Industrial Realism

Lunch Break is an unsentimental, yet deeply humane, portrait that examines the changing roles of workers, depicting the drastic shift in the social, political and economic landscape of the 21st century.

Images of the individual at work have fascinated artists for centuries. It is, perhaps, one of the most strangely intimate events to capture, as the individual is often neither at ease nor tense, but existing in a strange limbo of necessity and labour ruled by a level of comfort dependent on their own connection to their employment.

For Los Angeles-based artist, Sharon Lockhart, those moments of rest whilst at work are the most intriguing: the lunch break in particular captivates her because it is just long enough for a worker to relax and allow themselves to ease out of “work mode” and to offer a glimpse of reality outside the industrial environment. Lockhart films and photographs the banal, normal moments of existence in much the same way as genre painters of the 17th century did. Her observations of everyday life, whether represented through film or photography, are a meditation on, rather than a direct analysis of, the changing aspects of social and economic society.

The exhibition, curated by Sabine Eckmann, stemmed from Lockhart’s interest in the notion of work and its accoutrements, as well as in the way that an industry can dominate a town, making its inhabitants dependent on its existence for their own economic survival. The exhibition, which has previously been staged at the Kemper Art Museum, the Secession, Vienna, and at the Museum of Art, Colby College, highlights the worker’s plight in that technology in all its efficiency is rapidly replacing the need for a human labour force. Lockhart’s decision to film at the Bath Iron Works Shipyard in Maine (owned by General Dynamic, the world’s fifth-largest defence contractor) was contingent on a number of factors; one being that of the geographical ties Lockhart feels towards Maine, having spent a number of her formative years there and the fact that her mother still lives there.The factory is a massive 60-acre complex located on the Kennebec River in Bath, Maine, and is the largest private employer in the state, thus socially and physically dominating the area. Lockhart is intrigued by both the physical and social aspects of labour and it is therefore fitting that she chose the factory as her subject, especially as an underlying interest is, as Eckmann points out: “How individuals leave their marks on objects, spaces, and human interaction as opposed to the regiment of a massive industrial production space and facility.”

Lockhart uses celluloid film as a material of discovery rather than creativity, probing the actions of the individual upon their environment in an almost anthropological way, and producing artistic documents and archives. The photographs that accompany the exhibition are an assessment of the American working-class labour force on both a macro and individual level: a battered lunchbox is elevated to the status of an art object as it is photographed against a blank drop sheet, reminding the viewer of the social and economic status of the labourers who provide the machines of defence for the country.

The American hyper-realist sculptor Duane Hanson (1925-1996) held a similar interest in capturing and freezing in perpetuity images of everyday life, though he used sculpture as his primary medium. Queenie II (1988) is a life-size sculpture of a cleaning woman pushing her garbage can, with all its cleaning accessories; a woman who appears slightly downtrodden and tragic, but who is elevated by Hanson beyond this description. Hanson wanted to emphasise the fact that the workers, tourists, supermarket shoppers, and janitors of everyday life – in essence that which makes us a society – do not need to be faceless because they are not rich, beautiful, elegant, or powerful. Lockhart, like Hanson, gives a face and an individual identity to members of every stratum of society.

The structural composition of Lunch Break, a 10 minute period of filmed “real” time into one elongated, absolute 83 minute shot, which captures the workers resting and eating their packed lunches within the factory. By filming in a systematic, forward movement, the subjects can at times appear completely motionless and it is only when the viewer notes a movement – an unidentified worker slowly raising his arm to take a bite out of his sandwich that one realises time is still passing, though at a protracted rate. This emphasis on the temporal, linear nature of film has been explored by other filmmakers, from established artists such as Christian Marclay (b. 1955) with his seminal film The Clock (2010), to contemporary, pioneering filmmakers such as the partnership of Henning Lohner and Van Carlson with their ongoing Moving Pictures series. Marclay pieced together snippets of film and television clips which indicated exactly what time it was, in an artistic montage, which explored the construct of the 24-hour day as it exists in real-time as a projected image. Lockhart, unlike Marclay, avoids the actual dictates of time as related to the limited nature of its existence, and instead emphasises the experience of time from a structuralist framework as do Lohner and Carlson. Their video pictures are extended, continuous recorded images which they explain as: “Breaking the time barrier of precious film stock … allow[ing] space for random events to manifest themselves for us … within the frame of the locked-down video camera, over time, they could sometimes be caught. Little random everyday events that we normally don’t pay much attention to.” This is, in a sense, exactly what Lockhart achieves in her own film work as she captures the elegance of the everyday; the banal moments that define humanity.

