BLUE MOONSBy Holly Willats
Teän Roberts’ Blue Moons series presents a figure that we follow across granite shorelines; these natural sites offer a kind of sculptural support to our protagonist. Always on the cusp of night and day, of the seen and unseen, we observe this alien-like being amongst ancient rocks. It’s as if this creature inhabits an island alone; a form trapped in time, tracking the moon. Is this the past, or the future?
Teän Roberts lives on the Scilly Isles where you will find her namesake: the uninhabited island of Teän. The Scilly archipelago is scattered with prehistoric remains: sites of the past that live alongside current inhabitants. It is this landscape that provides the set for Blue Moons and the figure we follow is in fact the artist herself.
I feel some discomfort in observing the images of the young, white, slim body; but I think this discomfort is intentional. Roberts is confronting the viewer about our role as observer, and about our ideas of beauty.
Roberts studied Fashion Photography at the University of Arts London. When subsequently working in fashion, Roberts questioned the constant pursuit of ‘beauty’ within the industry, and how the meaning of this word has become lost and focused on an ideal feminine, conceived over centuries by a male, white, heteronormative gaze. With this growing unease, Roberts moved away from fashion and returned to the Scillies to pursue an art practice; a practice which challenges this gaze and hierarchy, and takes control by being both the figure photograhed and the photographer. Roberts asks, what happens to the female nude in an all-female world?
This confrontation makes me think of Judy Chicago’s Atmosphere’s series, in particular ‘Smoke Bodies’, ‘Smoke goddess / Women with Orange Flames’, and ‘Immolation’ (1972). These Goddess-like figures - nude and painted, powerful in the landscape - challenged the patriarchal establishment of the time and dramatically confront the viewer. I also think of Cindy Sherman’s work, whose practice addresses the objectification of women in the media through playing with identities and representation.
However, Roberts’ performances are quieter; the figure is reclusive and the body is positioned away from us, almost rejecting the viewer. The women of the Scilly Isles are known to be strong and powerful, and this figure has such presence and confidence that it has no need to face us.
It is such strong characters that you will discover in the local folklore. Roberts grew up in a landscape where the past feels very close to the present, and folklore is never far below the surface of life. Roberts’ own family has lived on the islands for generations making this sense of history a deeply personal connection. It is perhaps no surprise then that when Roberts was away from home and working in fashion she found herself drawn to science-fiction; writers such as Joanna Russ with The Female Man. Sci-fi felt like a more commonly accepted way to explore the supernatural, a way to dive into her interests of the other worldly. But after years away, when Robrts returned to the islands she started to focus on the tales that she had grown up with, and the presence of an ancient, pre-christian spiritual history that is so tangible in the landscape.
This return to the island heralded a new relationship for Roberts with her home. Through her practice, she brings herself closer to the landscape, using it as a way to understand her place as an adult on the island and her feelings of alienation. This alienation is apparent in the work: a lone unearthly figure traverses the landscape of an unknown world.
The performative making of the work itself is also a solo activity. Roberts enacts a routine tasing she paints herself before heading out on her bicycle to the coast just moments before sunset; setting her camera up and unrobing to take the shot. Like Sherman who uses costume to make herself a subject, Roberts removes herself from the work by painting herself, giving distance from the viewer. There is a ritual taking place here, something beyond the photograph that is about building a relationship between the artist and the island, between the past and the now.
Through Blue Moons series, Roberts takes us on a journey to a world where the feminine and beauty are rethought as strength and power; the observer’s gaze is directed not by the traditional hierarchy of photographer and sitter, but entirely from the view of the artist. We are presented with a timeless world; witnesses to a ritual uniting the ancient with the now, creating a gateway to an alternative future.