK’s ‘most disappointing new visitor attraction’ the exhibition situated in Weston’s dilapidated Tropicana Lido aims to bemuse and turn the whole idea of an ‘amusement park’ on its head, subvert it, fill it with irony and humour mixed with the controversy, political undertones and social commentary that we’ve come to expect from the Bristol originated street artist’s work. The site features several of Banksy’s works ever pushing the ‘artist’ as we now seem to call him into territory increasingly outside that of just graffiti or street art and into the broader realms of almost Damien Hirst ambitions of being a media savvy entrepreneur. The concept of the park itself and work within it has been curated (we’re told) by Banksy himself and excitingly features the work of over fifty other artists including Jenny Holzer and David Shrigley.
Like cogs in the infernal consumer, social media machine multitudes of us bought into the hype, the speculation and almost feverishness as we either queued for hours in the rain or clambered in vein in an attempt to purchase tickets online. An unprecedented demand for what is essentially, ‘an art exhibition in wolves clothing’ of the likes Charles Saatchi and Nick Serota (Tate Director) can only dream of! Love Banksy or hate him, there is so much to be said for the phenomenon in sheer popularity alone that this attraction has caused. It is possibly one of the most intelligent marketing events in recent years, that has managed to convince thousands of people to stand for hours queuing in the rain, endure a truly incompetent website, miserable staff and terrible customer service based on the promise of having a ‘bad’ or ‘dismal’ time. Our shared frustration and misery only adding to the attractiveness, hype and irony of the whole experience! Those lacking a sense of humour need not attend!
Is it all a gimmick, a one-liner a joke at society’s expense or is there something more to offer in the thinking, artists and work within Dismaland? If art becomes ‘popular’ it is sometimes dismissed as being a bit naff, vacuous or shallow in appealing to the masses? Think Pop Art in the early 60s America. But what’s wrong with being popular? We now look upon Pop Art as something more crucial and important to art history than perhaps the reception it was met with by critics at the time. I think the mistake that people make is when they associate popular with being ‘good’ or having ‘quality’ to it which is often subjective and very often not the case. The grim reaper on a bumper car, two trucks colliding in on each other, a killer whale jumping from a toilet into a paddling pool and a beach ball suspended above knives may not be ‘good’ art, ‘tasteful’ or even particularly well-made but is popular because it is often deliberately easily accessible.
Is a joke that no one gets funny? Not really unless it’s ironic, you want it to be told in a language, a wit that everyone can understand. Comic book art, advertising in the 60s is a visual language meant to be understood by the masses and so political cartoons, one-liners and non-conformist acts of rebellion are designed to communicate their message across clearly be it in the form of slogans, word-play, use of celebrity, parody or satire. The danger of this so called popularity or ‘wisdom of the crowds’ is exactly that, cliché; and the danger of a lot of work presented at Dismaland is that in all its clever cynicism it soon grows tiresome, repetitive and above all is quite quickly forgotten. It is art that should only be enjoyed as part of a balanced art diet! Even the overtly more practically used political banners by Ed Hall lose some of their power in being statically hung in a tent-based installation; they are only really animated in the context of the people who carry them.
A flat photo-realistic painting of a dystopian landscape, of which there are many in Dismaland doesn’t have the same meaning in its production and intent behind it as a George Shaw painting in my opinion. Nor does the asylum seekers raft boat ‘fairground’ style game have the same lasting resonance that pricks much deeper at your conscience, like an Ai Weiwei work does, in which the production is as symbolic (if not more so) as the finished work itself. That’s sort of where the art in Dismaland disappoints, that it feels confused as to who its real audience are, if it is disillusioned teenagers, working class, middle class, celebrities, idiots, journalists or all of the above! Guerrilla Island toward the back of the park does offer some earnestness, some radical politics in the form of a museum of cruel design, objects designed to hurt (example, pigeon spikes for the homeless), the Comrades Advice Bureau and a mini library. If you take time to process these amidst the distractions of the fun fair I salute you.
Dismaland does well at addressing a bigger political message about Art, its purpose and value, particularly in how Councils need to reassess how they value the arts/culture in their towns and cities to create more provision for them providing easier access to disused spaces; as Dismaland demonstrates how much prosperity culture can provide to a seaside resort in the rainy summer holiday months. I enjoyed being part of the spectacle, the experience; Bill Barminski’s fake security gate made of cardboard was one good example at using performance within an art experience and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun exploring the remnants of Tropicana, riding inside the Astronaut’s Caravan as it spun around you and attempting to knock over anvils with ping-pong balls. We shouldn’t be afraid to not take art seriously some times and if you are walking around expecting it all to be art you're severely missing the point; its as much of a fair ground as it is an art exhibition as it is a bar and music venue. Make of each what you will! It pokes fun at our familiarity of how we expect to view art in museums and galleries and maybe an amusement park could be a fun place to see art?!
Its downfall for me however is given its huge opportunity and press coverage it could had a rare chance to be so much more than a cheap laugh or a ‘place to be seen’. I think it plays to the audience as being a consuming, disillusioned society that isn’t so much looking for answers or solutions as it is for someone to blame. Jaded by political and capitalist systems in a world increasingly under threat of environmental self-oblivion; there isn’t much optimism or, if Dismaland was anything to go by, much in the way of what we can actually do about it. Its most dismal trait is its portrayal of a troubling acceptance or apathy that the world may irreconcilably be doomed so why bother. It had the opportunity to be much more of an activator to promote and encourage positive change but does so very shallowly or more often choosing to ignore it all together. I am sceptical whether this Disneyland parody set in a very British stereotypical seaside town could provide the political awakening that has been somewhat lacking but much needed in those of my generation and younger? And that really is quite dismal.
But hey, on the plus side makes for some great photo opportunities though!
If you insist on fulfilling the dismalness for yourself then I suggest you arrive at Weston early and queue! For those of you further afield you may want to try booking a ticket online:
All text & Images Copyright of Natalie Parsley©
All text & Images Copyright of Natalie Parsley©