Dismaland was notorious street artist Banksy’s latest and biggest project. Set in a run-down seaside lido in Weston-super-Mare, on England’s west coast—near Bristol, where the artist, who maintains his anonymity, is believed to come from—the mock theme park featured work by roughly 50 international artists, including Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer and David Shrigley. Banksy himself contributed 10 pieces. Shrouded in secrecy, Dismaland sparked unbelievable frenzy across Europe within hours of its announcement on the front page of the local newspaper Weston, Worle & Somerset Mercury. A perfect media sensation.
The artist has quipped that Dismaland was “an art show for the 99 percent, who’d rather be at Alton Towers,” England’s most beloved amusement park. Visitors were met at the entrance to the former resort, called Tropicana and closed since 2000, by disgruntled staffers who made every effort to disprove stereotypes about English politeness. They snapped at the lucky few who were able to get tickets (the huge demand kept crashing Dismaland’s website) to stop smiling and herded them through a cardboard security-screening room, made by artist Bill Barminski, before allowing them to enter.
Once inside, I found myself wandering around—in the rain, naturally—with a crowd of other visitors happily posing as terrorists through a painted board with face holes, or queuing patiently for the park’s many other dysfunctional attractions and quixotic games. Shrigley, for example, had a stall where you tried to knock over an anvil by hurling Ping-Pong balls at it. More stands modeled on game booths were located next to tents run by political activists, who sold tools for breaking into bus-stop advertisement cases in order to put up one’s own signs. At a neighboring stand, children were encouraged to take out a pocket-money loan with an interest rate of 5,000 percent. Elsewhere, children and adults alike played with overcrowded model boats full of refugee figurines in muddy ponds near a cemetery of rusty merry-go-round animals. And, of course, graffiti in Banksy’s characteristic style could be found on walls throughout.
At the center of this park combining political activism, social critique and art installation, plus coffee shops and bars, were two main attractions: a ruinous Disney-esque castle, drained of its Technicolor, and three large galleries containing the bulk of the other artists’ works.
Upon entering the crumbling castle, visitors encountered a mad mob of paparazzi mannequins drowning the interior with camera flashes. No happily ever after for Cinderella: she was dead. The blonde beauty hung lifeless from her pumpkin carriage—a morbid reminder of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash. To complete the experience, visitors were offered a souvenir picture of themselves in front of the carnage on the way out.
While this dark, depressed version of a fun fair provided much to laugh at and to think about (even if the political messages were pretty heavy-handed), the gallery show did not contribute much, apart from offering insight into Banksy’s taste in art. Including James Joyce’s rotating smiley face projected onto a circular screen, Jessica Harrison’s tattooed porcelain figures installed in a shadow box, Jimmy Cauty’s postapocalyptic model town lit only by emergency lights, and Banksy’s grim reaper riding a bumper car, it continued the overall theme of a world in despair but had minimal impact following the entertainment-oriented displays elsewhere.
With Dismaland, the fairy tale was shown to be over, and who is to say that such a broad statement isn’t needed at times? While some people yawned at the project for being too obvious, Britain’s famous trickster should be commended for eliciting mainstream praise for his pitiless take on everything mainstream. At this “bemusement park,” as it was billed, you got a regular fun day out, full of selfies, souvenirs, pizza and beer, and yet, after an hour or two in Weston-super-Mare, you found yourself wanting to be an anarchist. At least I did.