Welcome To Dismaland
I joined the hordes descending on Dismaland today. Thanks to worldwide media coverage, the decaying British seaside town of Weston-super-Mare was as packed as it might have been in its Victorian heyday, as endless processions of coaches brought thousands of people in to see what is basically a deliberately crap amusement park. We live in strange times when such a thing is possible, but having been to Disneyland Paris when my daughter was younger, there is no way any act of subversive irony could ever cancel out the sweat-freezing horror of the real thing. If I expected from this experience, it was light relief, but I did not expect to come away with some genuine intellectual gristle to chew on.
When I moved to Bristol in 1999, ‘Banksy’ was a wanted man. Infamous for plastering his stencils all over the city, the works were assiduously removed by the local council, and if they ever caught up with him he was busted. I was never that taken with the work itself, which seemed a bit ‘sixth form’ in terms of its political depth, but I admired his tenacity and it wasn’t long after that his work started appearing on books and album covers and he became the crown prince of what we now know as ‘Street Art’. In my youth graffiti amounted to little more than drawings of spurting cocks and ‘Karen is a slag’ written on toilet doors, but things have certainly changed, with some genuinely talented people doing their thing and using the streets as their gallery. Of course, the high art establishment soon absorbed ‘Banksy’ and made him a marketable ‘brand’ complete with celebrity patrons, but the potential remained to reach a significant audience that would otherwise have nothing whatsoever to do with the art world, and Dismaland is a perfect example of that.
It must be said that this is not a ‘Bansky’ show. He’s certainly involved, but so are many other artists, all rising to the challenge of responding in their own individual ways to the bizarre world we live in. I’d been aware of the hype in the news, but I’d deliberately avoided the coverage so I could come at this with an open mind. Surprised by the affordable ticket price (£5), I queued with the family in cold late summer rain for over an hour, which gave me time to ponder the absurdity of it all. Once inside though I quickly realised that sharp minds had worked on this and taken full advantage of the opportunity to ram some dangerous ideas into the minds of people who’d probably only come for a bit of a laugh. Alright, the crashed Cinderella coach, lit by the flickering light of paparazzi cameras, is way too obvious a comment on celebrity death, particularly the Ballardian demise of Diana Spencer, but I accepted that it was something they had to do, to get it out of the way, and then they could really get down to business. ‘Staff’ around the site were all playing the role of bored and unhelpful wage slaves, no different to the poor bastards who have to work in the ‘real’ amusement parks. Sporting pink hi-vis jackets, they wandered around looking like they were bored of considering suicide, begrudgingly answering questions and herding queues through to the next ‘amusement’. The location of the former Tropicana lido could not have been more perfect, as they’ve barely had to dress the set. Crumbling walls, broken bricks, rusting corrugated metal and muddy puddles were already in place, but they must have still had to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to put it all together. Strewn about the place were deckchairs flapping in the cold wind, and the various stalls and rides were only slightly more absurd than what you find at any travelling fairground.
Inside the main ‘exhibition space’ are several paintings and ‘installations’ by a wide range of artists. Some were the usual drip-soaked gallery tat, some were genuinely impressive, especially the sedate surrealism of Lee Madgwick:
I also liked Jimmy Cauty’s insane scale-model of modern Britain in crisis, where various locations around a typical town or city have been set-up to look like sites of accidents or murder scenes. They looked like the battle plans of Napoleon fed through a Casualty writers workshop, and whilst there are echoes of the dreaded Chapman Brothers in terms of the medium used, there’s never a sense that it’s a pair of art establishment twats giving the two’s up to the ignorant shitmunchers. The level of detail is forensic and clearly the product of demon-driven obsession, which I’ll always be sympathetic to.
Of course, with Banksy’s involvement, there had to be a dig at the police, represented by a riot van crashed into an ornamental pond, with water cannon serving as ornamental fountain. Deep and meaningful it isn’t, but it’s not meant to be.
Adjacent to that was part of the original lido ‘dressed’ with nothing more than a forlorn deckchair and a couple of broken children’s toys, that looked like, well, home to me. That’s basically where I grew up, and what I saw every day. It filled me with nostalgia for my halcyon days.
And, yes, there’s even a gift shop on the way out. It looks like a dump, but I grew up in a town where there were shops like this that were not being ironic. I’m not sure why you would want a Dismaland t-shirt, but at £20 a pop they were selling them at a furious rate. There were also posters, like the one below, priced at £30! Who wouldn’t want one of these on their wall?
Taken as a whole it was a testament to the psychic devastation wrought by global capitalism and an x-ray showing the tumours affecting David Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’. This was an open air art gallery, and you’ve got to wonder how many ‘proper’ white-walled high-art enclaves would dare to allow an anarchist bookshop on site? This one did, though admittedly it had a much smaller queue for it than the ferris wheel, but perhaps a few minds got blown by the fervent anti-establishment propaganda on display. That was the background hum throughout the entire site, a refusal to accept the lies of politicians and mass-media, and a recognition that the crass commercialism that looms over this land like bad weather is one day going to kill us.
The final irony of it all though is when you get outside, and walk back to the car along Weston-super-Mare seafront, you see that we already live in Dismaland, and it’s nothing to laugh about.