In Weston-super-Mare, England, an abandoned seaside resort has been transformed into a dystopian theme park. On August 20, following weeks of speculation, the artist Banksy announced a five-week contemporary art project called Dismaland Bemusement Park.
Banksy is a well-known, though anonymous, British street artist active since the early 1990s. His work is subversive and satirical, combining social and political commentary with graffiti. Banksy expanded beyond Bristol and London with gallery representation and celebrity collectors by the early 2000s. He produced a film (Exit Through the Gift Shop) in 2010, staged a one-month New York residency in 2013, and is credited for developing interest in, and a market for, street art. Banksy’s graffiti is technically vandalism, but regularly sells for six and even seven figures.
In February 2015, Banksy released a satirical tourism video after he apparently visited the northern Gaza Strip and left graffiti on the ruins of a neighborhood destroyed by Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He advised,
“I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website – but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.”
In rubble, rather than in London or Manhattan, Banksy’s narrative is overt and serious. It’s an anti-war statement where there is no art market.
In Weston-super-Mare, three hours west of London, Banksy’s largest project to-date is, literally, a contemporary art theme park. The former Tropicana is now Dismaland, a purposefully derelict version of a theme park with at least ten installations by Banksy and works by some 60 other contemporary artists in galleries and sideshow tents.
“Are you looking for an alternative to the soulless sugar-coated banality of the average family day out? Or just somewhere cheaper? Then this is the place for you – a chaotic new world where you can escape from mindless escapism… Bring the whole family to come and enjoy the latest addition to our chronic leisure surplus – a bemusement park.”
Dismaland is, obviously, a riff on Disneyland. It reappropriates the name, imagery, and mouse-eared staff who tell visitors to “have a dismal day.” Everything is darkly inverted to become The Crappiest Place on Earth.
There’s a boat ride with miniature ships full of refugees, an overturned carriage where paparazzi snap photos of Cinderella’s body, and a killer whale that leaps from a toilet to a baby pool. Other installations reference the police state, environmental disasters, and income inequality, with frowns all around. These are the narratives we expect from Banksy, and in such density, they are a spectacle of ugliness and ironic populism.
Beyond the dark humor of the installations, the theme park irony expands to the entire experience of visiting. The ticketing website was broken from the first day (Purposefully?) and there are long entrance lines for security screening. Markers and spray paint are prohibited (Oh, Banksy!), and the exit is through the gift shop (Of course!).
Dismaland ridicules populism, but it is a theme park. Its installations are revisionist, but only with dull satire. Banksy has gone from anti-establishment to recruiting the likes of Damien Hirst and Jenny Holzer for this massive and undoubtedly expensive project. It’s contradictory and almost excessively sarcastic. Well, it is called a bemusement park.
Banksy’s Dismaland is open in Weston-super-Mare through September 27.