By: Richard Johnson
[Editor's note: As a paper that prides itself on mocking Disney at every turn, it's inevitable that the Weekly landed on Dismaland's doorstep before it closes for good on September 27. After a month of endless reports by snarky journalists from around the world, we decided to send someone who knows a thing or two about provocative art. Richard Johnson ran AAA Electra 99, an anti-establishment art museum/venue that was OC's equivalent of Dismaland in the heart of Mickey Country for over 16 years. Way before Banksy, bitches. This is the first of a two part series about his trip to the exhibit.]
Centered in the English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare is an abandoned public pool that once boasted the highest diving boards in all of Europe. Mysterious construction began in early August of 2015 on the dilapidated site. The townspeople were told that there was an American movie being filmed at the site. Nothing could've been further from the truth. First a large pinwheel was erected, then a working ferris wheel could be seen from the outside. Then a castle began to take shape. A call even went out to hire extras for the alleged movie. By the end of August, local papers announced that the internationally-known street artist extraordinaire, Banksy, was undertaking his biggest exposition to date. Dismaland: A Bemusement Park.
Upon our arrival at Dismaland, it was obvious that our chances of gaining entry were quite, uh, dismal. About 800 ticket-holders and another 500 non-ticket-holders were already lined up at the gates. Even though we didn't have tickets, I remained hopeful. Then the purpled-haired mouse-eared representative made a soul-crushing announcement: "If you don't have an online ticket, you're not going to be let in today! You can come back tomorrow!" The crowd let out a collective groan.
But we came too far just to be turned away at the gates. Adopting a bit of English politeness, I told my friend/British interpreter Jacqui that this kind of bad luck "simply won't' do." So we decided to try a different tactic.
I walked up to the front door of the exhibit and spotted a gentleman employee who seemed to be strutting around like he was cock of the walk. I asked one of the mouse-eared cast members who he was. "Oh, that's Daniel."
I called out to him. "Hey, Daniel!" He eyed me with bewilderment. I didn't really fit in with the rest of the middle class normal-looking English types in queue with my ridiculous Prada sunglasses, steel-toed boots, black sweatshirt, and turned-up cap with a badge of Bridget Bardot on the rim.
"How can I help you, mate?"
I told him I was writing something for the Weekly in Orange County, California, the land of Disney.
"We tried to get a hold of you on the website, but it's always crashed and there's no contact information. We'd like to do a story on Dismaland. We hate fucking Disneyland and want to shove it right in their face!"
What followed was a response felt akin to winning the English Lottery. "Our website isn't much help is it?" he said with a sly smirk. "I'll get you in. Follow me."
Suddenly we were following him as he led us through the sea of families at the makeshift park. I was sure we were being pranked, destined to be led out a back door or down a slide that emptied out into one of Banksy's dumpsters. We passed another Disney-style zig-zag queue of families to a room filled with white cardboard mock metal detectors. Then Daniel abruptly disappeared. How? To where? I don't know. At this point we thought for sure this is not going to end well.
One of the cast members wearing a large white security hat snarled at us to "keep Moving sirs!" The next thing we knew, we were inside.
We were greeted by a large gothic castle that didn't look quite right, with a deformed statue of The Little Mermaid in the center of the moat. The whole thing felt oddly comforting and familiar to me.
The 2.5 acre compound houses the works of 58 artists aside from Banksy. Just through the gates was a booth offering pocket money loans for children at only 5000% interest. That attraction seemed crowded, so we kept walking. Next up was a pop-up shop called Gorilla Island, where for four pounds I bought the tools needed to crack open bus shelter billboard cases to replace the ads with my own art. I was introduced to a wonderful group of people known as ACAB. They were very friendly and I was so impressed with their organization that I purchased a few badges to give out as gifts, a t-shirt and sticker pack to support their cause in educating people that All Cops Are Bastards.
