Our jobs say a lot about us, but the meaning of what they say depends at least a little on how we spend our time off the clock. Lunchtime, for instance. For the Los Angeles-based artist Sharon Lockhart, a San Francisco Art Institute alumna, that brief midday interval has a way of illuminating the whole of human enterprise, or at least of casting fate and freewill as highly pictorial, factory-forged artifacts.
Lockhart's Lunch Break, now at SFMOMA, results from her immersive stint at Bath Iron Works, a shipyard in Maine and that state's largest employer, where some 6,000 people spend their time on the clock assembling huge complex machines for the U.S. Navy. After ten months' worth of correspondence with management to secure access, Lockhart hung around the place for about a year, getting to know its inhabitants by peering down long hallways at them and looking through their lunchboxes. Her photographic assessments of industrial labor, in motion pictures and stills, also avow her own labor and industry, as sturdy sculptural descriptions of space and time.
Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break (Assembly Hall, Bath Iron Works, November 5, 2007, Bath, Maine) (still), 2008; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.
The centerpiece of Lunch Break is a sort of documentary video in one continuous shot, tracking straight through a 1,200-foot factory corridor while workers go about their lunch-hour routines. What's crucial is that it's in slow motion: 10 minutes' worth of footage digitally elongated into an 80-minute revelation. Who are these people, and what do they do? Presumably they build ships. Idiosyncratically they break for lunch. The long enclosure containing them, with its dangling cables, ceiling pipes and endless fluorescent tubes, seems itself rather like a submarine, albeit a surreally leisurely one. Lockhart's lulling time-lapse maneuver allows us to appreciate the relative oddity of what we're seeing here: labor-union leftism and military-industrial rightism productively commingled in the American working class. Also crucial, it seems, is that the period under surveillance here is a protected respite from productivity.
Another motion-intensive piece, Exit, assembles five eight-minute shots of workers leaving the factory at the end of each weekday. It evokes one of the earliest movies known to exist, 1895's Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, stills from which Lockhart has said she showed around at Bath to help explain her intentions.That early proto-movie suggested cinema technology and factory work as parallel auguries of a hopeful new industrial world. Lockhart's update brings uneasy closure by recording a sense of industrial obsolescence, and a world whose only stay against economic decline is a perpetual war effort.
Sharon Lockhart, Old Boiler Shop: Proud and Shaun, 2008; courtesy the artist.
Several still pictures annotate and corroborate Lockhart's pair of videos. These include close views of the workers' character-revealing lunchboxes, and, in vaguely theatrical arrangements, the workers themselves. There's a good one called Old Boiler Shop: Proud and Shaun, 2008, in which two guys appear to be having not just lunch but some sort of negotiation. Like a New Yorker cartoon caption contest image, but much graver and of course photographic, it seems to want an inscription. Is Proud a proper name? To which man does it belong? What's going on between them? He could be saying, "I'm quitting tomorrow, and I've embezzled $20,000," or, "I know you slept with my wife," or maybe, "Has it ever occurred to you that this war, every war, is immoral?" To which the other guy might just as easily answer, "Has it ever occurred to you that your name is an adjective, and a deadly sin?"
Lockhart lets us wonder about that while we still have time. Soon enough the break will be over; back we'll all go into the workflow.
Sharon Lockhart: Lunch Break is on view through January 16, 2012 at SFMOMA in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.sfmoma.org.