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Dismaland - Subversion at the Seaside

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As Banksy’s ‘bemusement park’ is dismantled and shipped out to Calais to provide shelter for refugees, Will Wiles reflects on his day out at the West Country spectacle

Here’s a minor architectural typology (seasonal): the rubbish winter wonderland. Every year, as late autumn turns to winter, a marvellous specimen presents itself. Mangy reindeers with 100-a-day coughs. Foul-mouthed elves on zero-hour contracts. Sagging marquees in a sea of mud. Santa a no-show. Kiddies inconsolable. Christmas ruined.

I imagine the rubbish winter wonderland isn’t an exclusively British phenomenon; neither is crapness in general. But, by god, the British bring a certain je ne sais quoi to crapness. And whatever this quality is, Banksy has it bottled by the gallon. He has a connoisseur’s eye for it, and it is at the heart of his success as an artist and a satirist. The orange plastic barriers that surround knackered bits of paving. The generic-medication branding of Tesco Value. Jeffrey Archer. Pink hi-viz vests. The banality of bored petty officialdom. Again, none of this is uniquely British, and none of it is inherently shit. But done in the right combination, with the right admixture of the naff, the cheap, the sentimental, the mercenary and the sinister, and it’s the sweet, sweet smell of home.

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This is the quality that Banksy brings to Dismaland, his most ambitious artwork (project? Prank?) to date, a “bemusement park” set up in an abandoned lido in the genteel Somerset seaside resort of Weston-Super-Mare. Dismaland is an attempt, in the words of the programme, “to build a different kind of family day out”, one that dispenses with the fantasies and dishes the dirt on reality. “The fairytale is over, the world is sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe, maybe all that escapism will have to wait.”

I’m not sure that’s entirely fair to escapism: all escapism implies the existence of a status quo to be escaped from. Sometimes it is complicit in that status quo and sometimes it isn’t, but it doesn’t have to be inherently bad. But anyway, the Withnail-ish message is clear: Listen up, stiffs! Your world is about to be rocked to its foundations! It promises to be a little, well, tendentious and tedious. In fact, it isn’t, not really, but has some other more subtle and hard-to-escape problems.

A lot is crammed into a small site, both physically and conceptually. Dismaland is at once art exhibition, political detournement, actual entertainment venue, a send-up of the British seaside and an acrid comment on the Disney-style theme park. Curiously, the art exhibition is perhaps the strongest part. Some of it is one-shot, oh-that’s-clever visual punning or political snark but much is very good. A temporary sign of the kind that announces roadworks projects unnerving, pragmatic messages which my notes refer to as “Jenny Holzer-esque”: “Bad intentions / Can yield good results.” They are in fact by Jenny Holzer. A childish voice repeats the same messages to the whole park by public address system. Damien Hirst’s beach ball, suspended on a cushion of air above a field of upturned knives, might be a gag but it’s a disturbing one that holds the attention. There’s a lot of very good painting: Josh Keyes’  crisp, edgy, Ballardian pastoralia, Lee Madgwick’s 21st-century gothic landscapes, Paco Pomet’s subversive double-takes. The architecturally inclined will enjoy Ben Long’s giant ice-cream cone made of out decorative mouldings.

The highlight, however, is Jimmy Cauty’s model village. The former KLF frontman gets a very large room to himself and it’s worth it. The room contains a huge Hornby-scale slice of urban hinterland, an ash-stained landscape in the immediate aftermath of some kind of apocalyptic disturbance, festive with the tinkling blue lights of hundreds of emergency vehicles. Perhaps there has been rioting, which would explain the roadblocks, the post-curfew lack of civilians, the overturned vehicles and burned-out businesses. Or perhaps the catastrophe was the rupture that created this “model”: at the edges are felled power lines and wrecked homes, and police officers staring into the void – at us – wondering where the rest of the world went.

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Beyond, the entire environment works as an immersive installation, starting with the “security checkpoint” at the front door, where sneering petty officials insult you and mishandle your possessions. The situation is given a sharp edge of absurdity by the fact that their metal detectors and other equipment are crude papier mache props, cementing the point that all security procedures are to an extent theatre, a sham of props and rituals. The staff in general put in a very entertaining performance as maltreated temp workers, going about their duties as slowly and sullenly as possible, pouring scorn on anyone who looks like they might be having a good time, and moaning on about being due a break.

However, the rest of the agitprop … it’s not that it’s didactic. On the contrary, the directly didactic stuff is good: Dr Gavin Grindon’s Cruelty bus, which makes a well-honed point about worthwhile design and toxic design, and the tent containing stalls that tell you how to stir up dissent in your home town. It’s possible that these feel refreshing because they’re sincere, whereas the rest of the Banksy shtick is just a bit jaded and comfortable. I’m as much a sanctimonious, Corbyn-supporting left-whinger as the next Twitter user but I know when I’m being pandered to. David Cameron – a bit smug and posh, huh? Have you ever noticed how the rich have got more stuff than everyone else? Here’s a killer whale jumping out of a toilet into a filthy paddling pool because … aquariums are cruel? We’re killing the oceans? Theme parks are a fraud? Something like that.

It all comes shrouded in ironic distance. It’s not that you can’t second-guess it, you can’t even first guess it. Having a good time? Must be working. Having a bad time? It must be working. For what it’s worth, I had a good time, and I was surrounded by people like me, having a good time. But I left Dismaland troubled by the thought that it might not be the call to action it sets out to be. It might be more a substitute for action. Which is to say, escapism.

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