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Attractions

Banksy’s Dismaland

It generated huge amounts of hype, and an estimated £20m for the local community, but was artist Banksy’s summer pop-up attraction, Dismaland worth a visit? Magali Robathan found out


Like most people who grew up in Banksy’s home town of Bristol, UK, I was aware of the artist and his graffitti before it became internationally famous. I also visited the Tropicana Lido in Weston-Super-Mare, UK, as a child, so was intrigued to see how he used the – now derelict – site to stage Dismaland, his pop up ‘bemusement park’ which ran from August to September 2015.

It was Banksy’s most ambitious project to date, described by the artist as “a festival of art, amusements and entry-level anarchism.” Assembled in secret, the 2.5 acre amusement park featured 10 new sculptures and artworks by Banksy, as well as work by more than 50 other artists.

As with anything Banksy does, the hype was incredible. The Dismaland website crashed, tickets sold out in minutes, and the internet was full of a pretty equal mix of scathing and glowing reviews of the park. One thing’s for sure – Banksy certainly knows how to get himself talked about.

I visited on a Friday night and deliberately avoided reading too much in advance so I could make up my own mind. The experience started on entry, when I had to walk through a cardboard airport-style security checkpoint created by US artist Bill Barminski, complete with grumpy staff wearing Mickey Mouse-style ears barking at me to stop smiling.

NOT SO DISMAL
I imagine the park must have looked pretty dismal on a grey day – with the ramshackle amusements, the old rickety ferris wheel and Banksy’s ruined Disney-esque castle sitting in the middle of a dirty-looking lake.

After dark though, it actually looked quite attractive and there was a bit of a festival atmosphere, with the big wheel lit up; the bar strung with coloured lights; a firepit (fed with the novels of Lord Jeffrey Archer) providing warmth; live comedy and customer-operated puppets dancing to salsa music in Paul Insect and Bast’s Fly Tip Theatre (constructed entirely from the contents of London Hackney skips).

There was an enormous amount to see at Dismaland, and I found the experience both enjoyable and unsettling. Banksy’s Immigrants on a Boat exhibit – in which you can steer boats full of refugees across the water – was quite chilling, particularly as the week I visited, three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body was washed up on the beach on Kos and the refugee crisis exploded in the international media.

While the anti-corporate, anti-establishment message of the park isn’t exactly breaking new ground, there were installations I found genuinely throught-provoking. The Museum of Cruel Objects, curated by Gavin Grindon, tells the story of the role of design in keeping people (and animals) in line on behalf of the state, from stun tongs to anti homeless spikes. I found the timeline explaining the history of CCTV particularly enlightening – it made me think about how much we blindly accept an increasing lack of privacy without questioning where it might be leading us.

The main exhibition hall featured an impressive range of contemporary art by international artists. My favourite was Jimmy Cauty’s model town showing a dystopian city entirely populated by police. The detail was staggering, and I spent a good 15 minutes examining the various scenes.

A MIXED BAG
Not all of the exhibits worked for me – some felt a bit weak and one dimensional; as though the artists were trying to be clever without any genuine meaning or feeling behind them. The oil caliphate-themed crazy golf course Mini Gulf fell into this category for me, with the play on words the most interesting thing about it.

I found the experience surprisingly undismal. It was dark and unsettling, at times thought-provoking, and a lot more fun than I’d expected. And it was a success for the local community, with official estimates showing it generated £20m ($30m E28m) for the seaside town.

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