Making our way to Dismaland Bemusement Park in sunny Weston-super-Mare, the already present sense of ‘what the hell are we getting ourselves into’ was heightened by the number of people wandering around carrying black balloons branded ‘I AM AN IMBECILE’.
Billed as a ‘sinister twist on Disneyland’, the park is an elaborate pop-up art exhibition based at the seaside town’s disused lido, the Tropicana, organised and coordinated by professional enigma Banksy. Through the works of over 50 artists from 17 different countries (all invited by Banksy himself), this fairground is a darkly satirical social commentary that chews up the squeaky-clean, enforced happiness regime of your typical theme park and spits it out as a decadent and decaying wasteland caked in the grim realities of the world in 2015.
First up is the security screening room, designed by Californian film maker Bill Barminksi. Everything in this room is made of white cardboard, looking like you’re in a cartoon that hasn’t been coloured in yet. The cameras, the metal detector doors, everything is cardboard boxes with thick black outlines, and it’s so impressive you can’t help grinning, but as soon as you do that the equally cartoonish security guards will chastise you within an inch of your life. ‘Wipe that stupid smile off your face,’ they’ll bark, berating every sucker- I mean customer, who crosses their path.The first time you look around and see the park is a strange moment. You end up standing still, taking it all in for a minute. Everything is dirty; the kiddie rides are rusty and busted; a horrifying Punch & Judy is surrounded by rubble and police tape; walls are covered in large, darkly funny post-it notes (“The more I know humans, the more I love snakes”); the water is green and littered with plastic bags, trolleys and a broken-down police van; and Cinderella’s castle appears to be on fire.
Other than the art (which we’ll get to in a second), one of the best parts about Dismaland is the ‘staff’. Wandering around wearing broken Mickey Mouse ears and hilarious deadpan expressions, they’re all either miserable, rude, or even abusive, serving the overall effect of the park brilliantly. Want a balloon? Be prepared to earn it by holding out your money and dancing for it. Want to play mini golf or hook a duck? You WILL be sabotaged at every turn. Nope, there’s no “Hey boys and girls, have a super day” here. Instead, you can expect something more along the lines of “Keep the queue moving you idiots” or “I hate you all”. At one stall, we actually saw the attendant fashioning a noose.
Looking around the park there’s a falafel stand, a bar, outlets for Strike! magazine and Occupy Design, as well as an outdoor cinema showing witty and/or disturbing offerings from film makers like Chris Capel, Kirsten Lepore, Nicolas Deveaux and many more. But of course the real star of the show is the art itself.
Let’s talk about the big man himself first: Inside the smoking remains of Cinderella’s castle resides Banksy’s breathtakingly macabre scene which shows the 1950 film’s famous pumpkin carriage overturned after a horrific crash with Cinderella’s lifeless body hanging out of it while models of paparazzi are positioned around her, the cameras flashing away mercilessly and endlessly, a poignant statement on Princess Diana.
Banksy’s acidic humour is also present in his grim reaper cruising around in a bumper car to ‘Stayin’ Alive’, and his model of Mickey Mouse being swallowed whole by an enormous python. One of the more gruesome, confrontational pieces appears in the form of a traditional fairground boat pond, except here the boats are full of sick, dehumanised refugees.
Elsewhere, consumerism is tackled by a large-scale piece from Irish artist Caroline McCarthy showing a multitude of plant pots interspersed with processed food packaging. The sheer size of the piece makes it all the more impressive and melancholy at the same time. Speaking of scale, one of the biggest and most overwhelming works on display came from Jimmy Cauty. The Aftermath Displacement Principle is a huge, intricately crafted model city depicting scenes following a cataclysmic riot across a grim industrial-urban landscape, solely populated by the media and thousands of police.
A personal favourite portion of the fair is the ‘Big Top Freak Show’, where you’ll find some of the more bizarre offerings at Dismaland. Here we found American Scott Hove’s mounted cakes with the terrifying, ferocious snouts of unthinkable beasts bursting from within, as well as some unsettling ceramic, sentient teapots, cups and plates beginning to grow their own fingers and mouths from Israeli artist Ronit Baranga. Then of course there’s Damien Hirst’s macabre unicorn in a box…
Everything in this fascinating dystopia invites us to consider the bleak, burdensome future being tossed away to the next generation as if it were a live grenade. It’s Banksy’s idea of a more appropriate message to the kids than what’s offered by a certain other theme park. ‘Here it is kids, we messed up- sorry’. But somehow, despite the park’s relentless brutality, it’s still a genuinely fun day out, as well as a remarkable achievement for art- its beauty lying within its ugliness, its black humour and its irreverence.You are now leaving Disneyland. Welcome to Dismaland.
Words by James Hanman
Photos by Captain Charley