Endless lines in sweltering heat. A ticketing website that crashed. And an artist who was physically removed from the site for staging a protest. Banksy's "Dismaland" is supposed to be a grim parody of theme parks like Disneyland, but it is sounding almost like the real thing. (Disneyland too has interminable lines, along with a very limited tolerance for protest.)
The British street artist, who first became known more than two decades ago when his playful stencils of rats, surveillance devices and policemen kissing began to emerge on streets around Bristol, has in recent years, gone ever bigger. There have been the elaborate pranks (selling his works anonymously on the streets of New York) as well as installations involving animatronic chicken nuggets and even live, painted elephants. (That last one took place in Los Angeles back in 2006.)
Now the artist has turned a derelict seaside recreation site at Weston-Super-Mare, about 45 minutes west of Bristol, into a "bemusement park" — a dystopic theme park clearly intended to skewer the Happiest Place on Earth. There's despondent staff, an elaborate security check and a crumbling, industrial version of Cinderella's castle. There are also works by some 50 other artists — from the street artist Pure Evil (known for his fanged bunny tags) to the celebrated text artist Jenny Holzer, whose works are part of the collection at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Banksy frequently takes on social and political topics in his work. That elephant in Los Angeles was intended to be a heavy-handed symbol for world poverty — accompanied by a text that read, "There's an elephant in the room ... 1.7 billion people have no access to clean drinking water. 20 billion people live under the poverty line." (Never mind that the planet has a population of only 7 billion.)
When Banksy first emerged on the scene, his stencils were funny — working cleverly with architecture and making cheeky attacks on British society (he once depicted Queen Elizabeth II as a monkey). But as his work has gotten bigger, it hasn't gotten better — and some of that may have to do with the audience. The slavish crowds and attendant hype at Banksy happenings can make them feel more like new-iPhone day at the Apple store than a thoughtful consideration of events: something to be consumed before moving on to photos of brunch. It doesn't help that Bansky's installations look like they were specifically crafted for Instagram.
Plus, there are the not-so-small ironies: a Palestinian artist whose work is featured in the show was physically removed from the site for protesting the presence of various Israeli artists in the program. He was allegedly told his protest was too "ugly." And there have been reports that Brad Pitt will be getting his own private tour. ("Dismaland," like Disneyland, follows the social order when it comes to catering to the jet set.)
Banksy built his reputation as the consummate outsider, but as his installations grow bigger and more elaborate — and become ever greater media events — they feel as industrial and contrived as the spectacles they purportedly critique.
The one thing that "Dismaland" has going for it is the price. Just walking into Disneyland will set you back nearly $100, while general admission at Banksy's installation is less than $5. (He also gave away 1,000 free tickets to local residents.) But good luck getting in — unless you're Brad Pitt.
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