In “Lunch Break,” Sharon Lockhart’s recent body of work that is the first solo show in Blum and Poe’s enormous and enormously monied new space, the artist presents two new films and twenty-seven photographs related to her investigation of industrial working life at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. Departing from the fixed camera composition of her past films, a long sustained tracking shot moves the frame slowly and steadily over its eighty minute duration down a tremendous narrow hallway that seems to span the entire length of the shipyard where Lunch Break (Assembly Hall, Bath Iron Works, November 5, 2007, Bath, Maine) (2008) was filmed. Pipes run the course of the corridor, wires and tubing hang in bundles, and gray stickered lockers line the left-hand wall. As the camera pushes forward on its linear path, echoing the patient structural inexorability of Michael Snow’s Wavelength, it cumulatively encounters workers, seated in solitude or sporadic clusters along the hall’s right-hand side, eating their lunches and talking, sleeping, reading, or otherwise recreating. It is their lunch break. An ambient, multi-layered soundtrack made collaboratively by Becky Allen and James Benning floats this slow-motion tunnel-vision, making it feel disembodied and aestheticized; there is a sense of meditative, if rarified, detachment (which is heightened when considered in contrast to another work of the same name which Lockhart has made work from in the past—Duane Hanson’s sculpture Lunch Break (1989) of three construction workers against scaffolding whose visceral presence in its white cube context is disarming).
The film’s basic formal, documentary approach and factory setting recall Tacita Dean’s Kodak (2006). But Lockhart is less interested than Dean in the product being produced and more interested in the workers. That much is confirmed in the second, and shorter, film Exit (Bath Iron Works, July 7-11, 2008, Bath, Maine) (2008) which strings together five long static shots of workers leaving work on each consecutive day of the workweek. Waves of capped laborers in jeans and sweatshirts carry their lunch coolers away from the viewer. In combination with the nearby photographs, Exit (and most of the show in general) starts to take on a strange and unsettling anthropological undertone of observing from above the laboring class as exotic other. The gallery’s shiny new whiteness and lofty high-ceilings throw an economic disparity between what is pictured and where/how the pictures are presented into relief. The power dynamic implied is mildly disconcerting.
There are several large photographs of the factory’s ad hoc social eating spaces, some inhabited but most empty, that are poignant and dignified in their shabby straightforwardness. By contrast, the many stark and uniformly formal still-lives of the workers’ personalized lunch boxes and scuffed coolers isolated on gray seamless grounds are less affecting precisely because their austere compositions seem calculated to hyperbolize the lower-classness featured therein and, by extension, pull at heartstrings. Fetishizing these objects’ affect smothers it. This is the provocative line “Lunch Break” walks: touching on an understated poetry of long hours, boredom, routine, manual labor, and community on the one hand and risking a fetishistic exoticization and ogling of working class artifacts and habits on the other. Unlike the films (or many of her past projects), the photographs do not really convey the artist’s personal investment in her subjects, the respect and awe she might feel for their labor and daily struggle. Treating the lunch boxes so formally through techniques of commercial photography is an interesting if confusing gesture; the still-lives may propose a politically charged reversal whereby we view these heavily worn blue-collar objects of daily use through the same lens that frames luxury items in an ad or expensive catalogue, but they also seem to cherry-pick local color for our privileged (and patronizing) gaze. Maybe that disturbing confusion is good; maybe the discomfort the work inspires addresses my own feelings of being implicated in the power relation of this viewing situation and the latent violence of representation. Maybe.
All images courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe.