Bloedd Bassey: a 20ft-high golden statue of Dame Shirley Bassey mid-cry, with a heart-shaped hole in her chest and a spear in her left hand, has been installed in the Queen’s Gate of Caernarfon Castle. Her silent cry and empty heart project over Caernarfon’s town square.
The artist, Marc Rees, wants it to ‘jolt people’ into artistic action, to be creative in a heartfelt manner. It was commissioned as part of the ‘Get Creative’ weekend by BBC Wales and Arts Council Wales. Marc wants art to make places thrive at the heart of communities.
According to the artist, the statue is a ‘queen’ of culture, incorporating the historical figure of Boudicca and the cultural figure of Dame Shirley Bassey. In the location, it is indelibly and explicitly connected with the location where Queen Elizabeth II met the crowds after the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969. The real medieval queen after whom the gateway is named, is not part of the narrative it seems.
So this is not a statue of Bassey. This is a statue of three ‘queens’ drawn into one statue. A triumvirate of spirits drawn into one cry for heartfelt artistic endeavour. This cry is evoked both by the statue itself and its situation at the theatrical and queenly entrance into the castle.
Installed on 1st April, the news stories had to assure readers that it was no April Fool, seemingly aware that many might not believe it. I honestly didn’t at first. The reporting of this event suggests many journalists didn’t get it, and didn’t try to get it. Many include photographs of the sculpture, the artist with and talking about the sculpture, and some juxtapose the statue with the forthright statue of Lloyd George in Y Maes that the new work both mirrors and challenges:
- BBC news
- South Wales Evening Post
- Daily Post
- ITV news
- North Wales Chronicle
- The Mirror
- Twitter promoted the idea of getting a selfie with the statue as one very minor way of connecting to it.
You have to read the BBC and Cadw pages to get a fair sense of what the statue is trying to achieve. One can almost taste the awkward silence: no-one willing to comment, let alone criticise, a statue of Bassey, but the form, scale and character of the statue bringing with it a host of complex connotations to nationhood, politics, ethnicity, and gender.
Bassey in Context
The Bloedd Bassey statue is not alone but joins a tide of public art, particularly statuary, around medieval castles in Wales. In my blog, I’ve commented on the art at a range of medieval Welsh ruins, including Llandovery Castle, Cilgerran Castle, Kidwelly Castle and St Dogmaels Abbey. For comparative purposes its also worth mentioning the recent controversy surrounding the carving of a depiction of Merlin at Tintagel Castle.
I’ve also discussed a recent display in the Eagle Tower at Caernarfon Castle itself. Here my focus was upon how art creates an engagement with early medieval history and archaeology. This includes a somewhat odd appropriation of the Project Eliseg rendition of the Pillar of Eliseg by artist Aaron Watson.
Through these previous discussions, I have attempted to critically respond to what the art achieves, not by focusing on its artistic merits. Instead, from an archaeology of memory perspective, I would suggest that the art has both intended and untended mnemonic consequences when augmenting medieval ruins. Sometimes bizarre and often eclectic, occasionally moving, the regular population of both temporary and permanent art within contemporary heritage spaces is a growth trend and industry.
Commemorative Themes in Welsh Castle Art
For Welsh castles, some of this art depicts individual figures and icons, other installations evoke themes and concepts from the medieval and modern past, while further works still seem intent on commemorating specific historical events and processes. While very different in their appearance, inception and significance, there are themes linking them to these fortified, elite, colonial English places within Welsh contexts (and I guess for Cornish ones too). For me, the aspiration is less to encourage artistic endeavour by others and more to fulfil the perceived role of heritage spaces as locales of national healing and identity creation. In particular, commemorating English royalty and simultaneously commemorating resistance and martyrdom (including female deaths) to English political and cultural hegemony are prominent themes.
Bassey joins a trend, medieval castles under Cadw’s stewardship continue to be complex spaces for communicating and reflecting on Welsh ethnic, gendered and cultural identities in the 21st century. Here, forgetting (deliberate or through lack of awareness of the historical connotations) is as important as memory; this has little or nothing to do with Caernarfon Castle and its environs as a landscape of conflict and power since at least the Roman times when Boudicca fought Roman imperialism, through the Middle Ages and the complex material ideology of the architecture and the history of invasion and rebellion focused on the castle.
Does it work? It all depends on what you see in this art I guess. For me, it effectively works to deny historicity of the architecture and place and says nothing about medieval and modern Anglo-Welsh relations. Bassey might well be a powerful modern Welsh cultural icon beyond reproach and if it were a statue of her alone, it would make a powerful statement about art and expression in Wales. But Bassey is here being tied a complex romantic mythology of Welshness linking person and place. She is being rooted in relation to QE2 and the English royal family and bound to Boudicca and the resistance to Roman imperialism.
This is both simultaneously problematic and troubling and cannot be read as politically and culturally neutral. And perhaps that is the point where this art should be fostering, a call to artistic arms, but also a call to think through the past and think through the many contrived juxtapositions of imagined heroines past and present that populate our culture. Is Bassy singing, lamenting or screaming for help?