Say what you will about Dismaland, Banksy’s new theme park, but its tagline—“The UK’s most disappointing new visitor attraction”—might be the rare claim that the artist’s fans and detractors can agree about.
Dismaland reimagines Disneyland as a rotting hellscape. Its perimeter walls and Magic Castle are dirty and crumbling. The central water feature is murky and home to a partially submerged SWAT vehicle. A sculpture of The Little Mermaid’s Ariel is a 3D rendering of retro cathode ray television distortion. However, in a statement quoted in The Guardian, Banksy insisted that Dismaland is not really about Disney: “I banned any imagery of Mickey Mouse from the site…It’s a showcase for the best artists I could imagine, apart from the two who turned me down.”
To that end, Dismaland’s website lists fity-eight artists as contributors, including David Shrigley, Jenny Holzer, and Mana Neyestani. Naturally, Damien Hirst is also involved in the project. Every day from August 22 to September 27, 4,000 paying customers will be granted access to the 2.5acre site in Weston-super-Mare. Their £3 purchase will allow them to take in the sights, be submitted to literal security theatre when entering, participate in modified fair staples, and view a short film program.
“Are you looking for an alternative to the soulless sugar-coated banality of the average family day out?” reads a portion of Dismaland’s brochure quoted by Colossal’s Christopher Jobson. “Or just somewhere cheaper. Then this is the place for you—a chaotic new world where you can escape from mindless escapism.”
At this year’s D23 Expo, Disney announced plans to build Star Wars Land theme parks in California and Florida. This, if you are not a fan of Star Wars, is what Dismaland means by “mindless escapism.” But one man’s mindless escape is another man’s involving experience. Fan service can be exhausting, and the needs of specific fandoms such as Star Wars tend to be catered to at the expense of almost anything else, but it is not mindless by dint of its very existence.
Dismaland is also engaging in a form of fan service: it’s a destination where lovers of Banksy and Damien Hirst can indulge in their interests. It has Banksy doing Banksy things, and Hirst doing more of the same, and David Shrigley reproducing the mascot he created for Scottish football club Partick Thistle. Viewing Dismaland as an escape from prevailing cultural paradigms requires one to believe that modern art is inherently deep and rebellious.
Irony is dead, and so is satire. The art world is very much in its amusement park phase. Shows like Art Basel: Miami can increasingly be understood as Disneyland for moneyed adults. Heck, Disney expansions can increasingly be understood as Disneyland for moneyed adults. While this may not bet the optimal state of affairs, it is not inherently wrong. Dismaland may be a boon for certain art fans, but the pretence that it is not Epcot’s anarchist exhibit does everyone a disservice.