Feeling very satisfied with my purchases, I caught back up with Jacqui who was admiring a sculpture of a killer whale and its trainer. The whale was in the midst of jumping through a hoop that it obviously could not fit through. One after another, parents took photos of their children holding the hoop and smiling. Next to the whale was the picnic area – a large sandbox with a bench that looked like a giant roll of toilet paper. Another family friendly photo-op. Near the makeshift bar area, we noticed a large outdoor movie screen on a flatbed trailer. The audio came on suddenly and loudly.
ALLAHU AKBAR! ALLAHU AKBAR! ALLAHU AKBAR!
The screen depicted a group of Afghan fighters yelling ecstatically after hitting what looked like an aircraft with their missile launcher. They were all very excited. The camera panned up to show a smoke trail from the aircraft on its nosedive. BAM! It hit the ground. The fighters ran toward the crash site with wobbly, Blair Witch style camerawork as shouts of ""ALLAHU AKBAR" filled the air.. As they arrive on the scene, we see that the aircraft they shot down was actually Disney's Dumbo.
I found the film to be very humorous and somewhat poetic. We sat down in some beach chairs to enjoy a beer and the rest of the short films. Some were funny, some serious, some just interesting to look at, but all worth the time spent watching. I made the mistake of lighting a cigarette, which was clearly unwelcome by most of the middle-aged ladies and families around me, so I put it out.
We got in the queue for the circus tent exhibit which included works by Ronit Baranga, featuring some dishes with human body parts, and some large, shiny, eye-catching mounted sculptures of killer desserts–elaborate cakes with teeth and horns by Scott Hove.
One of the pieces was rabbit in a magician's hat holding a broken magic wand that would move abruptly and startle viewers every now and then. I enjoyed the vagina beverage can next to the exit very much but did not catch the artist's name.
As the sun began to set, we stood in the shadow of Mike Ross's Big Rig Jig, a sculpture comprised of two semi trucks joined together in a loop that made them look as though they were dancing in the night sky. Next, I tried my hand at one of the fairground games. Hook the Dirty Duck–what could be easier–except that the hook is circular, making it impossible to hook a duck. A young and helpful yet sad female cast member let me in on the secret. "If you tip us, we will let you win," she mumbled. 10 pounds later, I was overjoyed with my prize – a novelty turd floating in a plastic bag.
On to Banksy's model boats. For one pound I could choose to either be a group of refugees seeking asylum or a faster government boat. The controls of the boats switch randomly, so people really have no control over their destiny, much like in life. The artistry of the boats was done very well and I heard from a cast member that much like the boats that these models were based on, they had a problem keeping them afloat when overloaded.
From the boats we decided to take a walk through Cinderella's castle and see what it is like to be a real princess (another Banksy exhibit). Cinderella's carriage was overturned, the horses were dead, and her lifeless body hung from the window of the carriage as paparazzi on mopeds snapped photos. Right on the money, if you ask me.
We slipped behind the castle to have that smoke and view the moat, which contained a sunken motorboat and a police riot van equipped with a water cannon and children's slide. We sat in a couple of beach chairs next to a grocery store kiddy ride of a dolphin entangled in a net.
A large painting hung over the castle's moat. The painting depicted a table. On one side of the table was a family, on the other was a large man with all of the food in front of him. The painting was hung crooked to make it seem as though the food had slid to his side of the table. Scrawled near the painting were the words, "UNFUCK THE SYSTEM."
Suddenly, it dawned on me. A beginners guide to Anarchism? Stencils sprayed in a public place without permission? Sarcasm with a message? Pranks inspired by disdain for the government? Does it take a brash, ill-mannered American to point out the obvious? It seems this whole exhibit was inspired by a certain band from the '80s. Two of the founding members happen to live the middle of a deep forest about three hours away from the media spotlight of Dismaland. I wonder what they think of Banksy and his bemusement park. So I decided to go find out.
Come back tomorrow to read about the second part of our Dismaland trip.