When Banksy opens a theme park, I expect my inbox to fill up. And indeed, two versions of coverage of “Dismaland” have come my way (so far; thanks, Ely and Tim!): The NY Times’ “Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’ in England: It’s a Strange World, After All,” and Bored Panda’s “Banksy’s Dismaland: Take a First Look Inside Nightmare Version of Disneyland.” This is some crazy stuff. 

To begin with, let me say that I am completely in love with the ruined Cinderella’s castle. I would love to visit this place. The pure subversive grandeur must be overwhelming. And the wit is very appealing, though dark, of course. And what could be a more appealing target for satire than those “other” theme parks, the ones with the mouse? Banksy’s signature rat sure ain’t Mickey.

But: in a way it tames Banksy’s work and that of other guerrilla street artists to corral it into a designated space like this, even one with the self-conscious wit and irony of a dystopian theme park. Part of the power of street art is its unexpectedness, the combination of raw edge and delight that comes from the discovery of artwork in the ragged fringes of our environment. The setting is very much part of the art, whether that’s on a very small site scale, like A Common Name’s Urban Geodes sculptures in cracks and gaps (see earlier post), or in terms of larger context, like Banksy’s “I remember when all this was trees” mural at the old Packard Plant in Detroit. The controversy surrounding the removal of that work to a local gallery to protect (preserve? control? neutralize?) it illustrates just how valuable the context is. 

I also wonder about the impact of the lack of contrast between individual pieces and the whole of Dismaland. Much of street art’s marvelous subversiveness comes from its placement where we think no art should be, and that contrast and transgressive nature sets off the artwork. Because it breaks the rules, we notice it. We see it more clearly because of the contrast, like positive and negative space. Is this sense numbed after the fifth or tenth or fiftieth installation you pass at Dismaland? Tigers in the wild hold your attention (that’s involuntary attention/fascination, people!), to say the least. Tigers at the zoo can be just part of the background. When everything is subversive, perhaps nothing is.

Final notes: Dismaland is a limited-time exhibition, so if you want to see it in person, hurry. Promotional material underscores the presence of a gift shop – the mentions are ironic, yes, but I’m sure the sales are real. I’ll be best friends forever with anyone who sends me a Dismaland tee shirt.