Lunch Break: Explication as art

| Scene Reporter

Located in the same space that “Chance Aesthetics” occupied mere months ago, “Lunch Break” (2008), by Sharon Lockhart, is a very different take on modern and contemporary art. Situated in the Barney A. Ebsworth Gallery, the exhibit traces Lockhart’s immersion in and documentation of the workers at Bath Iron Works (BIW), a large shipbuilding facility located in Bath, Maine. The exposé consists of two films, the eponymous “Lunch Break” and “Exit,” along with three series of photographs.

The movies are the main focus of the exhibition. “Lunch Break” is an 80-minute tracking shot of a long corridor within BIW, dramatically slowed down. “Exit,” on the other hand, is split into five eight-minute sections and was shot with a fixed camera; it documents workers leaving the factory. The films play within a box-like structure, reminiscent of a covered bridge. Painted black on the inside, the viewer sits in the relative darkness of the structure to watch the films. The movies themselves play at the closed end of the box, while the opposite end remains open. “Lunch Break” is especially disconcerting, as the slow movement of the camera forces the viewer to consider, then reconsider, the location of the film, gleaning details that would be missed if the film played at a regular speed. As stated in the exhibit guide, “Exit” brings to mind the first true motion picture ever made, “La Sortie des usines Lumière” (“Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory”), by the Lumière brothers—the world’s first filmmakers.

The photographs are designed to complement the two films. They can be viewed in several disparate orders; the exhibit guide itself numbers them differently at various points. The series most immediately available for viewing is located on the wall just outside the gallery. It showcases the booths from which lunches are sold; mostly hot dogs, hamburgers and other related food items. Totaling five photographs in all, they conspicuously lack both the vendors selling the nourishment and the workers themselves. In the center picture, a sign asks the employees to please leave money in the bank when they take food, giving the entire series a somewhat depressing feel.

The second series consists of several photographs of the workers themselves. They are shown, unsurprisingly, on their lunch breaks. The photographs often focus on only a few of the men, allowing the viewer to concentrate on individuals rather than attempting to merely get a vague overall feeling of the picture. The pictures were taken both inside and outside, with the workers interacting with each other. Through this photography, Lockhart manages to humanize the people in the industry who we never see.

The third and final series documents several lunch boxes taken by the employees to work. They appear in single photographs, diptychs and triptychs. Common amongst them are stickers used to personalize the boxes—retired Navy decals are the most frequent. The lunch boxes are shown both closed and open with their contents arranged around them. By viewing the workers’ personal belongings, we are able to get an inner look—albeit a limited one—into their lives and lifestyles. The photographs are noticeably bleak, however, containing a lot of negative space, which continues the melancholic theme found in the first series of pictures.

It is impossible to separate the current economic and political climate from the exhibit. Especially given the recession, Lockhart’s documentation of blue-collar workers is undercut by our interpretation. She forces us to take notice of the employees, the people whom we would otherwise forget about. As a result, the exhibit exists simultaneously as both an exposé and as art.

This is the first of two articles examining the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. The second article will cover Allison Smith’s “Needle Work.”