For decades, kids around the world have enjoyed the wonder and merriment of Disney. Even adults get nostalgic about the global brand. Disney’s classic films and cartoons, as well as its extravagant theme parks, harken back to fond childhood memories. Now envision the antithesis of that: a dystopian domain devoid of dreams. Instead of a magic kingdom, imagine a decrepit, ominous castle. Picture a lifeless Cinderella hanging out the window of her overturned carriage or a physically warped Ariel sitting precariously above murky water. Cast aside your delusions of bliss and welcome to Dismaland.
Self-dubbed a “bemusement park,” Dismaland is the traumatized brainchild of British artist Banksy. The exhibition is located in Weston-super-Mare, England and scheduled to run through September 27, 2015. The exhibition has 4,000 tickets available for sale daily and is open to the public (with the exception of Disney lawyers who are barred from admission).
Banksy, whose true identity is a mystery, has been creating street art for over 20 years. Many of his works are controversial and anti-establishment. In 2006, he disguised an inflatable doll as a hooded, shackled Guantanamo Bay inmate and placed it inside the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland. Banksy’s stunt was a disconcerting reminder of human rights violations perpetrated by the United States government. In 2015, he travelled to Gaza, Egypt and made stencils on rubble and concrete. One piece, titled “Bomb damage, Gaza City,” displays a distraught figure crouching down with a hand over its face. Based on his motives and prior actions, Banksy is the artistic equivalent of the Joker from The Dark Knight. Thematically, Dismaland is the carnivalesque evolution of his outlook; a magnum opus that encapsulates anarchistic satire.
In an email to UK television station Channel 4 News, Banksy described his vision for this undertaking. “For this show I didn’t deliberately set out to snub street art, I just found other stuff a lot more interesting […] I seem to have reached the point where an art show is more interesting the less I’m in it.” With works from over 50 international artists, Dismaland portrays a bleak and an unsettling existence. This collaborative macro project is the culmination of Banksy’s and other artists’ perspectives. It exposes the grotesque underbelly of modern-day civilization by commodifying societal apathy, superficiality, phobias, injustices, and prejudices.
The sardonic atmosphere dispels the wholesome illusion presented by typical amusement parks. As Banksy explained in an official Dismaland brochure, “Are you looking for an alternative to the soulless sugar-coated banality of the average family day out? Or just somewhere cheap? Then this is the place for you—a chaotic new world where you can escape from mindless escapism […] Sorry about the lack of meaningful jobs, global injustice, and Channel 5. The fairytale is over, the world is sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe. Maybe all escapism will have to wait.”
The entrance to Dismaland is a pseudo-security screening room created by American artist Bill Barminski. Several disgruntled security officers (or rather make-believe TSA agents), conduct an inquisition of visitors. One officer even asks, “Any guns, grenades, or unicorns on you today?” This introductory piece exemplifies the culture of paranoia and fear-mongering in a post-9/11 climate. The entities that supposedly protect civil liberties are, in some instances, invasive and ineffectual.
Although satirizing Disney is nothing new, Banksy has taken it a step further by mocking the company on a grand scale. The exhibition’s motif, in some respects, is influenced by the works of American artist Jeff Gillette. Gillette, who’s also one of the featured artists in Dismaland, has repeatedly deconstructed the world of Disney throughout his career. In an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, a news presenter for Channel 4, Gillette displayed one of his subversive paintings.
The painting depicts ash-ridden debris beneath a dilapidated billboard of a formerly pristine city. Amidst the desolation, a smiling Mickey Mouse can be seen peeking out of the rubble. Explaining his anti-Disney sentiment, Gillette stated, “And I see it as kind of an absurd little TV pocket of fantasy and then the rest of the world is a different story. And what I do is I try to find the absolute opposite of the happiest place on Earth. I’m a natural-born pessimist. And I’m thinking, well, I’ve been a pessimist for 30 years, 40 years, and it hadn’t gotten that bad but it seems like it’s just kinda ramping up. I don’t know what’s going on in the world and it’s scaring the hell outta me.”
Beyond the overt mockery of Disney, Banksy’s exhibition provides scathing social commentary. For example, the classic British hand puppet show “Punch and Judy” is satirized. The character Mr. Punch pummels his wife Judy with a stick for comedic effect. While the show makes light of domestic violence, it has been a mainstay in England since the 17th century. It’s even been frequently propagated as entertainment for children. British writer Julie Burchill, a victim of domestic violence, wrote a modern-day version of the “Punch and Judy” show for the Dismaland exhibit. Burchill undercuts the original show’s cavalier nature with the poem, “Good day to you my audience, you seem a smashing bunch. Let me introduce myself, my name is Mr. Punch. I’m part of your folk history like saucy Jack the Ripper. We both like a bit of fun like beating up a stripper.” Burchill’s words and cheeky tone demonstrate how people customarily turn a blind eye to serious issues. Even if something is a tradition, it doesn’t excuse immorality.
Scorn and parody are ubiquitous in Dismaland. The “Museum of Cruel Objects,” curated by art historian Dr. Gavin Grindon, displays implements of destruction in addition to a timeline of war and oppression. Banksy’s own piece, titled “Immigrants on a Boat,” examines the horrors of immigration and displacement. Figurines of migrant workers are huddled together aboard a boat while dead migrants float around them. Attendees can even operate a gunboat that approaches the migrant workers while an attendant yells, “I see no borders. I see no race.” In this sense, visitors become more than mere spectators; they are complicit in the persecution of human beings.
Capitalism is also a target for ridicule. London-based artist Darren Cullen has an installation titled, “Pocket Money Loans,” that encourages children to mortgage their future with the slogan, “Get Out of Debt With A Loan” at 5,000% APR. Also within Dismaland, there’s a sign deriding the meat industry that reads, “Free hotdog for anyone who can guess what animal is in their hotdog.”
The pièce de résistance of Dismaland is the Cinderella exhibit which disturbingly reenacts Princess Diana’s death. As Cinderella’s corpse hangs out the window of her carriage, paparazzi incessantly snap shots of the wreckage. It’s a gut-wrenching critique of society’s obsession with celebrity; idolatry at the cost of our humanity. The paparazzi, and others of their ilk, behave more like ravenous beasts, relentlessly pursuing a spectacle to sate the vicarious desires of the masses. This work illustrates a fundamental disconnect between reality and fantasy that’s entrenched in our culture.
Although Dismaland is a grim rendition of society, it disfigures the fanciful façade we’ve grown accustomed to. I agree with Banksy’s stance to an extent, but disillusionment and shock are simply stepping stones to solving global crises. Plus, everyone’s entitled to some form of escapism, and it’s perfectly fine to indulge in fantasy occasionally. While a respite from the world’s ills is necessary, we also shouldn’t become numb or oblivious to the unpleasant aspects of real life.