Collecting my ticket, I am told to “have a crap time, then to “turn off [my] smile” and to “stop causing trouble” as I walk through the cardboard parody of airport security at the entrance. The attendant at the battered ice cream truck labeled “Welcome/Customer Service Desk/Closed 24h” slams the glass door as a couple approaches. Other attendants scowl at their posts, refuse custom at will, and, in one memorable case, doze right through work, head resting on the Dutch-door ticket counter.
The park is staffed with locals, and as gloomy as the alienated labor are meant to be, on a dare to make one smile I handily win. This may have to do with a postmodernist concept that Fredric Jameson called “the smile of collusion”: in performing their boring jobs, which they are making fun of by acting bored, they really are bored, and the irony of this makes them smile. Get it? This is a refrain that resonates through the park in the three hours I spend there, rapt.
Banksy’s latest transgression is called Dismaland, and it’s his most grand, daring stunt yet. Fifty-eight artists from around the world—most of whom have never met him in person—contributed to this pop-up, which bills itself as a “bemusement park for adults”—part massive installation, part games and rides, and all rant. Built in an abandoned lido on the English coast, it’s meant to be a parody of that greedy corporate factory of childhood delusion, Disneyland. Dismaland’s posters proudly proclaim it “The UK’s Most Disappointing New Visitor Attraction!’—setting the stage, before you even arrive, for the best place in the world to have a miserable time.
The ironies begin with the setting itself: the English seaside town of Weston-Super-Mare is the kind of place where all the bridesmaids are plus-sized and a scrim of scum freights the wind and the mud on the beach. With typical aplomb, Banksy saw the opportunity and invited “everyone from Weston” to “take the opportunity to once more stand in a puddle of murky water eating cold chips to the sound of crying children.”
Upon the exit from the train station, pathways are spray painted—illegally, sporadically, appropriately—with arrows pointing toward the word “Banksy,” and you can’t help but wonder if they are intended to set you off course. For those who were not able to purchase advance tickets, which sold out online in minutes, there are “limited admission” tickets available at the gate. Proving that disenchantment knows no national or class boundaries, there is a diverse group of patrons and a decidedly non-ironic cheer goes up from the ticket line when it is announced that the 200-plus people waiting, on a sunny Saturday no less, would get in.
The park that spreads before you past the gates is a breathtaking display of slacker triumph. My friends and I argue about which piece is the most striking—the boat pond filled with remote-controlled migrants, the massive roll of concrete toilet paper in a children’s sand pit/picnic area, the mini golf course, “Mini Gulf,” set in an oil spill, the Grim Reaper disco bumper car, the fetus in a vending machine slapped with corporate logos via light projection, the Northern Ireland riot police van in the pond surrounded by algae plus—just what we were hoping for—a children’s slide, and, of course, the centerpiece, the iconic castle, a darkened Gothic skeleton that forms a pitch-black shroud for Cinderella, dead in her crashed pumpkin, surrounded by paparazzi on mopeds, just like that other princess who died in a vehicular catastrophe. The Damien Hirst display of knives below a hovering beach ball seems puny next to the mushroom cloud with rope ladder, or the “Big Rig Jig” of two monster trucks locked in a choreographed embrace, or the building-sized wall mural by Axel Void of (what appear to be) ballerinas, shadowed, in second position, interspersed with massive letters that read “MEDIOCRE.”
It’s detail that best transmits the mood of the place. Hawaiian luau music is piped through the speakers in much of the park, which is sort of soothing until you hear the Jenny Holzer slogans, spoken slowly, in a child’s voice, interspersed through the music: Confusing yourself is a way to be honest. You are a victim of the rules you live by. You are guileless in your dreams. Deviants are sacrificed to increase group solidarity. If you behaved nicely, the Communists wouldn’t exist. The Cinderella Castle and nearby galleries are made of crumbling cement and exposed rebar. The castle moat is filled with litter, including supermarket buggies and rubber ducks encrusted with oil. There’s a dessicated brown Christmas tree still in its plastic pot in a backyard-suburban-pastoral scene. There is a hummingbird in a corner drilling into brick. There are big birthday-style balloons for sale that read “I AM AN IMBECILE.” Mischief is rampant, and for any would-be vandal, for any fan of Banksy, it’s hard not to adore the place. Wandering around it fills me with unexpected glee.
Situated in 360-degree Banksy, I realize that his exhibit is getting at something by taking on the premises and the promises of childhood. The theme of this park seems to be the useless illusions that are not just harbored but encouraged elsewhere in life. Such illusions occur in all the moments when you encounter entities outside yourself that have a vested interest in keeping you needy—church, prison, marriage. But it’s in childhood that you buy into fantasy first, and those early years are when you are blamed for your dependence on fantasy least. It’s the time when people most consistently and shamelessly lie to you, and it’s the time when you believe it all. It’s then that people are most easily able to convince you that their best interests are yours too, and the saddest part is that irony isn’t in your arsenal as a child. Banksy’s argument, it seems to me, isn’t against childhood itself, but against the delusions that it introduces, and those entities vested in keeping us dependent from infancy onward. He calls it “a theme park whose big theme is—theme parks should have bigger themes.” It’s “an escape from mindless escapism.” Try as he might to be coy about it, Banksy’s passion and his fury come off as honest and conscientious and unselfish. Not to mention extremely funny, if not—horrors—fun.
Walking out of Dismaland back into the real world is a bit like breakfast with your mom after a long night out with your coolest, most cynical friend—the world seems paler, simpler, a little more naive by comparison. Hungover, you want to decry any conversational topic that arises as hopelessly prosaic: laundry, train timetables, college loans. There go the anodyne ends. And much as that cynical friend sometimes turns out to be a frustrated idealist, Dismaland’s own promises to be “crap” often work against themselves. A friend who brought her ten-month-old to the park confirmed my own impression, something the previews didn’t disclose: Dismaland functions brilliantly as an amusement. The rides and games actually work, even if the Ferris wheel stops for long stretches of unexplained dead time and the mini golf is littered with debris. The local cider at the bar is delicious. Tickets really do cost three pounds. If some corners of it have a Spencer’s-at-the-mall feel, it’s in keeping with the populist bent.
With Dismaland, Banksy has given postmodernists, usually seen as an elitist bunch, their most inclusive boost yet. He is mischievous to the point of childlike himself, and much of what I hate about kids is what I love about him: the indifference to what the world thinks, the palpable subjectivity, the unabashed willingness to opine. These are the criminal inclinations that spur the best artistic endeavors. Dismaland, the most successful art exhibit and theme park I’ve been to all year, is less of an exception than it is just plain exceptional.
Dismaland closes September 27.
Amber Qureshi is a book editor and translator who has worked at Knopf, Picador, Simon & Schuster, and Viking/Penguin. She studied in the Graduate School of Chiba University, Japan, before attending the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Harvard University. She lives in New York City.
[Photos by Colin Robinson]