‘LOOK INTO THE CAMERA’ barked the security guard, unsmiling, framed by the cardboard metal-detector behind him. Dutifully, I turned in the direction he had jabbed his finger, and found myself confronted by a corrugated cardboard CCTV camera. ‘Welcome to Dismaland’, sighed an ennui-stricken usher, ‘End joy’.
It was a fitting initiation into the Dismaland world. The ‘bemusement park’, curated by Banksy at Weston-Super-Mare’s forgotten ‘Tropicana’, is a wholly unsettling experience. To the unwitting merrymaker the park may pass for a simple eccentricity, a place where whales launch from loos and giraffes perform gymnastics: in the astute words of a confused child, it is ‘like Disneyland, but broken’. Beneath this superficial surrealism however, lies a presentation of painful political realities, from the struggle of refugees to the stealthy acceleration of mass surveillance.
Occupying the castle at the centre of the theme park is one of five works by Banksy himself. Inside the building, it is pitch black. Only by the piercing flashes of the robotic paparazzi does the scene become visible; a cartoon princess, her pumpkin carriage smashed in a fatal accident. Try though nearly everyone does, it is impossible to catch fully on a camera-phone.
Elsewhere, in the ‘Guerrilla Island’ section of the park, a CCTV camera in its classic casing is on display, blind and castrated. Here is an infamous ‘iconic modern design’, which ‘museums [do] not collect’. Displayed as an artefact, the camera seems alien, its threatening presence laid bare. Conspiratorially close by lies an iPhone 4, yet another iconic design, the display suggests, with sinister and incisive surveillance implications.
Other less whimsical exhibits include a collection of ‘cruel’ inventions ‘designed to hurt you’ and a functioning ‘Comrades Advice Bureau’. In light of these displays, Dismaland takes on a nightmarish hue. Everywhere, the artworks are consumed through the black mirrors of cameras and phones. Many of the exhibits demand this deferral to the digital, particularly Banksy’s pre-glitched sculpture of the Little Mermaid. The park was made to be regurgitated; within hours of Dismaland appearing, images were circulated online while newscasters braved the English sea-side to broadcast sensationalist reports on the unfolding spectacle.
In Dismaland, Banksy has demonstrated himself to be an acutely aware artist. The real feat of the artist’s curation has been to choreograph a response to the exhibition that exemplifies the messages contained within it. The cameras may be cardboard, but the surveillance has been outsourced to the rest of us.
Dismaland Bemusement Park is open in Weston-super-Mare until 27 September. Tickets for 8–15 September are now on sale.