As Dismaland enters its final days, Suzanne Harrington sees Banksy’s controversial art show while she still has the chance. Her advice? We should all book flights and experience it.
HOW MANY animals died to make that coat?” snarls a security guard in a peaked cap worthy of the North Korean military, pointing to my (fake) furry jacket.
“Stand over there! You’re disgusting.”
Everyone else is being subject to similar scrutiny and personalised abuse, and like me, having trouble keeping a straight face.
The scanner, through which everyone must pass, is made of cardboard.
So are the guards’ hats, CCTV cameras, and other ‘security’ items; it’s like a fascist Toon Town. Welcome to Dismaland Bemusement Park.
Dismaland is an art show like no other, put together by an artist like no other — Banksy.
For a start, he remains anonymous — nobody, not even the Daily Mail, knows who he is.
And instead of his most ambitious project to date happening in some hipster London gallery space, the Bemusement Park is sited in a derelict lido on the seafront of Western Super Mare, an old fashioned seaside town in Somerset — nearly four hours west of London — which does donkey rides on the beach.
Not a craft beer or flat white for 150 miles. Nobody has a beard. (“The advantage of putting art in a small seaside town is that you are only competing with donkeys,” Banksy said in recent rare interview).
Once we have passed ‘security’ — an installation by Californian artist Bill Barminski, with a cast of young cardboard walkie-talkie wielding assistants — we enter a large dilapidated outdoor space with a huge burnt out Cinderella’s Castle at its centre, and a crazily distorted fibreglass sculpture of Ariel the mermaid sitting in the middle of a dirty green pool with a rusting police water cannon as its water feature.
Inside the castle, in the blacked out interior, is the scene of a terrible crash — a fairy princess hangs lifeless from the door of her pumpkin carriage, being frantically snapped by paparazzi on motorbikes. It’s eerie and arresting.
Outside is all the fun of the fair, each ‘amusement’ dreamed up by a different artist — there are almost 60 involved, as well as Banksy, who has contributed several key pieces like the mermaid and the dead Cinderella, as well as a dodgem-riding Grim Reaper who twirls around in the disco-lit dark to the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive, and a woman on a bench under an attack of seagulls.
David Shrigley did a stall where you throw ping pong balls at an actual anvil — if you manage to topple the anvil you get to keep it. Absurdist, funny, surreal.
One of the brightly painted horses on a fully functioning fun fair carousel has been strung upside down, about to be butchered by a man in abattoir white sitting on sinister cardboard boxes marked ‘lasagne’.
Families — real ones, here for the day — queue up for the carousel (will the little kids need fairground-related trauma counselling in years to come?).
You get the very strong feeling Banksy has very strong feelings about animal rights; another work shows a captive killer whale leaping out of a toilet through a hoop.
The only animal he appears to have it in for is Mickey Mouse, who, in another sculpture, is swallowed whole by a giant snake. You can see the mouse ears in perfect silhouette half way down the snake.
As well as wandering around laughing and having your thoughts sharply provoked — this is essentially an anarchist artshow — there is a gallery of work, including a piece by Dublin artist Caroline McCarthy.
She has created a potting shed by cutting out every cardboard parsley garnish on hundreds of cardboard food packages, and making a very strange garden of them. Brilliant, depressing, funny.
Another Banksy installation involves steering model boats crammed with refugees towards the White Cliffs of Dover; yet another, by former KLF prankster Jimmy Cauty, involves an entire city recreated in miniature a police state. Both works are mesmerising and unsettling, particularly’s Cauty’s tiny intricate dystopia.
Artist Jenny Holzer beams giant pixillated messages from motorway traffic signs borrowed from the local council (“Protect Me From What I Want”).
Damien Hirst is here too, with a golden-horned unicorn in formaldehyde, as well as an open air cinema where, from your deck chair, you can watch a spell binding selection of short films, from the jihadi terrorists shooting down Dumbo the Elephant, to the hilarious satire Fuck That: A Guided Meditation (“Just feel the fucking nonsense float away”).
Which you do, in Dismaland. It all just floats away, because you are busy laughing and gasping as you stumble over each new thing.
Stumble being quite literal at times — there is little health and safety nonsense here, with uneven floors, uncordoned art and devil-may-care wonkiness.
For me, the funniest aspect are the attendants — young hoodies dressed in black with mouse ears and pink hi-vis jackets with ‘Dismal’ on the back, who instead of faking bright customer service smiles as they do in other, larger bemusement parks, are a study in surly rudeness.
“Hurry up, stop wasting my time,” they mutter at every opportunity.
“Get out, go home.”
They remain chillingly in character throughout, grumpy and in filthy temper, rolling their eyes and curling their lips.
They sell David Shrigley designed helium balloons which instead of being pink and princessy, are black and read I Am An Imbecile.
As well as the outdoor installations and shed-like gallery, Dismaland includes a few non-arty bits — the Comrades Advice Bureau, No Borders, and Strike! newspaper section are all about direct action.
This whole venture is in the spirit of the people, rather than the art world — by holding it far from London in a half-dead seaside town, by charging a fiver to get in and giving free tickets to locals, it is the opposite of a metropolitan event.
The (delicious) food is by Rehab Pizza Kitchen, which employs local recovering addicts; nothing is over priced. There is no rip off. The very fact of not being ripped off by overpriced coffee is in itself a radical act.
Some art critics have judged this show to not be proper art, or not dismal enough, or too dismal. But it isn’t for them. It is for us.
The Sunday I go, it’s full of kids and grannies and teens and families, locals and visitors, ordinary people you would not usually see in galleries.
There is a festival feel, rather than anything stuffy and reverential. And it’s hilarious — there is something that slightly tweaks the edge of your reality everywhere.
Banksy quotes Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” adding, “But what if you’re in a hall of mirrors and the giant hammer is made of foam? This is the question raised by Dismaland Bemusement Park.”
You come away many hours later feeling energised, stimulated, and most of all, included. It is the best fiver I have ever spent.
Dismaland, Seafront, Weston Super Mare, Somerset, until September 29. £5 entry – online or on the door Nearest airport Bristol, direct flights from Cork and Dublin
BANKSY — WHO IS HE?
Nobody knows, other than that he is from nearby Bristol. He became a phenomenon in the 90s with his distinctive stencilled graffiti. Clever, biting, satirical, his work became famous as he remained anonymous.
He did a book in 2006, Wall and Piece, and in 2010 a documentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop.
His graffiti began being removed by the owners of the walls he did it on, and sold at art auctions for enormous sums. It appeared not to have gone to his head.
Asked by The Guardian in a non face-to-face interview about his work selling on the international art market for millions, he said: “I don’t think much about it, but for the art form as a whole [graffiti] it’s unhealthy.
“When you paint illegally you have so much to contend with — cameras, cops, Neighbourhood Watch, drunk people throwing bottles at your head — so adding ‘predatory art speculators’ to the mix just makes things even harder. Graffiti is an important and valid art form, it would be a shame if it was killed by venture capitalism.”
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