WESTON-SUPER-MARE, UK — Someone really should have sent a disgruntled teenager to review Dismaland, the latest Banksy extravaganza: part amusement park, part art exhibition tucked away in an abandoned former resort complex at the British seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. Does it matter that I had a good time, that the New York Times reviewer was disappointed, Vice’s reviewer hates it because the only thing hipper right now than liking Banksy is hating him, or that the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones only liked the Damien Hirst sculpture? No, not really. None of us is the intended audience.
Banksy has been pretty clear that Dismaland is not a traditional art exhibition, but “a show that essentially speaks to his 15-year-old self” — and as that, it is nearly perfect. Banksy went with powerful and attention-grabbing visuals at every turn. I can imagine the thousands of young Banksy fans who have visited Dismaland, and I can’t think of a better way to spark the creative minds of a new generation. The trappings of a museum would only slow that process — at least, that’s what they did for me. As a teenager, I couldn’t stand museums, but I found my entry into art through projects like Banksy’s well-known Cans Festival.
Even when the content is a bit juvenile, like Banksy’s stencil of two boys peeking behind a shower curtain to catch sight of a naked lady, his use of space and material is effective. He leaves just enough room for a person to crouch next to the two boys and look underneath to figure out if there’s more to see, and for the shower curtain itself he uses a piece of rusting metal that must’ve been mounted onto the wall long before Banksy arrived. It’s all expertly arranged.
There are awkward moments at Dismaland when the juvenile humor intersects with serious topics. Banksy’s had this problem before, like when he used the sound of a real rocket attack in a parody video and millions of viewers unknowingly laughed at the sounds of actual death in a far-off war that the majority of us only experience on our screens. At Dismaland, the awkwardness comes from audience participation. Banksy’s commentary on the current migration crisis in Europe is a series of RC boats that visitors can control. The one active participant that I saw took control of a military gunship and repeatedly rammed it into the boats full of huddled migrants. I stood by and took photos.
And with Banksy’s take on the Cinderella fairy tale, one in which her carriage has been overturned and a gaggle of paparazzi capture her dying moments, the audience members complete the picture by gawking at the tragic scene and snapping their own photos. I was left with a question: is this poignant social commentary, or is Banksy encouraging us to gleefully participate in rituals that we acknowledge are sick?
Dismaland’s entrance captures this awkwardness, and the nagging contradictions in Banksy’s work, most succinctly. Visitors go through a real security checkpoint, which is immediately followed by a fake security checkpoint staffed by guards who send you through a precariously balanced cardboard metal detector only to demand that you take off your sunglasses, not because they are a security risk, but because they look dreadful on you (this section seems to have been conceptualized by Banksy but built by Bill Barminski). The joke succeeds, but it’s absurd in a way that Banksy may not have intended.
Luckily, the other 50+ artists in Dismaland more than make up for Banksy’s (or is it his crowd’s?) occasional awkwardness. There are masterful painters like Josh Keyes and Laura Lancaster. Steve Powers’s cheeky signage is a natural fit. The surreal murals by Axel Void and Escif seem out of left field, but are appreciated all the same.
Then of course, there’s Jenny Holzer. Banksy has her well-known Truisms blaring over a loudspeaker throughout the park at random intervals, which is perfectly creepy, but not ideal for fans who might want to enjoy them as their own artwork rather than an infrequent addition to the cacophony of the park. Luckily, visitors can also find her texts more conveniently displayed on two roadside LED signs in the gallery area, the one section of Dismaland that approaches the trappings of a traditional exhibition. Without any wall labels marking Holzer’s work as “Art,” they take on an intensity not found since the 1980s, when she was wheatpasting her Inflammatory Essays on New York City streets so that they could be discovered by passersby. Standing there as the signs flickered on and off, it appeared that half the crowd was oblivious to the messages, while the other half, like me, was mesmerized. All of us were snapped out of our drinking, revelry, and photo taking — if only for a moment.
But the surprising highlights for me came from Damien Hirst. I never thought I’d write these words, but I really enjoyed the seaside carnival-style updates on Hirst’s previous art, including “The Dream” and “The History of Pain,” which could easily be mistaken for Banksy’s handiwork. The updated version of “The Dream” belongs in a Coney Island sideshow, and its display alongside equally disquieting works by Ronit Baranga, Maskull Lasserre, and others created the perfect vibe to complete the illusion. It’s a credit to Banksy that he was able to find two Hirst works that fit the Dismaland mold.
The same things that make some of Banksy’s individual pieces awkward make Dismaland a fertile place for young minds. Banksy could have just stuck with entertaining art, but he’s also included projects like STRIKE! magazine and Dr. Gavin Grindon’s Museum of Cruel Objects. At the STRIKE! tent, one of the few non-actors inside Dismaland will sell you a tool for £5 (~$7.50) and show you how to use it to break into bus shelter advertising booths. The experience is particularly powerful after viewing Dr. Grindon’s museum, which the catalogue describes as “the world’s first bus-mounted museum surveying the role of design for social control.” Come for the weird carnival games, leave with a new understanding of art and activism. It reminds me a bit of that NOFX song “Anarchy Camp”: an intoxicating mix of play and rebellion, with a necessary dose of organization and control.
Individual pieces aside, Dismaland is a 15-year-old’s dream world: an amusement park where all the employees are surly assholes who treat you like you’ve just interrupted their smoke break, the art makes fun of everything (including Dismaland itself), the buildings look like they’re about to collapse, the galleries are full of creepy paintings and sculptures made of knives, cheeky political cartoons are realized as oversized sculptures, and the only authority figures are either neglectful, snide, or simply there to teach you how to break into stuff! It’s not a revolutionary paradise or the most contemplative art exhibition of the year, but it is a dream come true for a generation of young kids pissed off at the world and not sure what to do about it. Banksy’s answer to a generation of angry millennials: make art, but make sure your art has an element of subversion, which is an important twist on the artist’s previous suggestion that everyone should make art — that pollyanna attitude regretfully led to the rise of unfortunate artist characters like Mr. Brainwash.
Dismaland did something for me that art should do but museum exhibitions almost never do: transported me back to an unburdened teenage state of mind. Now, back home in Philadelphia, it’s like I’m still in a state of euphoria, reinvigorated with the kind of energy usually only provided by cheap thrills, stupidity, and drugs. I suspect it did something similar for some actual teenagers too.
As much as it’s easy for art world insiders to write off Banksy as a one-liner, a bad painter, or a capitalist in anarchist’s clothing, I don’t think you can underestimate the power of The Artist who can draw people in and encourage them to take a deeper look. Name one other artist who can get the most mainstream of mainstream media talking about the migrant crisis, the international arms trade, and the state of British tourism all in the course of one project. For every random tourist who snaps 10,000 unthinking photos at Dismaland (and, let’s face it, I did my share of that too) and leaves with nothing but the satisfaction of saying they’ve been there, some kid is going to be inspired to use art to take on social issues, to go down a path that felt previously unavailable to them.
Fuck art school. Go to Dismaland.
Dismaland continues at Marine Parade at Weston-super-Mare, UK, until September 27.