September 24, 2015

COLLINS | Trouble In Dismaland

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“This is art with high ‘click potential,’” pseudonymous pseudo-dissident Banksy told Juxtapoz’s Evan Pricco, referring to his latest project. Banksy’s Dismaland, a “bemusement park” that occupies a four-acre long vacant swimming pool complex in Weston-super-Mare (a seaside resort town in Somerset, England), includes work from Banksy and 58 other artists, creating a twisted fairy tale hell. Banksy’s press release states: “It’s a theme park whose big theme is theme parks should have bigger themes.”

Across the pond, however, I fear that the online media reporting on Dismaland footage has inverted the works’ larger meaning. Works that comment on celebrity culture, immigration and police brutality become a tool to prove Banksy’s strangeness and testify just to how far he’ll travel into the realm of the discomforting.

To come clean, this column started with a bunch of very sour grapes. Like any self-respecting, morbid, wanna-be-Avante-garde college kid, I have been (to choose an appropriate word) dying to go to Dismaland. I wanted to try my hand at David Shrigley’s rigged midway game, “Knock the Anvil” (over with a ping pong ball). I wanted to be a kid again, if only to qualify for a “Pocket Money Loan” (with 5,000 percent APR financing).


But as photo sets kept popping up online, a distaste for all things Dismaland seeped into me. The way that Dismaland constantly cropped up in my feeds troubled me. As Banksy stated in Juxtapoz, Dismaland is “art that thrives in the online environment.” Art world spectators like myself accordingly drove up article views and sought out tickets in droves. Dismaland’s ticketing website crashed on its first day of sale as “Banksy’s spokeswoman said the site had received more than six million hits,” according to an August 21 BBC article. Many Banksy followers, including Mashable’s Tim Chester who queried whether Banksy might actually have planned the failure — another comment on the disappointment of capitalism. But the site went live, tickets sold out as soon as they became available and Dismaland continued to bask in ample, if over-simplified, praise.

To return to an earlier point – Dismaland is, objectively, a tremendous show. Banksy assembled a massive body of work; An appalling amalgamation of art and unwinnable midway games and melancholy actors. Not to sell Dismaland on star power alone, but the show gathers work from current and rising stars, commissioned original work from big names such as Jenny Holzer and Damien Hirst and even includes a video from my favorite disturbing, surrealistic puppets of the viral YouTube video series, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared.

Banksy’s project seems to be blowing ten-times-more illustrious and ten-times-less mischievous art shows like the Vienna Biennial, out of the water in terms of reaching new audiences. For every write-up such shows received in Juxtapoz and Artnet, there are far more images of Darren Criss sitting next to Dietrich Wegner’s sculpture of a woman being engulfed by a flock of seagulls. You can’t help but feel that Banksy enjoys the cult obsession with Dismaland in an unsettling way.

The quote that grounded my discomfort also appeared in Banksy’s Juxtapoz interview. Dismaland, Banksy professed, was “truly global in scope and scale, you will find art from Israel and Palestine hanging side-by-side.” The Gulf Labor Coalition’s protests at the Israeli pavilion at the Vienna Biennial evidence that even hanging Israeli and Palestinian art in the same exhibition is not uncontroversial.

Banksy’s statement, in contrast, greatly mistreats the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, erasing decades of complex conflict with a simple, “Hey, look at where I hung this art.” The works surely convey far more meaning when viewed in person but that is exactly the problem — far more people are necessarily consuming Banksy’s art through articles than in-person.

In essence, there is nothing problematic at the heart of Dismaland. But, in the bizarre and ever-changing fairytale laws that govern Banksy’s dark fantasy, things become twisted in unexpected ways. Suddenly, Paco Pomet’s “Internacional” isn’t a commentary on the roots of radicalism and extremism, but rather about the weird heights to which Dismaland strives. Fresh art from 58 artists is compressed into a singular treatise: look at how odd this all is. Issues such as police brutality and stark economic inequality are unsettling; Many aspects of our society horrify and shock, by putting on display the terror and pain inherent to many people’s daily lives.

But they horrify in a different and, perhaps, more emotionally probing way than a grim reaper twirling alone in the dark to “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” a la Banksy’s “Grim Reaper Bumper Car.” As online media — the main avenue for the masses to learn about Dismaland — place intense, issue-focused art and bizarre, horror-focused art side-by-side, we ask pointed questions. Should the two themes be so casually placed side-by-side? Does the online media conflate them as one-and-the-same-thing, and does it do so wrongly?
To come full circle, I admit that I still stand as a poster-child consumer, who indulges, if not stimulates, the whole process — the uninformed spectator who seeks out only the strangest, the edgiest, the most unnerving and uncomfortable out of a desire to transcend the status quo. At least, that’s the way it seems from afar. Anyhow, I’ll be watching YouTube videos of Banksy’s grim reaper slamming into walls if you need me.