Dismaland: Banksy creates something truly depressing

This place is unreal. A dilapidated pub, desperate-looking big wheel and grim promenade perfectly express the melancholy of the British seaside. But that’s just Weston-super-Mare on a cloudy morning. Dismaland is even stranger. Or so I hope, as I join the very first visitors to Banksy’s Bemusement Park waiting to see what lies behind a miserably gothic sign on the battered facade of a decaying lido.

People have been waiting for hours in a queue that stretches far along the prom. A thousand free tickets have been given away to Weston-super-Mare residents for this first public day. All ages and subcultures from punks to a man dressed entirely in union jacks are waiting to have their bags searched.

There are two layers of security as we pour in: real and fake. The fake security is one of the funniest moments of the day. Created by Californian artist Bill Barminksi, it consists of cardboard X-ray machines and tables of cardboard objects supposedly taken from visitors. But this joke about modern security systems does not change the fact that before you enter  Dismaland you do actually get your bag thoroughly inspected by very real security guards who asked one visitor if he had any knives or, get this, spray cans. All graffiti in Dismaland is official graffiti.

You can see why Banksy needs to control spontaneous art. Already the streets between the railway station and his attraction have been enlivened by rival street artists. Banksy. He’s so famous that Weston-super-Mare’s lucky golden ticket holders rush into the park already taking pictures, and I too am caught up in the thrill. This has been in the Daily Mail and everything, it’s got to be special.

Greeters – or rather, sulkers – wear Mickey Mouse ears and T-shirts that say DISMAL. Instead of being forced to smile all day they have to grimace all day. Some are so good at it they appear genuinely pissed off. It’s infectious, for me at least.

As cameraphones snap everything in sight, the gloom of the British seaside at its most dilapidated and moribund wells up in me. Memories of amusement arcades in Rhyl. Banksy has created something truly depressing. There at the heart of Dismaland is the fairytale castle, ruinous and rancid. The lake around it has a fountain that is a police water cannon. But an empty feeling is starting to hollow me out. Where’s the fun I was promised? Well, I wasn’t promised any fun, just dismalness. But surely not this dismal.

Inside the festering wreck of a fairytale castle, Cinderella’s coach has crashed. Flash bulbs create indoor lightning as paparazzi photograph her. Shock! It’s like the death of Diana. But there’s no emotion. The lifesize tableau, by Banksy himself, is just one big smirk. Wait. He’s built a castle. He leads us into it … For this? It’s such a trite, simplistic joke.

Map of Dismaland.

Dismaland is not all crap jokey installations, however. There are political one liners here as well as artistic ones. People are queuing up to go inside a caravan with intense displays about the evil of our fascist police state. There is also a huge model of said fascist police state, with tiny police cars everywhere, blue lights flashing right across a diorama of a city at night.

The irony of the security on the way into Dismaland is underlined by all the references to CCTV and the wicked security establishment that pervade it. Yet that obvious double standard goes much deeper. Dismaland is a kind of consummation, for me, of all that is false about Banksy. It claims to be “making you think” and above all to be defying the consumer society, the leisure society, the commodification of the spectacle. Disneyland packages dreams, Dismaland is a blast of reality. 

But it is just a media phenomenon, something that looks much better in photos than it feels to be here. “Being here” is itself just a way of touching the magic of Banksy’s celebrity – that’s why everyone is taking pictures. This is somewhere to come to say you went. As an actual experience it is thin and threadbare, and I found, to be honest, quite boring.

I felt I was participating in a charade where everyone has to pretend this is a better joke than it is. In reality the crazy fairgrounds and dance tents at rock festivals are far more subversive – because they are joyous.

Perhaps you need intoxicants to enjoy Dismaland, and I was there at 11 in the morning. But its failure to create joy is self-defeating. Funfairs really are strange, wild places, as filmmakers have known since Todd Browning made Freaks and rock music has known since The Doors recorded Strange Days. But in Dismaland, the rather well established idea that fairs are bizarre is not taken anywhere new or interesting.

As a news story, a media sensation, it works wonderfully – but up close, this is a Potemkin theme park. It’s not an experience, just a pasteboard substitute for one. Indeed, it is a mere art exhibition. Dismaland does not offer the energy and danger that real theme parks do. Instead, it brings together a lot of bad art by the seaside.

Banksy shows a painting of a mother and child about to be overwhelmed by a tsunami. The grotesquely clumsy crudeness of his painting technique up close, and without any excuse that he did it quickly to evade the cops, is embarrassing. But nastiest of all is the work’s peculiar lack of human feeling. We are – apparently – meant to think it’s funny that the wave is about to kill these beachgoers. They have lots of commodities, you see – suncream and stuff. All the detritus of consumer capitalism. See the wave of the future crush them! This heartless allegory is worthy of Maoist propaganda. As art it is sterile and dead.

Banksy does better with a figure of Death riding a dodgem. This would be a lot of fun if you could go on the dodgems and try to dodge death. Sadly you just have to watch. It elicits a half laugh.

At least a visit to Dismaland is a real, sustained chance to assess Banksy as an artist. His one dimensional jokes and polemics lack any poetic feeling. Devoid of ambiguity or mystery, everything he has created here is inert and unengaging. Cinderalla dies and noone gives a toss. What a good joke about our time, that one of the most famous critics of the way we live now is nothing more than a media-savvy cultural entrepeneur.

Banksy’s taste in other artists is no more insightful. Most of the artists he’s selected for this seaside outing are as one dimensional as his own visions.

Only one image held me. It has been a long time since I was thrilled to see a Damien Hirst but among all the half baked efforts here, Hirst’s gold framed vitrine containing a unicorn has a true strangeness. It is not preachy or self righteous. Nor is its fascination easily explained. It is a real fairground attraction, freakish and bizarre. Dismaland needs a few more unicorns. So does Weston-super-Mare. So do we all. – (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd 2015

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