22nd August – 27th September 2015
All photos: NoLionsInEngland except Dismaland logo courtesy www.banksy.co.uk
It has been a while, street art has been wallowing in the doldrums. There has been too many art graduates choosing careers as muralists, not enough vandals (particularly from America, we like American vandals) and a prolonged period of inactivity from Banksy. Well, at last one of those has been fixed.
Banksy has taken over a bankrupt and decaying seaside amusement park barely rising above the sludgy worm ridden mud flats of the Severn Estuary in Weston Super Mare. I grew up in Wales looking out of a bedroom window on the other side of the estuary looking at WSM's twinkling lights imagining untold foreign glamour - an illusion now ruined. "For the next five weeks the Tropicana [its previous incarnation] will once again echo to the sound of crying children". Thanks Banksy!
It's not exactly Thorpe Park but Banksy has managed to amp up the scale of the art and the location, making this exhibition provides a worthy successor to 2008's Cans Festival and 2009's Banksy v. Bristol Museum. Banksy has dealt with humour and he has dabbled with spoof children’s rides in the past - remember the riot cop on the pony ride in the 2009 Bristol show - this event puts those themes on turbo boost.
The central feature of the park, poised in the middle of a stagnant, shit filled pond is a derelict oily looking castle straight out of a Disney landscape re-imagined by, say, Mutoid Waste (but...although Joe Rush is included in the catalogue I didn't see any mechanoid fire belching steampunk shit like you'd expect).
Inside the castle is a crashed pumpkin coach with a dead princess spilling out off the window with papparazzi photographers capturing the kind of graphic gore that daily pads out our tabloids. It's more a critique on media intrusion than an unlikely empathy with the Royal family.
Shit filled pond (sometimes it's the attention to detail that is all important)
How about the Banksy art? Well, Banksy wasn't the first to use stencils for counter cultural humour and he has inspired many followers and as there are no labels it is not always easy to be certain what is Banksy and what just might be. Fans of Banksy as stencillist will be bowled over by the use of corrugated wall cladding as a shower curtain under which a pair of boys peek at one of their mums or perhaps a sister showering - a teenage fantasy staple apparently!
The catalogue says that Banksy did the woman attacked by seagulls, in which case where is the work by taxidermist Polly Morgan as advertised on the list of artists? [there may have other work by Polly Morgan tucked away in the "gallery" which might have been missed].
Banksy - he says it's his so it must be
Political reaction to one of biggest humanitarian crises ever is lampooned by Banksy’s boat pond. Fully functioning radio controlled rust buckets bearing a cramped cargo of shivering migrants scoot around an oily sea with scattered floating bodies harassed by gun boats and no, that isn’t a lighthouse, it’s a gun tower defending the mother land.
A rather fast and slightly distressed carousel whizzes around with its screaming human cargo plus a manikin wearing white overalls. When the merry-go-round stops we see a brilliant sculpture of a butcher with a roundabout horse hanging from its hooves about to enter the food chain, clearly referencing last year’s horsemeat in processed food scandal. Is it Banksy? Not sure but it has his humorous twist on mass produced "budget" price point food prioritizing profit over welfare.
Some of the pieces have a sense of déjà vu as Banksy returns to old themes and repetition of previous jokes. Pollution and wild beasts in captivity? Here’s your killer whale performing tricks out of a toilet into a pool much too small for it. Death dances the macabre in his bumper car to the tune of “Don’t Fear The Reaper”, an exact reprise of its appearance in 2013 for the “Better Out Than In” residency on the streets of New York.
Part of the outer ramparts of Dismaland look like what the facade of a Disney castle would look like if some incontinent political prisoners held a dirty protest from its walls. On one of these ramparts was a licensed bar, you had to be up there to operate the levers that animated a Paul Insect/Bast collaborative puppet theatre made from thrown away shit retrieved from Hackney Wick. Sadly the bar was too popular doing what bars do, no one bothered operating the puppets. Photo not included.
One of the best "bemusements" was "Pocket Money Loans", a small and rather specialised finance boutique by Darren Cullen fast-tracking the next generation of debt service slaves into a life of financial "chimney sweeping". A chilling ensemble of beautifully fabricated spoof toys accelerate young innocents to a variety of worldy experiences at far too young an age – Baby's baby is pregnant!
Like all mediocre fun fairs there are a range of amusements designed to engage and interact with, right from the moment you enter through Bill Barminski’s stark X-Ray search spoof.
Dismal "experience enhancement operatives" conduct niche performance art posing as miserable, unhelpful buggers, though perhaps it wasn't a faked performance in some cases. Dotted around the park are seedy looking games you throw things at, shoot guns at, fish from, ride, pose with (Lush’s photo boards), just remember to wash your hands afterwards.
