This week I went to Dismaland. Dismaland mushroomed on the site of the derelict Tropicana lido in Weston-Super-Mare about a month ago, bamboozling almost everyone. No-one knew it was coming, no-one knew what it was.
It turned out to be a ghoulish ‘Bemusement Park’ conceived and executed by elusive street artist Banksy. Part art installation, part fun fair, part indictment of empathy-crushing consumer-capitalism – ‘a festival of art, amusements, and entry-level anarchism’, as the PR spiel puts it, bringing together the work of 58 artists from around the globe – it became one of the world’s most talked-about visitor attractions overnight.
Usually I’ve got no interest in art, but it was on my doorstop and only cost £3 to get in, so I decided to go. Probably unsurprisingly, given that I’m a bleak-humoured anti-capitalist who thinks Western societies have been lobotomised by consumer culture and tragically insulated from the suffering of their fellow human beings, I quite liked it.
On a deadeningly grey Tuesday afternoon, I joined a long queue on a green near Weston seafront that didn’t budge for over an hour. There were all sorts of people there – yes, the obligatory contingent of edgy artsy types and anarcho-hipsters, but also intrigued pensioners, German backpackers, slightly startled-looking middle-aged couples and an unexpectedly high number of parents pushing prams.
Eventually, a Dismaland oompa-loompa sporting standard-issue Mickey Mouse ears appeared at the ticket shack with a loudspeaker and announced we were going to be let in. Money paid and armband on, we were allowed to cross the road from the green to the big beige breezeblock of the old Tropicana itself – but not before having any bags searched by flesh-tunnelled security men. The bloke in front of me was found to have a freshly-bought copy of the new Will Young album, which they proceeded to mercilessly take the piss out of. As we walked from the security area to the main entrance, every walkie-talkie we passed crackled “we have a Will Young fan on the premises, I repeat, we have a Will Young fan…”
Having cleared the (semi-) serious security checkpoint, you’re immediately hit with a satirical one – the Tropicana’s entrance hall has been turned into a cartoonish mock-up of airport security made entirely out of cardboard. Visitors are monstered at random by staff dressed in exaggerated security uniforms with comedically oversized hats and badges.
And then you emerge into the park itself. Unsurprisingly, the old lido now looks nothing like the place I sploshed around in as a prepubescent tit in the 1990s. The basic structure is the same – it’s a bit like a smallish, square, open-air fort, with some rooms along the left-hand wall. But now there’s some sort of blasphemous Mad Max/Scrapheap Challenge Cinderella castle slap bang in the middle, looking like it could give you tetanus just by looking at it. There’s a lake full of junk, and, at one side of it, a Troubles-era riot van has been turned into a grimy dystopian water feature, as if Charlie Dimmock had a breakdown after reading too much Judge Dredd.
There’s a clapped-out Ferris wheel, a Burning Man sculpture made from two giant tanker trucks, and a fire pit ceremonially incinerating copies of Jeffrey Archer novels (Archer used to be Weston’s Tory MP in addition to writing shit novels, at least before he was jailed for perjury). Mounted speakers blare out soporific Hawaiian tiki music and, seemingly on repeat, a particularly drowsy rendition of jazz standard Sleepwalk. Julie Birchill has rewritten Punch and Judy to be about domestic violence and Jimmy Savile, and its screechy performance is about the only thing you can hear above the muzak. I’m not sure whether the £5 falafel wrap is a genuine offering at the food tent, or whether it’s a dig at liberal-metropolitan eating habits.
The park’s manned by Mickey-eared staff in pink high-viz. They responded to an ambiguous ad in the local press calling for film extras, and were then told to be as balshy and uncooperative as possible. And sure enough, they’re deliciously rude – doing outstanding impressions of bored, unappreciated wage-slaves confronted with the crushing meaninglessness of most of the modern economy on a daily basis. “Move. Get out of my way. Move” one monotoned, barging his way through the crowd. Another sat in an ice cream van just to slam the window-shutter in the face of anyone who tried to approach. Others chewed gum and apathetically handed out big black balloons bearing the simple white legend ‘I Am An Imbecile’. I’d like to think it’s a particularly enjoyable and liberating experience for any of them who’ve previously worked in retail.
I could take or leave the more conventional oh-that’s-a-nice-picture school of art found in the largest of the site’s three indoor galleries. Same for the motorway-style dot matrix signs relaying encouragements to conform with consumer society in glowing orange text, like a rubbish subtitle version of Radiohead’s ‘Fitter Happier’. A rotisserie foetus-thing spun in a case. Someone had made a giant ice cream that looked like it had been snapped off of Brighton Pavillion. Someone else had embroidered bits of a car bonnet. There was a Damian Hirst ‘piece’ involving a floating beach ball and some knives, but Damian Hirst neatly encapsulates everything I hate about by-the-rich for-the-rich ‘edgy’ art.
But I liked the model village – otherwise known as Jimmy Cauty’s Aftermath Dislocation Principle, an absurdly detailed 1:87 scale vision of a post-apocalyptic Bedfordshire where the only people left are three thousand policemen and the Duchess of Cambridge awaiting helicopter evac (just make sure you take the helpful explanatory leaflet outside first, rather than trying to read it by the blue flashing light of several hundred tiny police cars). I liked Banksy’s mischievous insertion of Cookie Monster into a jeep full of AK-wielding African militiamen, even if it was nothing particularly new for him. And the thing I liked the most, marrying my affinity for the bleak and my abiding love of surrealist mucking around, was this:
On the grim, unsettling, yanked-from-your-consumerist-stupor front, two bits stood out as particularly memorable – both of them by Banksy. The first is the genuinely fairly shocking discovery you make inside the castle – a grisly tableau of Cinderella-as-Princess-Di, pumpkin carriage overturned, horses dead, Cinders herself half-thrown out the window, and a swarm of paparazzo-sociopaths taking photos of her corpse. The flashbulbs that really flash, the camera shutters that really chatter (loudly), the transition from the Disney film soundtrack playing in the approaching corridor to the jarring suddenness of rounding a corner and finding yourself faced with that, all mean it has a whalloping impact.
The second is much more simple, and yet quietly harrowing in its way. Banksy has made – or has had made – one of those remote control boat games you sometime get in traditional-style theme parks and holiday camps. The difference is, his boats are filled with models of dead-eyed Mediterranean migrants. About the most humanitarian thing the game allows you to do is avoid bumping into the bobbing corpses of the ones who’ve drowned. Of the things I saw – and I fully admit I couldn’t be arsed to queue for some of the other bits of the park – that one did the best job of achieving Dismaland’s mission statement: ‘a theme park whose big theme is that theme parks should have bigger themes’.
Naturally, you exit via the gift shop. Banksy’s paid for it all himself at what must be a big loss, so I suppose he’s got to try and make a bit of money back somehow. ‘Never come back’ said the last pink-jacketed college student-type lady as I left, in a surprisingly cheery voice. It finishes next week, so I couldn’t if I wanted to.