Let's face it; Dismaland is a bad pun. It is, at best, a tweet sent after being disappointed by Space Mountain, a Facebook status bashed out after paying $10 for a soggy hot dog while your infant child screams in horror at weird human Goofy. But ham-fisted puns and visual metaphors have been Banksy's MO ever since he first stenciled a rat onto a flyover. Policemen making out (yay for gay rights)! A man with a bandanna throwing a bouquet of flowers instead of a Molotov (yay for peace)! A robotic arm reaching out of an ATM and attacking a little girl (money is bad)!
But Dismaland is more than a stencil, of course. Half art show, half funfair, it's geared as a kind of Festival of Britain in reverse, a celebration of national decay set up in a long-abandoned part of Weston-super-Mare. It features a decrepit, burnt-out fairytale castle, a riot-van fountain with a slide coming out of it, and a game in which you attempt to knock an anvil off a plinth with a ping-pong ball. In a time of growing political disquiet, when old social divisions are being cleft open without finesse by the first fully Tory government since 1997, it's not hard to see why demand for tickets and media interest is peaking around Dismaland. But in 2015, is Banksy able to state anything beyond the obvious?
You only realize how scattershot Banksy's targets are when you write them down. Walt Disney and the horse-meat scandal. Selfies and the police. Fat cats and bad TV. It's a weird list, a mixture of things your dad would hate jumbled up with the grievances of an anarchist.
Talking of bad TV, there used to be a program on TV called Holiday Showdown. In it, two families would experience each others' typical vacations to see how the other half lived. In 2006, they aired an episode in which Family A, who'd routinely jet to places like Thailand, was forced to endure a numbing stay in Weston-super-Mare—and Family B was treated with absolute derision by all involved for their liking of the English southwest. Almost ten years later, the attitude toward Britain's seaside towns hasn't changed. They're seen as a passé relic of a pre-EasyJet era, the crumbled ashes left in the wake of a particularly violent Ryanair take off. Once, though, they were the only option for most people, and one that brought bright-eyed excitement rather than the I-suppose-so sighs they elicit today.
Weston-super-Mare doesn't have the immediate sense of youthfulness that somewhere like Brighton does. On the contrary, the roads near the entrance to Dismaland were lined with coaches holding dozens and dozens of white-hairs. After disembarking they were, of course, walking in the opposite direction, away from the massive dystopian art prank.
There were two lines for entry, one for ticket-holders, the other for non-ticket-holders. The former was long, but the latter was vast, with people sitting on deck chairs awaiting the opportunity to hear, see, and soak up Cardinal Banksy's gospel.
On the way in there's a fake, cartoonish stop-and-search where aggressive security guards give you a metal detector frisk-down "for no reason." Being involved in any kind of am-dram performance is likely to earn a smile—you'd have to have a heart of stone to tut at someone trying to make you laugh. This was no Guantánamo Bay simulator; I wasn't about to be waterboarded with a gallon of flat Fanta. I was asked to place my bag on the floor and pick it back up, before being wished a "miserable day."
Then the park opens up, and one thing is markedly visible: lines. Lines stretching far and wide. But there were no barriers, no marks on the floor. The people were lining themselves up into contorting snake shapes across the place. I get it: British people love to wait in line! But having just come from an almost hour-long one, I decided to look around a bit, as the prospect of more waiting in line made me want to crumple to the floor.
I went on the merry-go-round, in the middle of which was a figure in a HazMat suit surrounded by boxes of horse lasagna. The staff in purple hi-vis jackets are all uniformly disinterested—a nice joke that went over some people's heads, including one woman who was visibly annoyed when the Ferris wheel operator shrugged at her question of, "How many times does it go round?"
That said, it was still pretty hard to get away from how basic it was. The horses on the merry-go-round were to be turned into lasagna. Get it? Banksy, I have been getting it since 2013.