David Shrigley - Topple The Anvil (for a Meaningless prize)
Banksy's previous group shows have been high impact fast food comedy art, you got it quick and
moved on. At Dismaland there are installations which could keep you engrossed for frankly hours without football transfer news or porn being mentioned once. Go to Guerilla Island, the art is political, conspiracy theories are the common denominator, it is epic working class trade union banners and a "Comrade Advice Bureau" among many other anarchist agendas, some not so "entry level" as touted in Dismaland's website. A stand of political literature and anarchist manifestos rejoices in a name which itself subverts the trademark of a well known (in the UK anyway) high street bookshop.
Perhaps the most practical nugget dug up were the "Guide To Interacting With Bus Stop Advertising Spaces" lying in a photocopier out-tray.
The work of Ed Hall first came to general public indifference thanks to artist Jeremy Deller (the odds of either them ever featuring in Graffoto again are pretty long!). Banksy takes us outside our comfort zone and reveals art where we least expected it: outdoor walls, union banners, polluted cesspits and so on, this is a key part of the essential magic of a Banky production.
Ed Hall & others
As the the fairground bemusements are so overwhelming (-ly dismal) it might be quite easy to enter the actual indoor gallery part and think "oh - Art! Hmmmmmmm, I'd rather be overwhelmed by the fairground bemsements", which is exactly what I did think. The show stopper is Jimmy Cauty's model village, an installation he has titled "Aftermath Displacement Principal", This is his Jam Jar Riots gone on a viral rampage. In a darkened room police crawl all around sink estate crime scene detritus, depending upon where you come from it's either incredibly life like or impressive model making.
Jimmy Cauty - Aftermath Displacement Principle
Canvasses, sculpture and photography abounds by artists from GB, USA, Europe and the Middle East. Curiously, little or no work seems to come from the Far East unless you count Australia. Bringing these talents into our consciousness in this bemusement park is a doomed venture as the outside works won’t release you from their grip, the inside art feels like something to be swiftly whizzed through before heading back out into the sensory overload of the main park.
Jeff Gillette (USA)
Looking at Jeff Gillette's painting above, he is clearly having a little subversive fun at the expene of Disneyland and indeed the whole branding of Dismaland is a gnat's appendage away from the Disney theme park brand. Banksy of course has previous with Disney having created the Guantamo prisoner alongside the Florida Disneyland Space Mountain, as documented quite comprehensively in his 2010 film "Exit Through The Gift Shop".
This is undoubtedly another Banksy master piece so it's interesting to ponder what’s new? Certainly the art hung on the walls indoors is by artists from more diverse geographic, cultural and creative backgrounds than say Cans Festival. In 2008 Banksy opened our eyes to two things, the huge world of international stencillists doing more than just illegal single layer stencil work, remember until Cans Festival none of us had heard of Vhils! This time round it seems likely that more than just a few of the exhibited artists have never tagged a toilet cubicle never mind put up a piece of illegal street art or some hit and run graffiti.
Secondly, he taught us we could all be stencil artists. This time he is clearly going beyond the stencil technique and indeed beyond the confines of the street art straitjacket.
What remains the same? The Banksy philosophy, art is for everyone. No need to risk a brief intrusion into a posh intimidating gallery, here we are all welcome and it doesn't matter whether we "get" art or not. The scale of the production is also phenomenal. It is interesting to recall that Banksy’s two most recent British epics were aided and abetted by Steve Lazarides, Dismaland ranks right up alongside any of the vast undertakings Lazarides has staged in the past, the apprentice does not need the master!
"Mediocre" - Axel Void
What's missing? The art-by-anyone "rock up and spray" element that was such a huge success at the 2008 Cans Festival for a start.
Judging by the photographs used in the couple of days leading up to Dismaland’s opening to ramp up the hype, there are a few pieces such as Ben Long’s scaffolding horse which it seems are expected to become visual set piece images of the show. I don’t get it, cant see the meaning or a relevant context for the piece other than it something you don't expect to see scaffolding being used for. At least it photographs nicely at night.
What could be added? Well an explanation of the term "neoliberalism" which appears in the catalogue (Dr Gavin Grindon) for a start, Banksy’s purpose is to expand our spirit of adventure and develop a broader appreciation of art which probably ought not to be allowed, not to look up dictionaries.
"Mediocre" - Axel Void (and an Exit)
What is the most subversive thing Banksy does this time? Probably introducing into popular culture the work of artists, many from the middle east, who are making direct, well structured anti establishment political art. It is insidiously placed among the "easy green" idealogy and the dismal jokes.
Banksy? some think so
Heading back to London on the last train before the milk train I receive a text advising that the fireworks were good, they aren't supposed to be good, they should be damp squibs!