An in depth review of our dismal bemusements at Banksy & Co.’s Dismaland [spoiler filled to aid the ultimate Dismaland experience].
So, we were lucky enough to ‘win’ the ‘lottery’ that is getting hold of Dismaland tickets (as ironic as that is), and we loved every ‘dismal’ minute.
We took a short train from Bristol Temple Mead, with a very friendly conductor past picturesque small towns and villages. Not very dismal so far. Arriving at Weston-super-Mare for the first time, we also found the surrounding not quite as glum as many had suggested. Helpfully there were spray painted stencils on the path with an arrow marked ‘Banksy’ from the station. They did make us cross roads and cross back , but we are glad we followed for the full experience (for oncethe usual ignore the sign didn’t kick in, even if we did get the usual useless detour).
The seafront did seem a bit bland, but for those of us not used to a sandy beach (but big up the Brighton pebbles) it does infer automatic kudos. The sea view ‘wheel’ and the aquarium next to the Dismaland site did seem to need an injection of excitement. But still, we rocked up to Dismaland about 10 minutes past our 11am entry time. Online purchased tickets in hand, we saw a giant queue that first all looked to be marked‘walk in’. However we soon found the entrance to the ‘online purchased tickets’ to be the majority of the zig-zagging, metal barriered sandy mud ground to be for our tickets. We thought, ‘what kind of amusement park would it emulate if there wasn’t a queue!’ Though we zig-zagged quickly through, row by row closer to the grey, weathered building that was the front of the old Tropicana lido (we had heard that there was a hurried ‘additional wear’ added for one of the first days).
There was a quick bag check at the end of the queue before crossing the road to the entrance, where we came across Bill Barminski’s security check. Made of cardboard, the whole scene, including the scanners, the confiscated items, parts of the ‘guards’ uniform and equipment was created in a slightly cartoon/comic-esque style with thick, black ‘outlines’. We could tell as we approached we weren’t probably going to get off quite as lightly as most others passing through – the obligatory ‘get out of here’ and disgusted look from the security guards. Looking in our bag , one of the guards quickly threw a cardigan across the floor and then proceeded to open the sealed multipack of flavored mini rice cakes we’d brought with. We told her she could have a pack to which she asked if we thought it was funny. She then noticed the veggie sausage rolls deeper in the bag. She then opened the pack and started to eat one before telling us to ‘get lost’. A much lighter version of the real thing (and in a lot less trouble than if we had been picked on in the real thing), we had a good giggle and entered the park.
Stepping through the doors we were thrown a park map flyer by one of the pink hi-vis coated and mouse-eared park attendants. Their ‘gloomy’ and ‘fed-up’ attitudes an additional detail to the overall atmosphere, along with the generic, tinny, synthetically upbeat seaside music. The tannoy has the voice of a young child sporadically giving announcements such as, ‘If you behaved nicely, communism wouldn’t exist’.
Seeing the ‘Dismaland’ castle for the first time was quite impactful. It’s easily the tallest structure in the park, taking up a good chunk of the inside space with it’s forlorn towers. We felt we did miss some of the impact, as the mermaid that appears in many of the media photographs was absent. We did actually keep an eye out for any watery-scenes encase it was elsewhere. But we were a bit sad to find this wasn’t the case. The distortion in sculpture form was something we wanted to see to get a better idea of how it was done. This however was the only low in a great visit. Plus the armored police water gun fountain (with slide out of the back) was in place in the water.
Regardless of the unfittingly sunny and fairly hot day, we headed straight to the queue for the main gallery (we figured as it was so nice out it shouldn’t be too busy). We were greeted (in the darkness) by an animation table littered with screwed up paper, with an animation projected onto a piece paper set on the desk. The animation by Andreas Hykade’s animation morphed through well-known characters and figures including Hello Kitty, various Disney characters and Hitler. There were also LED road signs by Jenny Holzer with similar messages to the tannoy (unsurprising as she produced both) such as– ‘change is valuable when the oppressed become the tyrants’, and ‘with no substance class structure is as artificial as plastic’.
