Every workday at Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine, 6,000 hard-hat workers clock out for lunch at the same time. The feat, established under union rules — and seemingly antiquated in 21st-century America — is the subject of Sharon Lockhart’s “Lunch Break,” a film installation on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 16.
The film is hypnotic, crawling along so slowly that it is difficult for the viewer to tell whether the camera, or anything else, is moving.
Lockhart transformed 10 minutes of 35 mm footage into an 80-minute, high-definition piece that has an exquisite, almost 3-D effect.
The viewer is taken on a voyage down 1,200 feet of tunnel in which the prosaic, everyday ritual of the lunch break unfolds like an unassuming, but beautiful, poem.
A fluorescent-lit corridor is framed by industrial infrastructure, with air ducts, pipes and hoses dangling from the ceiling in haphazard, tangled masses, like leftover props from Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil.”
A dampened, ambient soundtrack hums along with intermittent, metallic clanks. The reverberating thrum combines with the narrow, black-walled space for a submarinelike effect, making any awareness of SFMOMA fall away.
Metal lockers line the passage and serve as benches for the workers, who slowly bend their knees, cross their legs, open newspapers and reach into brown-bag lunches. Camaraderie is evident; the entire effect is a restful, yet consuming, experience.
The film is so slow that nothing can be anticipated. The extreme deceleration forces the eye to fixate on the slightest movement, no matter how far away into the frame. A minor movement in the distance holds the viewer in suspense until the action — often banal, like a head scratch — reaches full fruition in the foreground.
Lockhart, a Los Angeles-based artist, spent a year in Bath, Maine, immersing herself on-site at the shipyard, part of America’s dwindling industrial world.
The film is accompanied by The Lunch Break Times, a newspaper Lockhart curated to perpetuate conversation about the history and future of industrial labor in the U.S.
Anyone who has ever shared a break area will smile at Lockhart’s large photographs of the shipyard’s communal kitchen, on view in an accompanying gallery.
Picturing multiple microwaves, ubiquitous coffee makers and Styrofoam cups, the photos have universal appeal. Handwritten notes posted on cabinets and tables remind staff to pay for refreshments. A sign above a pinup of a Ford Mustang reads: “For best tasting coffee and snacks, please pay, serve yourself, and go ... but not too far away.”
A well-worn coin bank rests between a box of Hershey bars and powdered doughnuts, a singular symbol of a fast-fading honor system.
Like many artists, Lockhart is intrigued by the past that is slipping away. “Lunch Break” begs the question, what do the differences between today and yesterday mean for the future? In a time when many employees work through lunch, and investment in industrial America is fading, Lockhart’s well-rounded piece rings with pertinent resonance.
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and open until 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; show runs through Jan. 16
Tickets: $11 to $18
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org