There were bits about Dismaland that I quite liked. The exhibition, for example, was good, especially Jimmy Cauty's post-riot model village, complete with these miniature policemen stranded in the middle of the sea atop a van. But other things, like the cinema, felt jaded and weird rather than incisive. Here were reams of families, grandparents, and small children sitting on deck chairs, watching a video of a woman's face aging while gloomy, droning Philip Glass–type music played. Sure, that may be the point of the place: to jar the senses, to take the concept of people relaxing in the sun and juxtapose it with arresting video art. But without the complicity of the viewers the art looked silly, two things staring at each other in confusion and misapprehension, like your grandma watching Boiler Room.
The park's soundtrack of Hawaiian steel guitar music was intermittently interrupted by a small child doling out messages like, "If you behaved nicely, the communists wouldn't exist." It felt hackneyed and was lost on me, and was the sort of gag a smug sixth former would make while bullies kicked him around the common room floor and rubbed apple cores in his face.
The biggest anti-climax of the day was the contents of the dilapidated castle. The biggest line in the park was reserved for this, snaking, sometimes through other lines, with the lines splicing, people having even less of an idea of what they were waiting for, just standing behind one another on instinct.
Inside, there was a green screen against which people had their photo taken, before being ushered into a room that was pitch black save for the flashing lights of the exhibit's "cameras." They illuminated an overturned princess's carriage, flanked by paparazzi, Cinderella flumped out of the window with two cartoon birds doing her dress up. That was it. Was it meant to be Lady Di? I don't know. I guess. I'm not entirely sure I care.
For more than 20 years, Banksy has been busy anonymously building his cult of personality—but it's that shroud of mystery that has allowed him to be taken and bastardized. Today, Banksy is the anti-capitalist brickwork scribbler, but he's also the parody Twitter account spaffing out positive messages. He's a theorist in a loose sense, but only in a meme-ified form. It's poster art, computer wallpaper art, art to scoff and smirk at. We are constantly told that this invisible graffiti artist is a genius, but what evidence have we got for that besides someone's wall being crowbarred out and sold for a million dollars every few months? The whole thing screams, "We are intelligent. You—while not not intelligent—could probably do with reading a few more books. You don't have enough angst, so here's some hidden in a chocolate cake so you don't have to think about it too much." It's not quite poking fun at the philistines and peons trying to enjoy a day out in the sun by the beach, more putting a smug hand on their shoulder and telling them, "Sure, you could ride the waltzer, but how about opening your eyes for once?"
There's also something insidious about the idea of making a place purposefully shitty and unfulfilling, so that when people come away feeling shitty and unfulfilled they can say it's part of the experience.
Dismaland feels like a missed opportunity for Banksy and his cohorts. For the last two decades, young people have been getting more and more marginalized as time creeps toward a total annihilation of everything they hold dear—fun, fairness, freedom, prospects; anything resembling a positive future. Yet the man who could be their biggest artistic representative is content hammering the kind of tropes you'd see Nigel Havers incredulously bleating on about during an episode of Grumpy Old Men. Lines; being conned by untrustworthy fairground workers; overzealous security checks; celebrity culture; all the drab complaints that prop up the self-righteously glum "Keep Calm" lifestyle. When the Very British Problems Twitter feed already has its own TV show, do we really need Dismaland?
What Banksy has created here is a crusty monument to his own dated beefs, which—at a time when British youth have far bigger things to worry about than selfies and ITV2—manifests more as a parade of delusions than cutting social commentary. His paint-by-numbers anti-capitalist, anti-establishment schtick has become as woefully archaic as the seaside setting of his tawdry monument to humanity's ills.
I rode the Ferris wheel and looked out onto the beach of Weston-super-Mare. The tide was slowly washing in, like spilled water creeping toward the edge of a table. I saw a line of children sitting on donkeys plodding across the wet beach. It was time to leave Dismaland and find a donkey of my own.
Everyone on the beach was laughing and running around. A little girl was repeatedly picking up clumps of sand and throwing them angrily into pools of water. If you want your dose of pointless British nihilism then you had to look no further than this scene.
I approached the donkey vendor and requested a ride. Only for children, he told me, with a weight limit of 100 pounds.
It appeared I didn't fit in anywhere in Weston-super-Mare, neither in its pretentious un-fun fairs nor on the backs of its heroic donkeys. I wandered on.