Now a perennial tradition, like the Super Bowl Halftime Show or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, elusive artist Banksy is back with his latest spectacle — a dystopic “bemusement park,” aptly titled “Dismaland.“
Likely you’ve already seen pictures of its dilapidated castle and polluted waterways, staffed by glum employees whose uniforms read “dismal” across the backs. The human condition is very sad indeed.
Nearly two years ago I wrote about Banksy’s immensely popular month-long residency in New York City, during which he produced a new work each day for one month in the five boroughs. I concluded then by saying:
“Banksy’s popularity endures simply because he’s preaching to the choir. There’s an insatiable demand for his brand and people are happy getting what they want. They also like feeling smart, and his overwrought images continue to be rooted in the same, familiar liberal values that people are all too eager to agree with.”
Banksy’s now ubiquitous anti-consumerist and anti-authoritarian tropes are fully exhausted in this most recent packaging and Dismaland is, quite literally, art about nothing. Consumerism is bad, Disney is evil, advertising is dishonest — we got it.
One of the most iconic and photogenic spectacles in Dismaland is Banksy’s installation conflating Princess Diana’s tragic death with the fairytale iconography of Cinderella’s chariot. In his piece, which is housed inside Cinderella’s decaying castle, Cinderella has taken the place of Princess Diana; she lays dying from a chariot accident as the paparazzi snap away with their cameras.
Our sister publication Tech Insider went so far as to describe this piece as “gut-wrenching.” However, once you contrast it with a truly profound artwork about Diana’s crash and the insatiability of media, it becomes very clear just how shallow the Banksy piece is.
Thomas Demand is a contemporary German artist and his video, “Tunnel,” is ten minutes of repeating footage that draws the viewer through the tunnel in which Diana’s fatal car wreck occurred. Its hypnotic repetition lulls the viewer into a state of inaction, awaiting the ill-fated crash, but in this iteration, it never comes.
The illusion is heightened by the fact that Demand filmed in a cardboard model of the tunnel, a clever bit of visual trickery which brings us face to face with our consumption and perception of media events and the hollowness of celebrity.
The tunnel here becomes a stage of smoke and mirrors where the action is invisible. Demand invites us into a Beckett-esque alternate reality which reminds us just how tenuous a grasp we really have on the events that surround us and how rarely spectacle gives us the payoff we yearn for. It’s a beautiful artwork — heartbreaking but edifying in its profundity.
Banksy’s chariot installation is like the Michael Bay version of this.
Great artists use their work to ask questions, to explore ideas, and to challenge their perception of the world. Great artworks induce a similar reaction in the viewer. They affirm our existence by making us confront what we think we believe and become the platform and catalyst for new ideas, experiences, and discovery.
Banksy’s works, on the other hand, are one-liners — and you already know the punchline.
Plenty of better, socially and politically conscious art has been made. If it’s the quips and public monumentality that draw you to Banksy, consider instead Jenny Holzer’s Truisms.
If you admire Banksy’s shrewdness and courage, I’d suggest watching Chris Burden’s early performances, one in which he has his assistant shoot him in the arm, and another, titled “Trans-Fixed,” in which he’s crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle.
As long as Banksy keeps repackaging the same, lazy shtick, he’ll maintain a successful entertainment franchise for a while longer, but his faux-clever brand of political commentary will only carry him so far.
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