I decided early on that I’d leave Prague once a month for an adventure. Mostly these will be bus rides to cities in neighbouring countries: Germany, Poland, Austria, but a couple of months ago, I heard about Dismaland, in England, and I HAD TO GO. Dismaland is (was…) an art exhibition which considered some very serious issues through the lens of a theme park. Curated by street artist Banksy, it included sculptures and installations by dozens of artists. This interview with Banksy is a great explanation of what it was all about. The whole idea really appealed to me. Looking at the refugee crisis through a theme park attraction? I had to see it. I’m glad to say that some of it shook me up a little.
Just like my real-life experience, you’re going to have to wait a bit to get to Dismaland… (I won’t judge you if you skip ahead to the pics.)
When I first read about it, I tried to get tickets, but the run was only six weeks, and they were only releasing them a week ahead. I decided to go on September 25/26 because it was a long weekend here in Prague, it was the closing couple of days of the run, and Pussy Riot was playing on Friday night. I don’t like their name, their music, or most of their methods, but I really admire anyone who stands up to an unjust government with so much guts, and I wanted to see them.
The day that tickets would be released for the final three days was September 19, the day I spent at Hluboka Castle. My daughter got up before 5 a.m. in New York to get on-line for me and try to book tickets, but they sold out in eleven minutes. Annoyingly, they popped up on eBay ten minutes later, at ten times the price. I decided that I would not be party to those shenanigans, and I would go to England on the flight I’d paid for, stay in the hotel I’d booked, and get up early and wait in line. I knew there was a limited number of walk-in tickets each day. I would get one, no matter what it took.
I was rather excited about my first trip to England. I love so many English people; I love British TV; I find many English accents vaguely comforting. However, I have an inexplicable, possibly genetic, vague resentment about England per se. It could be my Irish ancestry. It could be that the BBC only produce six episodes of Dr Who in each season. It could be the 1975 double disollution in which the Governor General blocked supply to the Australian government. It could be Bovril. Not sure. I was curious to actually go to England to see how it compared with the version in my head.
I arrived at Weston-Super-Mare, a half hour from Bristol airport, at about 11 p.m., too late to see Pussy Riot, but I could hear them from my hotel room. I mean, I guess it was them. I could hear someone, and they were supposed to be playing.
I cannot speak highly enough about the owner of Beaches Hotel. He took me up to my room, pointed out the window to Dismaland, fully lit, just across the road, and told me exactly where I needed to go in the morning, and said that I should get up very early and see when the crowd was starting to gather. He very kindly promised to bring my breakfast across the street if I didn’t make it to the dining room, and he was more than happy to bring my bag down for me and look after it until I came back later in the day.
You’ve been very patient. We’re almost there.
Isn’t my little hotel room pretty? In the foreground of the dark photo, you can just make out the railing rows where we would queue up the next morning.
At six a.m. I looked out the window and saw that people were arriving. I joined them at 6:30. Thus began my wait of almost six hours. It wasn’t that bad. Two lovely sisters from Bristol behind me were very friendly. They retrieved a couple of picnic chairs and a sleeping bag from their car, and four of us rotated, taking turns. They lent me the sleeping bag because I was freezing and not dressed warmly enough. I had a great chat with one of them about the history of Weston Super Mare. Its glorious hundred-year-old building facades on the promenade tell of a grander time for the sweet seaside town.
I had a chat with another guy about Danish cinema—it’s bleak. He recommended I watch Melancholia. He and his girlfriend were artists who work in glass, and I had a great talk with her about how artists see things.
One of the sisters did a pastry run, and we all put in a pound. I couldn’t have imagined a more enjoyable wait! The manager from Beaches Hotel brought me brekky at about 9am—one scrambled egg sandwich and one hash-brown sandwich with a bottle of water. I had doubts about the hash-brown combo, but it was absolutely delicious. Soft, soft, white bread with crunchy golden potatoes inside. Of course it was delicious!
I should point out that I was in the first forty or so people in the line. I’m so glad I opted for the hotel right across the road. The first photo is in front of me, the second behind. The girls in front were lovely—they’d driven for two hours to get there. You can’t see the end of the line behind me—the line is very, very long. I was feeling smugly confident that I’d get in.
The blank rows behind me were for people who had somehow managed to buy tickets online. These rows filled up closer to eleven. Those of us in the ‘walk-in’ line marvelled at the ticket-bearers’ good fortune, speculating about how they achieved such glory. We, on the other hand, felt like the groundlings at The Globe.
At about 11:30, they told us that after 12:00 they’d start a one-out, one-in basis.
Finally, it happened at about 12:15, five hours and forty-five minutes after I joined the line.
People started leaving! Hurray!
And now you deserve to see the pics. There are so many that I’m leaving them small. You can click on them to see the full size.
It all made my brain feel funny.
I was seeing images that didn’t match those my mind usually constructed for those subjects. it was a good feeling to be stretched—a pleasant discomfort.
There was only one piece that I found truly disturbing: Cinderella’s Castle. The site map said: Step inside the fairytale and see how it feels to be a real princess. Souvenir photos available. Just inside the entry, you were invited to smile at a rubber duck in front of a green screen, for a souvenir photo. I’m still feeling the shock of what was inside the castle.
It was clearly a reference to Princess Diana, and it shook me. The souvenir photo positioned me behind the paparazzi, smiling at the carriage. I didn’t buy it.
I’ve tried to work out why this was so upsetting.
Was it that the apparently Disney carriage usually represents everything cheery and hopeful, and it was jarring to see it upside down? Likewise the plastic princess?
Was the strobe of the paparazzi’s cameras too real, too immediate?
Why weren’t British people complaining?
Did this go too far? is there a ‘too far’ in art? Was this art?
Why was Diana’s death so disproportionately upsetting for me, when I’m not remotely royalist?
Was I upset by her death because I put British princesses in the Disney category?
What was the predominant feeling I was experience now? Anger?
Are princesses real? Do I want them to be?
I felt like I need a Bex and a lie-down after this one.
I’m still thinking about it.
Dismaland was fabulous, even if the princess installation was a kick in the head.
All the timber and fixtures have been dismantled and will be shipped to a refugee ‘jungle’ near Calais in France.
Not so surprising, Banksy.
I’m still wearing my entry bracelet. It’s looking a little worn, but that seems appropriate. Every time I see it poking out of my sleeve, I am transported back to that strange, grubby, dismal place, and I like it.