Perhaps the most significant filmmaker to influence Lockhart in terms of this probing and dissection of the notion of time is Michael Snow, particularly with his 1966-1967 film Wavelength. The 45 minute film was structured around one long continuous zoom in a New York loft space and is formally strict and without excessive action, editing or sound. The film is a sensuous aesthetic exploration of space and time by the camera: the duration of the zoom is such that tension slowly builds with no apparent release or conclusion, leaving the viewer at a loss as to what it is they have just viewed and experienced. Lunch Break, while based on the same structuralist premise, is very much tied into the triad of relations between the filmed subject, the filmmaker, and the audience, with the theatrics and rhythm of occupied space being of paramount concern. Lockhart is intrigued by the individual social relationships and feelings of camaraderie that exist within public spaces, whether it is workers at a factory, the inhabitants of a courtyard in Lodz, Poland in Podwórka (2009), or between the players of a girl’s basketball team in Goshogaoka (1998).

The workers in Lunch Break were aware of being filmed, yet there exists no sense of awkwardness or staged element to their movements. Lockhart had built up such a level of trust and familiarity over the course of a year, so much that the workers were at times oblivious of her presence, forgetting that they were on camera and that their actions were being filmed. The idea of a “staged” reality is imperative to an understanding of the filmed action, as historically filmmakers have often altered the real event to add an element of intrigue or movement thought to be lacking.

The critic, Siegfried Kracauer, in Theory of Film (1960), states: “It is entirely possible that a staged real-life event evokes a stronger illusion of reality on the screen than would the original event if it had been captured directly by the camera.” Kracauer wrote this in 1960 and perhaps there is an element of truth to that statement, but one could argue that we live in an age of digital and technological overload. The viewer knows not to trust filmed footage as it can be digitally re-mastered, edited, and altered to completely skew the reality that it purports to represent. Lockhart is successful in avoiding this staged element, as the viewer is sucked into the narrative with Lunch Break, we know the filmed subject is aware of being on camera and yet still acts with a naivety and innocence that belies their knowledge.

The “realist” tendencies in cinema take reality and make it subservient to and supportive of an idea, action or ideology, whereas neo-realist cinema is a phenomenological tendency which André Bazin defines as “the simple appearance of beings and of the world, that it knows how to deduce the ideas that it unearths.” Lockhart could be classified as a neo-realist filmmaker, as she is not outright declaring an idea or moral thesis, but is instead merely portraying the individual actions of workers at their place of employment; the meaning to be gleaned or deduced from this is up to the viewer. By avoiding excessive editing and by using a single tracking shot she achieves the filmic version of a photograph. The chronological coherence of the additional frames, which are added to the 10 minute film digitally to create the longer, 83 minute length film, generates a sense of temporal construction rather than extension by the slow-motion effect. Bazin goes on to argue, in the same essay (De Sica: Metteur en Scène), that “the assemblage of the film must never add anything to the existing reality”, and in this Lockhart is successful for, though she adds additional frames, they are pre-existing filmic footage which adds only time, not a new element of reality.

The particular tragedy of Lockhart’s film lies in both its subject matter and the particular way in which she has extended the footage. The notion of work, that social reality of our existence that requires us to all go out and provide labour in order to acquire food, clothing, and other necessities, consumes a significant portion of our waking hours. By temporally extending the period during the day in which the worker rests, Lockhart offers a respite and an escape route to this monotony: she offers the worker more time. She avoids sentimentalising the act and instead offers it as a moment for the viewer to experience simultaneously with the filmed subject. It is an illusion of reality rather than faithful rendering yet it works in the same way that the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) do. Known as “peasant Brueghel”, his paintings and prints captured the spirit of the common workers of the 17th century, whether it was of peasants at work or at play. Lockhart, like Brueghel, captures vivid, minute details – the worn, battered lunch box of a factory worker is presented in the same way that Brueghel paints a worn, shabby cloak worn by a peasant farmer. Neither sentimentalises the reality of their subjects, but instead they offer it up purely as a document of their time. Brueghel’s The Harvesters (1565) is an interesting comparison in that it depicts harvesters at rest, on their lunch breaks as it were, seated and sprawled out under a tree in the middle of a hay-field: the workers pause for a moment of respite, in much the same way that Lockhart’s factory workers rest in the industrial environment of their work-place.

The culture of the lunch break, the basis and namesake of the exhibition, will be expanded upon by a newspaper that will be produced in conjunction with the exhibition. Eckmann states: “The newspaper is gradually slipping into obsolescence as more and more citizens access their information digitally. The medium newspaper thus reflects the decline of industrial labour in the USA.” Lockhart’s film and photographs are a direct commentary on this decline and the newspaper, which has contributing writers from the San Francisco Bay area, and will provide an interesting combination of viewpoints from which to consider the changing economic situation. In the current world climate it is even more important to discuss, document, and analyse our status as individuals within the world – Lunch Break gives us an opportunity to do so.

Lunch Break was on at SFMOMA until 16 January 2012.

Niamh Coghlan