Drawn to the nectars of negativity

Lynsey Gozna and Julian Boon review Banksy's Dismaland, Weston-Super-Mare.

 

The West Country – home to The Wurzels, Wallace and Gromit, Glastonbury…..and now for a limited time only, Dismaland

Unafraid, provocative street artist ‘Banksy’ has flaunted his audacious art works globally – from the wall of the Palestinian West Bank to the Louvre in Paris, to Timbuktu and beyond – ostensibly promoting freedom of speech through potent, anti-establishment and political messages.  Now, he and his international compatriots have created a new phenomenon – the Bemusement Park – a fusion of art, sculpture and fairground attractions conceptualised on negativity and set to dishearten and demoralise with underlying potent significance.  The irony of this temporary, cheerless, pop-up installation is enhanced still further when one considers its previous incarnation, a lido which by definition was brimming with fun and merriment, a wholly biophilous British seaside experience. 

The present installation considers those thorny, often unspoken, disconcerting issues which have the power to entice the masses in a response to perceived injustice and evil. One of the stated intentions of Banksy’s rationale is to educate a new generation in the breadth of depressing world realities while shattering any residual hopes of denial or avoidance through fairytale escapism. Much like the Victorian freak shows at the end of the pier, the darkness of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or movies featuring the undead, mutilation and destruction, Dismaland delivers a cacophony of all things anarchistic and nihilistic. In contrast to the mawkish bogus fantasy world of its opposite namesake, what awaits the surging crowds is a combination of the unalive, the largely inanimate and an expression of societal discontent and global self-destruction. 

The motivation for the stampede toward this attraction and the exhibits within appear in part inextricably linked to a necessity to be part of something fashionable and trendy. This jumping on the bandwagon and social conformity (Asch, 1955) is illustrated by the frenzied clamour for the limited online ticket availability – at times seemingly like the odds of obtaining a golden ticket to Dahl’s chocolate factory. This further parallels the recent zeitgeist-driven mind-set resulting in the climax of Corbyn-mania with the variously welcomed or otherwise lurch or despair-filled moves to the political left of the Labour movement (see Bikhchandani et al., 1992).

The entire process and experience of the Dismaland journey is imbued with layered ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Festinger, 1957) for the punters so they remain con-vinced (sic.) they are attending of their own volition despite all the obstacles placed in their way. Whether they be in the initial procurement of online tickets, the bogus ticket availability following the weekly ‘sold out’ status, the winding cattle market queues for the ticketed and ticketless, the unaccommodating behaviour of the mickey mouse-eared staff, the acquisition of the ‘happy face’ programme from a burnt out ice-cream van, or the demand for the obligatory ‘I’m an imbecile’ black helium balloons – an impression of contempt is ever present.         

Necrophilous in theme, Dismaland unapologetically displays its wares and the fervent public consumption is as much a voyeuristic appeal drawing us toward all things deathly as it is a celebration of rebellious creativity and the right to protest. In considering Von Hentig’s (1964) and Fromm’s (1973) work on the necrophilous personality in understanding human destructiveness and Freud’s (1930) theory of ‘Thanatos’ – the death drive / instinct, it is possible to identify the psychological mechanisms in play. 

To the extent it is known at all, the popular interpretation of necrophilous interest is of a paraphilia, that is, a sexual acting out with corpses often by those with opportunity (e.g., morticians and murderers). However the benign sexual / non-sexual aspects permeate society and are more prevalent than is often acknowledged and understood. This refers to a broader passion toward the destruction of life and an attraction to all that is dead, decayed / ing, putrid and sickly and the purely mechanical (Fromm, 1973; Von Hentig, 1964) whether inanimate objects, body parts, internal organs or skeletal remains. 

Those who are drawn to such negativity, particularly in the context of necrophilous personality, psychologically retreat to a non-threatening place with safety and certainty where there can be no risk and only total control (Boon, 2016), effectively from the womb to the tomb (Cooper & Epperson, 2008).  Hence such individuals can find comfort, indulgence and satiation in an involvement in and / or exposure to a breadth of darker interests. These may comprise music resembling ‘nothingness’ (e.g. death / doom metal), movies portraying deathly themes and detailing explicit ‘point of death’ scenarios (e.g., ABCs of Death, Hostel, Kill Bill and Perfume), fashion designs or artwork containing overt references to death or decay.  Such persons often exhibit a penchant for scatological language, dark humour and in kind accoutrements – tattoos, clothing, cars, leathered furniture, etc. – displaying their underlying disposition.    

The thematic content of the rusting, dilapidated attractions and art at Dismaland illuminate necrophilous content across various planes. Although somewhat disguised within a humorous ambiance, what is revealed include a large painting of a disembowelled man entitled ‘Grey’, the Grim Reaper doing the ‘dance of death’ driving a fairground dodgem car spinning to ‘Stayin’ Alive’, the demise of Cinderella observed by the predatory paparazzi, a forlorn looking Unicorn in formaldehyde, a woman being attacked by seagulls and a toilet escaping killer whale diving into the sanctuary of a paddling pool. Further are anonymous seaside portraits devoid of human identity, merry-go-round horses turned into lasagne or intimately skeletonized, a beach ball precariously suspended in air over a sea of razor sharp kitchen knives entitled ‘the fragility of love’ and a portrait resembling Chaplin showing the demolition of the individual via destruction, literally clawing the face and eviscerating its life blood.

Further gloom and hopelessness can be reaped from the political messages and anti-capitalist / anarchistic themes. These reference variously ongoing global conflicts, terrorism, the plight of refugees migrating to Europe, environmental crises including climate change, genetic animal mutation experimentation, nuclear weapons, the control of the surveillance / police state along with a Soviet style ‘Comrades Advice Bureau’. 

In toto, the craze of Dismaland provides Banksy, et al.’s followers with an acceptable outlet for the thought-provoking consumption and expression of negativity, together with the warm and fuzzy comfort derived from the equal sharing of misery.    

- Dr Lynsey Gozna is a forensic psychologist at the University of Lincoln and the University of Nottingham. Dr Julian Boon (pictured above) is a forensic psychologist at the University of Leicester.

References

Asch, S. E. (1955).  Opinions and Social Pressure.  Scientific American, 193 (5), pp. 31-35.
Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D., & Welch, I. (1992).  A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom, and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades.  Journal of Political Economy, 100 (5), pp. 992-1026
Boon, J. C. W. (2016).  The Aetiology and Nature of Necrophiliac Offending.  In E. Hickey, A. Aggrawal, & L. Mellor (Eds.) Necrophilia: A Global Anthology.  Cognella, Inc.: San Diego, CA.
Cooper, T. D. & Epperson, C. K. (2008).  Evil: Satan, Sin and Psychology. Paulist Press: New Jersey.
Festinger, L. (1957).  A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Freud, S. (1930 [1961]).  Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. and Ed, James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
Fromm, E. (1973).  The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.  Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York.
Von Hentig, H. (1964).  Der nekrotrope Mensch (The Necrophile Man): vom Totenglauben zur morbiden Totennähe.  Ferdinand Enke: Stuttgart.

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