The first thing one notices when confronted with the work of Sharon Lockhart is that she is neither a photographer nor a filmmaker. While the end results of her artistic process are indeed photographic prints and film projections, these are not the defining elements of her work. Her practice is much more akin to that of a choreographer or a musician, as her media of choice are space and time. Based in Los Angeles, the artist graduated with her MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1993 and has subsequently become a central figure in a generation of artists who came of age in the 1990s. They are inheritors of what critic A. D. Coleman identified in 1976 as the “directorial mode” in photography, describing a new artistic strategy in which artists set up or stage their images. For the last decade, Lockhart has exploited the directorial mode in order to investigate the temporal gap between the stillness of photography and the dynamism of cinema.1
In Lockhart’s Untitled (1996), for example, a single static image contains an entire world within the borders of its frame. Unlike some of her earlier work, it does not so much reference any specific instances in the history of narrative filmmaking as it describes a more general ontology of the cinematic. This extremely large, horizontally formatted color photograph is scaled to the aspect ratio of a cinema screen, confronting the viewer with what appears to be an ambiguously dramatic moment in the middle of an unknown or forgotten film. A young man finds himself in a hotel room, framed against the highly stylized backdrop of a floor-to-ceiling glass window that looks out into the twilight of an anonymous cityscape. As it turns out, the city is Los Angeles and the location is the Bonaventure Hotel, although we have no way of determining this visually as the picture recedes into a blurry depth of field constituted by the reflective surfaces of the glass. In its luminous shimmer, we catch a glimpse of a figure entering the room through a door that is in essence positioned in the off-screen cinematic space behind us. We are caught in the middle of the narrative created by this image, frozen in a fragment of time and trapped in a story with no promise of resolution, yet we are seduced into attempting to complete the open-ended fiction that has been so intricately constructed by the artist.
While Lockhart is well known for her photographic works, she has also worked in film since the very beginning of her career. In Goshogaoka Girls Basketball Team (1997), a work comprising both a film and a series of photographs, she moves away from a focus on storytelling in order to conduct a more sophisticated structural investigation into the nature of our physical relationship to cinematic space and time. The result of a residency in Japan in fall 1996, this project, featuring a junior high school girl’s basketball team from the outskirts of Tokyo, enabled Lockhart to explore her interest in the experimental concerns of both the minimalist dance choreography and the structuralist filmmaking practices of the 1960s. In a nod to such filmmakers as Yvonne Rainer, Michael Snow, and Chantal Akerman,2 who challenged the conventions of narrative cinema by focusing on the material structure and process of their medium, Lockhart employed a single stationary camera and divided the film into six sections of ten minutes each, a time determined by the length of a single commercially available reel of 16mm film. Working with American choreographer Stephen Galloway of the Ballett Frankfurt, Lockhart put these twenty-four young women through a set of highly structured movements in which their bodies weave in and out of our field of vision, defining the different areas of cinematic space created by her camera’s constant gaze across the length of a gymnasium floor at the proscenium of a theatrical stage. As the film progresses through its six dramatic “acts,” what at first appears to be a kind of rote documentation of a basketball practice begins to take on the character of a highly ritualized and abstract tale, leading Lockhart to suggest that “the proscenium defines the movement of the girls; it announces the film as a fiction, as staging, as theater.”3 This fictional staging stands in stark contrast to the film’s structural influences. In the end, it becomes clear that in Goshogaoka Girls Basketball Team, the artist has managed to construct a hybrid exploration of bodily movement that paradoxically bridges the gap between the legacies of structural and narrative filmmaking, and in so doing, reveals her true fascination to be the mutable immateriality of dramatic performance.
As the artist has suggested, “I think most of the time we see a photograph and we either are caught up in the flow of time—imagining the moments before and after the photograph was taken—or we see the image as existing completely outside of time. We never stop to consider the relationship, seeing both the flow of time and its arrest in the photograph.” Quoted in Bernard Joisten, “Sharon Lockhart,” Purple, no. 2 (Winter 1998/1999): 328–335. ↩
Lockhart was especially influenced by Chantal Akerman’s film D’Est (1993), which is also in the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection. ↩
Quoted in Joisten, “Sharon Lockhart,” 329. ↩