I came here to be entertained, not to be abused. My main preoccupation as I wander around Banksy’s Dismaland is how to compose my face so as to avoid public humiliation. A wry, ironic half-smile seems to steer a sensible course between gormless day-tripper and pretentious hipster, but I fear that it may be interpreted as genuine amusement by the deliberately surly, depressive attendants, one of whom has just invited my neighbour at the ticket barrier to share the joke with the rest of the class.
The same attendant, sporting Mickey Mouse ears and a pink hi-vis jacket, inspects my ticket and tosses it to the ground. In Cinderella’s Castle, where swarms of paparazzi snap the gory aftermath of the princess’s carriage crash, another looks me up and down with disdain and says that he can see why I don’t want to pose for a souvenir photograph. I spend most of my visit trying to avoid attracting their attention, skulking head-down like a diffident teenager who’s failed to hand in her homework.
I had high hopes of Banksy’s seaside bemusement park, having found his 2009 takeover exhibition at Bristol Museum genuinely clever and subversive. After a while, though, his work begins to look less like cutting social commentary and more like the output of a prickly sixth-former with a B grade in AS-level art. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we’ve become too accustomed to his themes. He has a bit of a thing about social injustice, consumerism, surveillance and the police state – and that’s about it.
It’s true that Dismaland includes some interesting work by other artists. I particularly enjoy the freak-show tent. Scott Hove’s bizarre wall-mounted cakes are decorated with horns and fangs, while Ronit Baranga’s ceramics are straight out of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Bowls and plates sprout gruesomely wet mouths and questing digits, while tilting teapots scuttle across the tabletop on fingertips. It’s genuinely disturbing: the stuff of nightmares.
Unfortunately, a lot of the other pieces (including many by Banksy himself) resemble lame one-liners. A police water cannon serves as a makeshift fountain; boatloads of grim-faced action-man refugees sail on the pleasure lake, several of their number already floating face-down in the filthy water; and a copy of ‘First Among Equals’ balances on top of a pile of kindling in the Jeffrey Archer memorial fire pit. Meanwhile, Jason Headley’s spoof meditation film repeatedly exhorts us to empty our minds of all that bullshit and think, ‘Fuck that’. It’s the sort of puerile humour worthy of Viz comic.
Then there’s the question of how the exhibition relates to its surroundings. Banksy’s fans often applaud him for remaining loyal to the West Country, but Dismaland could only be located in a down-at-heel seaside town like Weston-super-Mare. By choosing this setting, with its amusement arcades, fish and chip restaurants and seedy B&Bs, Banksy is telling us that he regards Weston as a bit crap. This seems unfair: it’s a verdict that ignores the dramatic sweep of the beach and the elegant Victorian buildings that line the seafront.
I’m troubled by the suspicion that Banksy is sneering, not just at Weston-super-Mare, but at his audience. His contempt towards us seems to be exemplified by the black balloons on offer bearing the caption, ‘I am an imbecile’. It’s true that many of the visitors are annoying; I lose count of the number of people who insist on viewing the exhibits through the medium of their iPhone. One of the few things that genuinely amuses me is the blank white hoarding with two adjacent holes for a head and a hand, allowing visitors to be photographed while simultaneously taking a selfie (such postmodern irony!). Still, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these people have collectively made Banksy into a millionaire. He might show a bit of gratitude.
I leave Dismaland feeling glum, half-expecting the checkout assistant in Marks & Spencer to greet me with a grunt and toss my change on the floor. To that extent, I suppose the exhibition has left an impression. Ultimately, though, my disappointment is almost on a par with what I felt when satirist Charlie Brooker married celebrity television presenter Konnie Huq: you can no longer snipe cynically from the sidelines when you’ve joined the establishment. (I once had a bit of a crush on Brooker, but that’s another story.)
The truth is that a rich, successful artist can’t pull off counter-culture. Banksy can try all he likes to conceal his identity and keep the preparation for his shows under wraps; as soon as the gates open, the media scrum descends and you can get all you need to know from online reviews and photographs, so that there’s little to be gained by actually coming here. Little, that is, apart from a dressing-down by an out-of-work actor wearing Mickey Mouse ears.