Contemporary art appears as wretchedly drawn to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the English are to rainy seaside holidays. Dismaland, the latest venture by British street artist Banksy – situated in a long-defunct fairground in a Victorian resort town – manages to combine both.
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Described as a “Bemusement Park”, Dismaland is a site-specific temporary exhibition that channels a fond and peculiarly British delight in melancholy. Staff wearing Mickey Mouse ears and determined scowls supervise visitors roaming the intentionally miserable location, complete with a decaying fairy-tale castle (the princess herself comatose in a crashed carriage, surrounded by paparazzi). Souvenirs include black helium balloons emblazoned with the slogan, “I am an imbecile.”
Banksy invited international artists to join the exhibit from countries including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, as well as three from Israel and three from Palestine. But joyful co-existence, like sunshine, was not fated to be part of this British beach experience. Thus, one Palestinian artist, Shadi Alzaqzouq, took affront to the presence of his Israeli contemporaries and decided to stage a protest. He covered his work with a sheet on which he had written “RIP Gaza: Boycott Israel” in charcoal, then lay down for an apparently spontaneous “die-in” in front of it.
“I unilaterally decided to hold an organised performance to emphasize Gaza’s situation and to show my discontent at being exhibited alongside Israeli artists, one of them having served in the army,” he announced on his website, making clear that he was a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement “in all its forms.”
Alzaqzouq initially claimed that he was escorted off the premises and told that his response had been too “ugly.” That seems unlikely, as, to their credit, the Dismaland organizers did not take down his pieces. Instead, Alzaqzouq’s charcoal-daubed sheet is now accompanied by a sign explaining, “The artist has decided to cover his work to protest being exhibited alongside artists from Israel. We are hoping to resolve the situation as soon as possible and apologise for any disappointment.”
Alzaqzouq’s actions turned out to be a not-quite-boycott, his protest creating a responsive, even collaborative, piece of art. By allowing his sheet-covered artwork to stay, Dismaland generated, however inadvertently, an artistic conversation between the Palestinian and Israeli artists.
Was this Banksy's intention when he invited Israeli and Palestinian artists to present their works together – to pursue that most excruciating of Oslo-era concepts: “dialogue”? And by inviting exactly three artists from each side of the conflict, was Banksy making an attempt at balance or parity? Further, does hosting Israeli artists make Banksy of “Wall and Piece” fame – the title of his 2005 coffee table book – a defender of Israeli freedom of speech? He himself obviously doesn’t believe in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, having invited both Israeli and Palestinian artists to participate. The whole affair is ever-so confusing to those who like to divide public figures into “us-or-them” categories.
We will never know the answers to these questions for sure, because Banksy quite sensibly declines to take part in public discussion of his work. He lights the touch paper, stands back and lets confusion reign. Reaction, whether public disgust, vandalism or a stencil being chipped off a wall and sold for a million dollars, conveniently becomes an extension of his art.
But Banksy isn’t a newcomer, let alone an impartial observer, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The series of supersized, witty murals that he painted on the West Bank security barrier in 2005 continue to be quite a draw – a grinning boy painting a white ladder up and up the eight-meter wall, cracks and gaps “revealing” idyllic landscapes far away from the reality of occupation. For the last ten years, cab drivers in Bethlehem have offered a “Banksy tour” as standard along with the Church of the Nativity and Milk Grotto.
Banksy also visited the Gaza Strip earlier this year, apparently smuggled in to create some signature artworks including children swinging merrily from a guard tower and a giant kitten, paw raised to bat away a – real – mass of iron debris left over from last summer’s war.
“Gaza is often described as ‘the world’s largest open air prison’ because no-one is allowed to enter or leave,” his website explains drily. “But that seems a bit unfair to prisons – they don’t have their electricity and drinking water cut off randomly almost every day.”
That would appear to make Banksy’s position on the occupation clear. At the same time, he evidently doesn’t see excluding Israeli artists from cultural life to be a meaningful way of exerting pressure on Jerusalem to change its policies.
It seems odd to describe a reclusive mogul, who one assumes by now is a multi-millionaire, as a graffiti artist. Who knows how many kissing policemen or girls being carried away by helium balloons he stencils with his own hands these days. But if that is what Banksy is, then graffiti is the ultimate example of the right to free expression, even when it inconveniences or offends. And art of whatever political context is not being punished in Dismaland.
Arguing over whether a boycott of Israeli art is justified is much like debating whether Banksy’s stencilled street urchins are really art. But the question is irrelevant. In both cases, the emotional response is what counts. The entire effect of BDS will only ever be symbolic. Neither Israel’s economy nor its cultural life is going to be destroyed by the boycott movement, and that doesn’t make it any less terrifying to the Israeli establishment.
Meanwhile, Alzaqzouq’s protest created a perfectly respectable piece of performance art – perhaps a fitting metaphor for BDS itself.
Daniella Peled is a London-based editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.