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.
The mysteriously private street artist known as Banksy has enjoyed some very public and widespread acclaim for his work in recent years. Thought to have been born in 1974 and raised in the Bristol area, Banksy (who does not reveal his full identity due to ongoing legal complications) has stated that he first got into spray painting around the age of 10, thanks to a kid called 3D (who went on to form the band Massive Attack). 3D had been to New York and is said to be the first to bring spray-can art to the streets of Bristol. While the authorities have removed some of Banksy’s early spray paintings, there are some that survive, such as the immensely popular Mild Mild West, showing a teddy bear aiming a Molotov cocktail at riot police, which, due to public pressure, has been preserved since it appeared in 1998.
Much of Banksy’s work has a political message. He stenciled a hole revealing clear blue skies—one of nine such paintings there altogether—on the Palestinian side of Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank, and planted a sculpture of a life-size Guantánamo Bay detainee inside one of the rides at Disneyland. Banksy does not approve of the removal or sale of any of his street art, although his works on canvas, board or metal sell for hefty prices at auction and are loved by collectors across the world.
His largest and longest running exhibition project to date, “Banksy versus Bristol City Museum,” marked the artist’s homecoming and, ironically, was staged in a public museum under the authority of the very people who have been whitewashing over the graffiti art that he has been strewing across the city for years. In true Banksy style, though, the whole operation was top secret, with only a handful of museum staff (even city authorities and museum trustees were kept in the dark) aware of the show’s imminent arrival. And, throughout the months of preparation and during the 36-hour shutdown period during which Banksy, the self-proclaimed “quality vandal,” and his crew took over the museum for installation, no one ever caught a glimpse of the man himself.
The Edwardian Bristol City Art Museum is a typical school-trip destination, complete with taxidermied animals, classical statues and old-master paintings. The Banksy exhibition, featuring 100 works, 78 of which are new,was a full-scale infiltration and remix of the museum and its collections. The information desk in the main hall became a life-size, burnt-out ice-cream van covered in graffiti and topped with a gigantic sculpture of a runny ice-cream cone. It was surrounded by several retrofitted classical sculptures, among them a binge drinker, a Paris Hilton look-alike weighed down by designer bags, and a suicide bomber.
A dimly lit room housed Banksy’s caged mechanical sculptures, some displayed last year in his storefront fake pet shop in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. A mother hen watched over her chicken-nugget little ones pecking away at a synthetic-looking sauce in a fast-food plastic container; encased raw sausages, salamis and hot dogs writhed and squirmed in a sickly sexual manner; what looked from the back like a cheetah curled in the branches of a tree was chillingly revealed to be a fur coat.
The artist’s anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment obsessions really came out in a room crammed with graffiti art, tags, installations, familiar Banksy stencils and many paintings. The image of an Alpine landscape bears a single asterisk above its snow-capped peak and reads, at the bottom, “Subject to availability, for a limited period only.” Another scene shows riot police playfully skipping through a meadow.
On the first floor, visitors of all types enjoyed participating in a lighthearted game of “spot the Banksy” among the permanent collections. Many of the pieces here were tongue-in-cheek, including the dainty, hand-painted, clearly used hash pipe hidden within the pottery display. Like assisted readymades, vandalized reproductions of paintings in the museum’s permanent collection appeared, such as a Millet with a peasant woman stepping out of the frame for a quick cigarette, or a Monet in which shopping carts have been dumped into a picturesque lily pond.
Judging from the long queues spilling out of Bristol Museum every day and the great enthusiasm displayed by visitors, the artist’s decision to come indoors for a while was only good. The strength of Banksy’s work lies in the fact that, even in a museum environment, his messages are direct enough to reach anyone on the street.