Dismaland: Banksy's 'bemusement park' is deeply unsettling... but bizarrely entertaining

The 2.5-acre park is the most ambitious project to date by the graffiti artis

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The Independent Culture

“You have to put a pound in, sir.” I step back from the steering wheel and almost apologetically feed a £1 coin into the slot. A light on the dashboard in front of me turns green and I push on the throttle.

In front of me, a small remote-control boat packed full of migrants starts to make its way across the water in front of the white cliffs of Dover. Their faces are permanently turned towards me as I clumsily ferry them across the pond, dodging floating bodies and steering around aimlessly until my money runs out.

The experience is deeply unsettling, yet bizarrely entertaining. And that is exactly the feeling that visitors to Dismaland, a dystopian “bemusement park” contained within a derelict lido in Weston-super-Mare, can expect when it opens to the public tomorrow.

The migrant boat pond piece (PA)

The 2.5-acre park is the most ambitious project to date by the graffiti artist Banksy, who described it as “a festival of art, amusements and entry-level anarchism”. Peering through a gap in security fencing in January, he decided that the faded seaside glamour of the site provided the perfect canvas for his latest work.

For the next five weeks, around 4,000 people a day are expected to pass through the gates of the park, formerly the Tropicana lido, paying £3 to enjoy such entertaining exhibits as the Jeffrey Archer Memorial Fire Pit.

“Warm yourself around an authentic real open fire ceremonially lit each day by burning one of the famed local perjurer’s novels,” explains the helpful annotated map handed to each visitor, which also advertises the park as “the UK’s most disappointing new visitor attraction”.

The park has three art galleries in addition to a series of immersive experiences and twisted fairground rides. Banksy is showcasing 10 new sculptures, paintings and installations, but more than 50 artists from 17 countries contributed work to the project, including Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer, David Shrigley and Jimmy Cauty.

The weirdness begins before you even get inside. “Have a dismal time,” a woman wearing Mickey Mouse ears says without a trace of a smile as she ushers me into a small entrance hall. Here, I am confronted by “security staff” who apparently delight in humiliation. “Stand on one foot for me, sir,” an officer instructs me. I oblige. “Touch your nose for me, sir.” OK, I get it.

Out of the security gauntlet, visitors pass into the park’s main central courtyard, which is dominated by a huge, ruinous Disney-style castle skirted by a stagnant litter-strewn moat. A Banksy sculpture of the Little Mermaid, her face and body distorted as if through television interference, sits on a rock gazing over the water.

“Step inside the fairytale and see how it feels to be a real princess,” the park’s brochure says. Inside, I walk down a darkened corridor where Disney’s Cinderella is being screened on a loop, before I am stopped by a photographer who backs me up against a green screen. “Pose for a photograph, sir?” he says, innocently. I smile awkwardly, the flash goes off and I move on.

In the main room, it is so dark that it takes a while for your eyes to readjust. When they do, a life-sized Technicolor horror scene emerges. Cinderella, it seems, has had a nasty accident in her horse-drawn coach, which has been smashed open and lies on its side. The princess’s lifeless body is hanging out of the window. Beside the carriage is a crowd of paparazzi photographers, their flashbulbs strobing incessantly as they record every gory detail. It is Disney reimagined for the Princess Diana generation, as unpleasant to view as it is difficult to look away.

Cinderella’s coach crash (PA)

And there is another, even darker twist. As you exit the castle, you can buy the “souvenir picture” taken at the beginning, at “just £5 for a 6x8-inch photograph complete with Dismaland display card”. The catch? The background of the picture shows Cinderella’s fatal accident, with you grinning in the foreground. Gotcha.

Dotted around the park are works of remarkable ingenuity and equally biting satire. A cabin beside the children’s play area advertises “Payday Loans 4 Kids: get an advance on your pocket money today”. The only way to catch a glimpse of the company’s punitive interest rate is by bouncing on a trampoline.

A merry-go-round in one corner looks normal – until you notice one gaudily painted horse has been strung up by its hind legs by a man wearing white butcher’s overalls, perched on a cardboard box marked “LASAGNE”.

“I guess you’d say it’s a theme park whose big theme is – theme parks should have bigger themes,” Banksy said of his new creation.

A Dismaland piece featuring David Cameron (PA)

The three galleries, described as “the finest collection of contemporary art ever assembled in a north Somerset seaside town”, are worth double the modest entrance fee on their own, but the park’s  immersive nature is what makes it memorable.

Staff stay admirably in character at all times and are resolutely depressed about their duties. Some spout twisted platitudes intended to poke fun at the have-a-nice-day friendliness of American theme parks: “Welcome to Dismaland. Get rich or try dying. Enjoy!”

In his written foreword to Dismaland’s brochure, Banksy suggests that in the face of “global injustice”, “climate catastrophe” and “a lack of meaningful jobs”, today’s children should be taught that “maybe all that escapism will have to wait”.

Perhaps he is right. When I finally holed my ball in the purposefully awful crazy golf course, with its pointless diversions and impossible putts, the loud, slow clap of a nearby steward seemed to say, dripping with sarcasm: “Well done. But what on earth are you doing with your time?”