Beneath the Pilgrim Moon is a collection of photographs taken during the second Covid-19 lockdown whilst London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was closed to the public. These veiled statues, located in the Museum’s Dorothy and Michael Hintze Galleries, were covered for their protection during refurbishment and Roberts conceives of them as a metaphor for our wider experience of the pandemic.
The images speak of the extraordinary events of the past year, of us as a nation shrouded by PPE and covered up behind our masks, suspended in time, restricted of movement and freedoms. We were forced to separate from one another, or if we were to meet, to hug through thick plastic sheeting, or wave through windows. The beauty of our world felt elusive, hidden beneath an entanglement of political mixed messages and misleading rhetoric. In the midst of all this, George Floyd was brutally murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. There was global outrage, a renewal of the efforts of Black Lives Matter and other groups and a resurgence in the debate about how Britain commemorates its past which led to key statues, notably the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston’s, being dragged from their plinths.
Unlike the statues of merchants, statesmen and traders, many of the sculptures in this gallery represent mythological or allegorical subjects. Made for display indoors, they became increasingly popular with British sculptors and patrons from the 1770s onwards. Alternatively, the sitter might take on a role from a classical story. Sometimes, portraits of the patron’s wife or children would be included in these scenes.
Now, ancient mythology and 18th century neo-classicism meets 21st century plastic and gaffa tape, and the juxtaposition is eerie, disorientating and beautiful. The marble figures have been standing alone in the Museum for most of the past year, where normally thousands would pass them every day. Working amongst them, Roberts experienced a sensation of calm, aware of their timeless resilience as they seem to wait for better times. These feelings gave rise to the title of the work, which is taken from Patti Smith 1997’s song, Waiting Underground. She sings: ‘…your humankind becomes as one, And then we will arise… When we’ll be as one, But until that day we will just await, in our snow-white shrouds, waiting underground.’
The photographs were first shown printed on fabric in the exhibition All Alone, curated by Meadow Arts and installed in the grounds of Croft Castle, Shropshire.