If you lived in a cave in the past few weeks you might not know what Dismaland is. A dystopian theme park curated by Banksy, displaying pieces from more than 50 artists in the surreal settings of an abandoned lido. The themes seem to rotate around a disillusioned view of society and resistance against the silent dictatorship of consumerism. But still is full of people taking selfies while holding balloon stating “I am an imbecile”. Conscious self-irony or is this Banksy pulling a great hat-trick to us all?
The former Tropicana Pleasure Beach sits on a vast sandy expanse south of Weston-super-mare Grand Pier. A square walled block of concrete that, just 15 years after its closure, is hard to imagine as an entertaining place for families. This location was handpicked by Banksy: “I loved the Tropicana as a kid, so getting to throw these doors open again is a real honour” he says in an interview to the local newspaper. “I hope everyone from Weston will take the opportunity to once more stand in a puddle of murky water eating cold chips to the sound of crying children.”
In this unlikely location it’s possible to walk amongst diverse installations, circus tents containing creepy pottery or activists talking about their actions against housing crisis, an outdoor cinema and classic fair rides with a dark twist. Every detail is carefully thought-out and loudspeakers fill the air with eerie circus music regularly interrupted by recorded announcements.
One thing that didn’t convince me was the staff in pink vests and Mickey Mouse ears, trying a bit too hard to look bored and miserable. The act was un-spontaneous and clashed with the insane harmony ruling the place.
A museum is a bad place to look at art
In a recent interview with the Guardian Banksy claimed that “a museum is a bad place to look at art”. Not sure if I can fully agree with the literal meaning of the quote but for sure this specific kind of art deserves a different space. Sure in the main building of the park there are three galleries filled with more traditional works: paintings, sculptures and video installations, but it’s part of a larger scenario allowing the whole exhibition to better convey the message.
But what is the message? It’s hard to sum up but my impression was that every corner of Dismaland was screaming at people to wake up from the technological numbness and look at what’s happening around them, with a curious critical eye. All delivered with more or less subtle sarcasm and dark humour. It all felt very liberating, the collective of artists behind Dismaland finally stepped out from the dark, upgrading from illegal graffiti daredevils to legitimate artists, deeply rooted and concerned in the world we live in.
If you’re not outraged it means you’re not paying attention
The central piece, topographically speaking, was the disfigured, burned-down Disney-esque castle, a prominent figure visible also from outside the site walls. Inside only one room, pitch black, with Cinderella’s pumpkin-chariot in its middle toppled over on one side. The horses agonizing on the floor and the body of the princess limply hanging off a broken window. The only source of light comes from a group of paparazzi gawking at the scene with their helmets on and relentlessly shooting photos with bright flashes.
I loved this part as I found it rather intense and disturbing, but I liked it even more when, a couple of steps before the exit, I turned back to cast it a last look.
Behind the group of paparazzi statues stood the visitors, all of them holding phones, cameras and even tablets, snapping away and blending in with the composition.
I don’t think that the whole point of the exhibition was “do not take selfies”, but seeing so many people spending more time looking at screens rather than what was standing before them made me ponder. I don’t know if this was all part of a greater plan or just a coincidence, but what I saw made me share the bleak and embittered view of the future expressed by so many artists.
A dismal scenario
Leaving Dismaland we had enough time to visit Weston-Super-Mare. Once a sophisticated seaside resort, probably still running strong in the 60s, now looked decadent and abandoned. Surely the weather didn’t do it a favour, as most of the people either braved the cold gales on the promenade or hid in the lurid lights and colours of the gambling arcades. The eerie light cast by the battleship grey sky created a fascinating effect on the vast sandy expanse which seamlessly faded in the sea. The grand Victorian buildings, corroded by the saline water, were mostly closed so, after watching a group of kids splashing in a puddle of water covered in sickly brown foam under the Gran Pier, we left.
Heading a few miles north we reached Birnbeck, an island connected to the mainland by a pier, actually the only one of its kind in the country, and abandoned for 30 years to the cares of rough weather and tides. Which are actually the second highest in the world. Despite these peculiarities the place was deserted. During low tide it’s possible to reach it by foot, even if it’s officially prohibited, and so we did. Little more than rubbles and heaps of rusted metal is what left of once a glorious pier, and after a quick depressing tour we walked back as the water was quickly rising. Climbing up a cliff back to the road we walked through what once was a garden of a tea house facing the pier. The building was brutally vandalised, every window smashed and every breakable feature broken. That clearly happened recently which made the violence even more intense in its mindless devastating force.
Was this all part of Banksy’s plan, or was Dismaland just the tip of a larger iceberg?