GREAT YARMOUTH, England — To pass a day at a cloudy British seaside resort in the waning days of summer is to embrace melancholy. The resorts themselves — conceived as great Victorian towns of pleasure and repose — have yet to recover from a period of decline that began in the 1970s when cheap European charter flights stole their clientele. Their demise only picked up steam when Walt Disney World in Florida started beckoning the long haul-willing British with the promise of sunny skies, meticulous flower beds and a level of themed customer service that one surely does not find at the roast-beef eateries here on Marine Parade, where a chatty waitress who hears an American accent unleashes her unrequited Florida dreams even as she brings a cheap plate of roast beef, veg and gravy.
As recently as the early 1980s, the Britannia Pier Theatre here offered summerlong variety shows with famous TV comedians — two houses a night, one at 6:10 p.m. for the families, one at 8:40 p.m. when the material could turn blue with relative impunity. Now the shows are concert-style one-offs or short weekend runs. In the 1950s, the Yarmouth seafront was overrun by parka-clad Mods in sharp Italian suits. You still can find vintage American automobiles on the sea front, but the crowds are sparse and many of the former Mods now rock along only with difficulty.
It is, you might say, a very short line from Great Yarmouth to Banksy’s “Dismaland.” Or is it?
“Dismaland” is the name of a dystopian piece of secretive conceptual art from the ne plus ultra of secretive conceptual artists that has captured the British attention and imagination these dog days of August.
It has been erected in another of the great, creaking British resorts, Weston-super-Mare. On the site of an abandoned lido called the Tropicana — a resonant site that came with the added asset of walls to hide the extensive preparations — artist Banksy and his high-profile collaborators (such as Damien Hirst and the American anti-Disney nihilist Jeff Gillette) have built what the mysterious one is calling a “bemusement park,” a series of arch sculptures and installations that, taken collectively, are a satirical jab at Disneyfied ways to pass the time and at the hypocrisy of vacationing in idealized escapism when the world is a chamber of horrors.
Overseen by miserable, mouse-eared staffers, the attractions at Dismaland include a “pocket money loans” shop (APR 5,000 percent); a vista of mermaid Ariel swimming in radioactive seas; remote-controlled model boats over-filled with refugees in the shadow of the White Cliffs of Dover; a model town depicting the moment after an urban riot when only cops are on the streets; a miniature golf course themed around a war for oil; a Punch-and-Judy show that emphasizes domestic violence, underscoring the sexism of traditional seaside entertainment built around a violent puppet with a stick.
A commercial produced for the site features a kid falling asleep in the family car on the way home, only to wake up screaming. Maybe he bought one of the balloons that reads “I Am an Imbecile.” Maybe he entered the competition offering “a free hotdog for anyone who can tell what animal is in their hotdog.” Maybe he saw the huge sculpted whale doing tricks in the tiny, empty, kiddie pool. Perhaps he has been to the Banksy version of Cinderella’s Castle, where a fairy-tale princess has been ripped into pieces by the paparazzi.
“Dismaland,” which is open for about the next month, has been covered exhaustively in the British media; many of the reports have been accompanied by the disclaimer that the contents therein will be distressing for those of a sensitive disposition. Most of those British reports have mirrored the arch tone of the artistic event they are covering. CNN, though, sent the comically perky Robyn Kriel, whose ebullient and energized Orlando-like walk-through played into everything Banksy surely wanted. Of course, the man himself has been as elusive as Goofy at Epcot. Part of the brand.
Banksy has an innate appreciation of the market value of irony. “Dismaland” is billed as “the UK’s most disappointing visitor attraction,” thus guaranteeing that it will be anything but. When it comes to the attractions of the British seaside at least, when you actually know you are disappointing, you no longer are really disappointing.
Not in the way Great Yarmouth is disappointing, anyway. But Great Yarmouth, at least, is still trying to please, without the aura of secrecy or the protections of celebrity. You will find more one-percenters at “Dismaland” than walking down a real pier with plenty of real-life decay to ponder.
In Great Yarmouth, you can walk for free through the Pleasure Beach (where there is one of the only roller coasters left in the world that features a manual brakeman on every car), and still ride your fancy for a couple of bucks. I did. Tickets to Dismaland — in the unlikely event that you could actually procure them — are reportedly going for nearly $1,000 a pair online. I didn’t get any.
The face value is minimal, but Banksy did not get to be Banksy without an innate understanding of the role of scarcity in contemporary art. Above all else, that is what creates value — Banksy has added surprise into that equation and he gets the value of personal scarcity better than any of his peers. Few in the world can command such attention through absence.
Is “Dismaland” really the saddest place on Earth? For most of the urban dwellers on the hipster’s summer pilgrimage, that surely will not be the case. It is a must-do; nothing in Yarmouth is must-do. Some of it, though, is at least a better-to-do than you’ll find in towns built only on work and far from the sea.
Dismaland, for all its satirical brilliance, is making one fundamental point: We compartmentalize, especially when we’re clinging to the last moments of our summer. We choose to cast our eyes away from that which disturbs us. So sue us.
It’s not even true.
For a day in Great Yarmouth — where a night can still end with a few fireworks, an ice cream and a trip to an arcade — suggests that maybe Banksy sees too binary a world. Maybe we’re always somewhat sad on vacation — holidays, like summers, always seem close to being over. Resorts — real ones, not pop-up enterprises — always seem not what they were, back when we were younger, or when we were holding the hand of one no longer along for the ride.
You don’t need to visit Dismaland or pay those prices. Melancholy is never that far away, when by the sea, with summer running away so fast.
Back-to-school always is coming soon. Who would have it any other way?