Turning the corner we saw people gathering around the end of what looked to be a bumper car floor, illuminated in the yellow light from the projection of a smiley face by James Joyce. The ‘ collapsed pieces’ of the face tumbled into different forms as the face slowly turned. The park attendants were suggesting nothing would happen in the bumper car display. But with the front of the park map depicting the ‘death’ figure in a bumper car, as well as the same image appearing in the media, the crowd was proving difficult to disperse. We were told to move (quite a few times) so we went on through to a long well lit room. The first thing we saw was a set of large knives sticking out of a box towards a beach ball floating above them. We went to the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern a few years ago, so we recognised the piece. With the seaside theme, it just made sense that one of these pieces was part of Dismaland. We started looking at some of the fantastic Josh Keyes diagram-like paintings when we heard the Bee Gees- ‘Stayin’ Alive’ playing back in the room we’d just left. We managed to double back past the park attendants and catch Banksy’s ‘Death’ whizzing round in his dodgem.
Back in the main gallery room there were plenty of fantastic pieces - really mixture of aesthetics, but all with an underlying message. They include Paco Pomet’s oil paintings such as one of a group of children eerily looking at a glowing object apparently handled by an adult in a gas mask, and his other works with the sky leaking onto serene landscapes. In a similar vein are Zaria Forman’s beautiful icy pastel landscapes – documenting rapid changes due to global warming; Lee Madgwick’s colourful painting of abandoned and derelict buildings; and Leigh Mulley’s disused fairground and worn-out seaside town paintings. Neta Harari Navon ‘s paintings of mounted police in riot gear really capture chaos of them in action. Filling the middle of the gallery space were piece’s like Dietrich Wegner’s mushroom cloud tree house and Maskull Laserre’s beautiful carved anatomical carousel horse (complete with wood shavings in the stomach cavity). We fell in love with Kate MacDowell’s beautiful ceramic animals, including a ‘mischief ‘ of naked mice with human ears growing on their skin, and a mother rabbit with a gas mask looking after her litter. As well as Jessica Harrison’s tattooed porcelain figurines.
At the end of the room was Banksy’s scultpture of a particular well-known mouse swallowed by a snake, a large painting of a child and mother in the shadow of a large wave and a humming bird with it’s beak in the wall with a pink spray mark. (We can’t find who did the spraycan in the old fireplace – we have a good inkling but either way we liked the small touch). Through the door at the end we found ourselves in another dark room. We really couldn’t have anticipated Jimmy Cauty’s model frozen aftermath. The ‘model town’ has pieces that evoke the look and feel of architecture models, but somehow have been transformed with so much energy and colour that it looks like a small dystopian world frozen in time. It’s lit with not only the usual lights you’d expect in the real version of the landscape, but also vast swathes of flashing police lights, seemingly crawling almost everywhere you look of the vast model. All the characters are many individually painted police offices (other than the cow we spotted in the window of a tower block). The vast landscape with a council estate like towers, industrial area, motorway, countryside, suburbia and more are all lightly coated in dust. Cars have swerved and crashed simultaneously, often into buildings and other parts of the landscape. Many of the chaotic scenes were attended (or over attended) by the numerous police figures. Including events, such as a mini murder scene with forensics, and an empty and highly damaged famous fast foodrestaurant in the shadows of the jam-packed motorway (all police vehicles and TV vans). The fast food restaurant is a short distance from a small fair and it’s rival which is crammed with people (including the odd person using the children’s area slide and the teacup ride in the fair). Most of the police figures seem to be inspecting things or being a bit useless. Some are more interesting like the one graffiting and another sitting on the edge of the crumbling road. As you walk round the model, you almost follow the landscape out of the city. There is a car crashed in a field with the police still in audience, through to a small village church with an accident outside. The sheer detail and scale is breath taking and you don’t seem to have enough time as you’re hurried around the room by the park attendant, so that more people can be let in to see this suspended mini world. As you go to leave there is a mini model with boats full of police officers after other boats that reflect to the recent increased migrations that have hit the headlines. There are also a few frames by the artist ‘Lu$h’ including a set of maintenance-like miniature figure made to look like they are painting an oil painting in the same ways as an advert.
