Artsreview: An opinionated romp through Lockhart’s ‘Lunch Break’

Chris Willcox | Cadenza Reporter

Showing now at the main gallery of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum is “Lunch Break,” a showcase of recent photographs and films by  American contemporary artist Sharon Lockhart, known for her formally rich large-scale collaborations within disparate communities. For “Lunch Break,” Lockhart spent a year at the Bath Iron Works in Maine, examining the lives of shipyard workers and producing artworks investigating different aspects of their daily lives. These take the form of three series of photographs and two films. Rather than focusing on the labor itself, Lockhart instead documented the workers during their lunch break, emphasizing their social rituals over production as a means of humanizing the face of a disappearing working class. Yet despite the amount of research put into the project, the quasi-ethnographic “Lunch Break” feels surprisingly sparse and detached from the individual stories of the workers. This both helps and hurts the work: While it moves it in the direction of objectivity, it undermines itself with a lingering sense of blue-collar fetishism that all too clearly reveals Lockhart’s agenda. She is a better proletariat than anthropologist. Furthermore, this move toward objectivity interrupts our ability to identify with Lockhart’s subjects as they begin to look more like formally composed research specimens than real individuals with stories.

This sort of tension is indicative of most of the work in the show. The exhibit’s centerpiece, aptly titled “Lunch Break,” is an 83-minute film with one eerily slow and uninterrupted tracking shot that traverses a long corridor of the shipyard as employees eat, read the newspaper, nap and chat with coworkers. The film has been drastically slowed down; six minutes go by before the camera passes the first figure, and another seven before it reaches the next group. As a result, every minute detail and action is brought into focus, adding an aura of sublimity and severity to the workers’ most banal actions. This might reflect a romanticized notion of how we can imagine the workers viewing their lunch break: as a short but sacred escape from the doldrums of manual labor in which every moment of rest has an elated and extended significance. Yet what undermines this reading is the film’s soundtrack, which was a collaborative effort between composer Becky Allen, filmmaker James Benning and Lockhart herself. To make this, Lockhart recorded the ambient noise of corridor in real time, which was then turned into a composition on an electronic keyboard and paired with harmonic frequencies of the machines in the corridor. This culminates in a dense drone of fragmented speech and mechanical modulations, creating a pervasive sense of suspense or even anxiety to the slowly moving piece. This unease is strengthened by the juxtaposition of the slow-motion cinematography and a seemingly real-time soundtrack, suspending our sense of the passage of time. All of this coalesces into an unclear picture: If the emphasis is on defying the banality of the lunch break, of bringing the most mundane tasks into a special significance, then all the cinematic suspense seems to get in the way.

While there is some humor  in certain moments, like when one worker slowly removes a bag of popcorn from an off-screen microwave, it is very unclear what that irony means. Should we be amused? Scared? Awed? The scale and ambition of Lockhart’s collaboration—both with the factory workers and with the other artists—is an impressive feat, but I fear that the inclusion of all these disparate elements creates an irresolvable, idiosyncratic product that falls short of any clear message.

The second film in the exhibition, “Exit,” is more successful. A 41-minute study of repetition and variation, the film depicts workers leaving the Bath Iron Works factory over five consecutive days. The continuity here is preserved by a fixed camera position. Each day is captured in an eight-minute segment of a mostly male working class happily unshackled for the evening, conversing and swinging their now-light coolers as they exit the facility. Whatever is lost by the Hollywood dramatization of “Lunch Break,” “Exit” maintains. Because it lacks the formalist over-composing that is prevalent in the rest of the show, “Exit” retains a sense of integrity and believability more reminiscent of Lockhart’s earlier work.

Ultimately, the exhibit “Lunch Break” is a portrait of an artist in transition. On one hand we see Lockhart the researcher/documenter. On the other we see Lockhart the formalist/composer. While she seems quite adept at both skill sets, there seems to be a certain number of complications that arise as she begins to combine the two.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.