As we came out of the gallery back into the sun, we decided to double back to where we started to take in space outside the gallery. Past the run down ice cream van selling programmes, we came across one of Michael Beitz’s benches, made to bend up and around into a sculptural shape (and happily people were still sitting at the parts they could use). We came across a glum attendant keeping an eye on the Banksy piece of a women being attached by a cloud of seagulls (it must have been dull just to stand by that piece all day, even if it’s an intriguing piece to look at). Across from this was the David Shrigley ‘s take on a coconut shy. Anvils mounted on stick replace the coconuts, and ping pong balls are thrown at you (which you then need to chase after) to use to pointlessly try and knock the anvils down. We really liked this stand, you did win a prize ‘everytime’ – there was a choice of a wristband and a badge (which was also chucked at you to retrieve). Shrigley designed the prizes, which included the wristbands having ‘meaningless’ engraved into the rubber. There were also balloons designed by Shrigley that were immediately snapped up by an instantly appearing crowd the moment they appeared. around the park .They read ‘I am an Imbecile’.
Across from the shy was the working carousel with yet another Banksy piece. Amongst the normal carousel horses, one had been strung up and in front of it sits a figure dressed in abattoir overalls wielding a large knife. He’s sat on and amongst boxes labelled lasagna. Next to the carousel are a few more stalls such as a vacant ‘caricature’ stall with detailed pencil illustration by Nettie Wakefield of the back of people’s heads. Behind this was the migrant boat pond (another Banksy – he comments in the programme that he didn’t think he’d done enough…). Pop in £1 (or so - we can’t quite remember how much), and you get to drive one of the boats on the small grim ‘pond’ complete with floating migrant bodies. The catch is that the boat you’re driving changes. So you may have one of the overloaded, crushed migrant boats, or then become of the police boats. Across from these was a caravan that spun to give an anti-gravity sensation ride and a shooting range with stuck down ‘cans’ that had goldchains and necklaces drapped round them. Like the anvils, they were made not to move (not unlike the real thing) and you had to ‘knock’ the cans with a cork shooting gun. It had some of the characters from the bar near the entrance – Paul Insect and Bäst’s puppets made from the contents of Hackney skips. Next to this was the ‘hook a duck from the muck’ game, complete with oil-choked pelican in the centre of the dark coloured duck pool. The prize we’ve since seen was a bagged fish finger, but the ones we saw looked thinner. Either way it looked like people were taking the ducks from the water rather than the prizes as there was a sign asking for people to stop stealing them.
Amongst all these stalls stood one of the tallest structures in the park. One of Mike Ross’ large-scale projects – Big Rig Jig. This impressive piece utilizes two discarded tanker trucks, and through extensions and placement makes them appear as though one is bending up and back whilst supporting another in a similar motion. They appear to be barely supported making it awe-inspiring, if not a little concerning to walk by. It did make us giggle when one of the few heavy rain showers hit (the weather did try to get into the ‘dismal’ theme – even if the sun won overall), people were sheltering under the slant of the bottom truck.
Beyond these and the end of the gallery was a small tent that we didn’t go to straight away due to the queue. But when it rained the queue shortened so we took the chance to go in. The small round tent was quite misleading, and once inside there was more than what we anticipated. One of the more vocal and slightly chirpier park attendant stood at the back announcing this was the freak show and telling the pieces of work to watch out for certain visitors – along with random made-up facts about each piece. As you first enter you’re drawn to the round table in the centre with plain tea party ceramics. Ronit Baranga's work however has fingers protruding from the cups and jugs, making them appear to be mid-walking across the table. The plates have pink lips and mouths in different expressions. Along the sides of the tent are Dorcas Casey’s strange and mythical-like textured animal sculptures (we later found out the texture was from old knitwear and clothing) and Polly Morgan’s taxidermy of an ever wrapping snake. Next to these was a grey Shetland pony in a formaldehyde tank with gold hooves, gold unicorn horn and a gold case. We were pretty sure it was another Damien Hirst, which we later discovered this turned out to be true. We just didn’t expect to see his or any of the other high quality pieces in a small outside tent. Next to the pony were some fantastical cake based monster sculptures - stunningly captured by Scott Hove, and a magician’s rabbit with twitching nose holding a snapped wand. Beneath the plinth of the hat it was sitting in was the cape and cards of a supposedly disappeared magician.
Behind the ‘freak-show’ and games was a small stage set-up with lots of deck chairs. It was still sunny so we nabbed a drink for the bar (very happy with the reasonable £3.50) and sat and ate the remainder of our lunch watching awesome videos such as ‘The Employment’ by opusBou (of people being all the items and objects we use), as well as the hilarious ‘Living with Jigsaw’ by Chris Capel and ‘Fuck That: A Guided Meditation’, by Jason Headley. Next to this was a billboard showing David Cameron in a tux drinking wine being ‘shoved’ by a coated youth. The sign itself crumpling under the apparent ‘shove’. This piece we were really pleased to see, as we first saw work by Kennard Philips back in 2008, in their exhibition in the Pumphouse Galllery in Battersea Park. Later one of us helped set-up the ‘Signs of Revolt’ show at the Truman Brewery in 2009, which meant giving a hand to them as they also exhibited there.
This brought us behind Block 9’s derelict castle, which we decided we should go through next. As we went in we were asked if we wanted our picture against a green wall. We were a bit nervous about this as we knew this meant we’d get superimposed into some kind of image. We did get the photo taken nonetheless but it meant being captured in a nervous laugh, rather than smiling at the spot on the adjoining wall. We went through to another dark room (a runningtheme, but it worked particularly well in creating the atmosphere). There appeared to be sand on the ground and cleared to create a path we were told to follow. There were abandoned mopeds and the sound of sirens. In the middle as you first walked round was a flashing huddle of helmeted photographers. The sound of their endless shutters and bright flashing lights allowing the scene to be visible. The huddle blocks most of your view to begin with, but you can see the vast white pumpkin carriage behind with intricate wheels in the air. Rounding on the crowd, the princess slumps forward out of the window, whilst the photographers continue to snap away. Two cartoon-style birds try in feeble desperation to pull at the ends of the bow around the princess’ waist. The horses have tumbled with feet in all directions in the air. You just want to step out and help her, regardless that she’s a cartoon-style sculpture. As well as the fact you know her fate.
As you leave blinking from this Banksy piece there are photo souvenirs that you can buy. As guessed, they did superimpose us into an image. The picture is of the crashed carriage, with us behind the photographer pack. We guess the idea is that we would be smiling bystanders looking on, however we made this a touch worse with our nervous laughs. Add to the fact part of our picture was pixelated and lost due to a colour on us being close to the green wall. We brought the picture.
Outside on a set of old concrete stepped seats was another of Michael Beitz’s benches (with one end rolled up in an almost a loo roll-like form) and yet another Banksy (we guess with it being his park you’d be disappointed if there wasn’t enough of his work). A long line wound round the sculpture of an orca jumping out of a toilet and about to complete a trick jumping through a hoop held by a wet suited mannequin, into a paddling pool. Out of all the pieces we had seen, this one was not being ‘guarded’. It was almost ignored with the queue winding past, but people were touching and posing with it (it was kind of refreshing to have ‘artwork’ you could touch – especially in context to the suggestion of art’s aura as seen in essays such as Jon Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’.). Across from it was an overgrown pool with a sunk boat and a billboard mirroring it’s slant. Simple black silhouettes had a large, older suited man relaxing with a banquet at the lowest end, watch by a family at the empty, higher end of the table.
We decided to join the queue. After a long wait past a library within a caravan - an attendant was reading allowed excerpts from books such as one on the processes of animal testing - we entered a single decker bus painted completely in black. A neon lettered sign in the window read ‘Cruel. Inside was a stark white space was Gavin Grindon’s Cruel Design exhibit (designed by Barnbrook – someone else we have a bit of a fandom for), The exhibit contained items designed to hurt. It included a video about the ‘Wearable Terminal’ – which survey’s the employee using it; anti-homeless spikes, anti skate boarding studs and anti sitting benches – examples of ‘social cleansing’ architecture; videos with devices used to kill animals for consumption – the videos showed how items like the stunning grips can make animal deaths excruciating as the workers are not trained to use them effectively; riot police gear including baby blue caps made to make them look more friendly in media; and lots of subvertisements. Unfortunately with such a long queue and so much written information to take in, we didn’t get to read too much before we were asked to hurry up by the attendant. We hope this bus does get shown again so people have the opportunity to take in the information available.
Next was an army tent with a wall covered with posters outside (we spotted Barnbrook’s ‘Another Fucking Royal Parasite’ amongst them. The tent had various stalls for groups such as ACORN, IWGB, Strike! Magazine and also work from Occupy Design on the walls. One of the stalls offering their own and relative literature was called ‘No Borders, whilst at another table one of the stallholders told us about how lots of people were blacklisted in his industry for standing up as part of their union. They also showed us how a tool they’ve created can open advertisement lightboxes and similar displays. An advert in the programme showed someone placing their child’s picture in the space.
Outside this tent was a large sculpture of a horse impressively made out of scaffolding by Ben Long (who also created the ‘Ice Cream Coving’ sculpture in the main gallery). Further on was an old-school ferris wheel that gave a fantastic view of the park and the beach of Weston-super-Mare. It seemed fairly normal other than when it when it seemed to go very fast! A slight change to the usual serene ride. Opposite this was another tent, filled with a vast array of protest banners and boards, including all over the ceiling. They went from hand painted messages to intricately sewn illustrations and text. The programme told us that a number were by Ed Hall, who has been creating the intricate fabric protest banners for the past 40 years.
Further along from the tent was a miniature golf course with a toxic waste theme. It was over shadowed by a huge sculpture of a sand castle with a giant pinwheel that was easily visible outside the park. It was next to a children’s play area that was part of Darren Cullen’s ‘Pocket Money Loans’ shop. Described as a loan shop for under 12’s it had a machine that giggled as it suggested it was emptying your bank account and products such as ‘Battlefield Casualties – Paralysed Action Man’.
Heading back towards the main entrance (with the giant ‘Mediocre’ mural by Axel Void) we managed to catch the ‘Punch and Julie’ puppet show. It was quite a long version of the original Punch and Judy puppet show (with similar puppets) but highlighting and furthering the domestic violence element. It ends with Julie having gone to India and been empowered by the women’s rights movement called the ‘Pink Gang’ (as they wear pink), returning and giving Mr. Punch his comeuppance. We weren’t too sure if beating Mr. Punch was the best way to end the story (it was quite difficult to watch most of the show), as it seemed to take away from the strength Julie had found. But it was a better ending than the original.
We ‘left through the giftshop’ as requested over the tannoy at 5.30pm (as we were there on a Friday, they said they were closing early to allow for the bands set up and sound check for the evening session. The giftshop was a bit chaotic and busy with people grabbing souvenirs (slightly odd considering many of the messages Banksy and the other artists suggest), but as we left we chose to walk on the beach near the park. The tide was not only out, but the sea seemed a good distance away although the ground was still fairly wet. With an ominous sign suggesting sinking sands we went just beyond where the park ended. Oddly we saw a rainbow although it hadn’t rained for quite a few hours, which seemed to add to the weather’s attempts to be out of line with the park. Some of the sound checks started whilst we were on the beach and we heard the odd song from some of the bands performing that evening (Sleaford Mods and Savages) before heading back for the train.
All in all we loved pretty much everything Dismaland had to offer. It was good seeing such a diverse range of visitors there too. It seems a bit of a shame it’s just come to an end, as it would have been amazing for more people to see. Hopefully for those not as lucky as us, our experience gives a good insight to the ‘dismal’ land that once brightened the seafront at Weston-super-Mare. As well as the chance it will live on through the inspiration and experience it gives not only to visitors, but to anyone interested in this exceptional project.