PRINT February 2000



The concept behind Sharon Lockhart’s latest work is straightforward enough: Shoot a thirty-minute roll of film, from a single angle, of an audience listening to a piece of music created as a score for the film in question (by composer Becky Allen) and performed live by a chorus offstage in the orchestra pit. The film blankly registers the reaction of its less-than-rapt subjects: At the outset most follow the music more or less attentively, but eventually, with nothing to look at onstage save the camera, some begin to converse, joke around, even flirt and banter with one another.

As simple as it is seductive, the final product—Teatro Amazonas, 1999—barely indicates the extent of Lockhart’s effort. The LA-based artist exhaustively researched the Brazilian metropolis of Manaus, interviewing and selecting every individual she would eventually include in the audience. The goal: to fill the turn-of-the-century opera house where the film was shot with a representative cross section of the city’s one-million-plus population. Lockhart’s interest in ethnographic methodology and its critique, hinted at in her 1997 film Goshogaoka, which tracked a team of Japanese high-school girls on the basketball court, emerges full-blown in Teatro Amazonas.

I talked with Lockhart about her film the morning after its premiere in Rotterdam, where the first comprehensive survey of her work is on view at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (the exhibition will travel to the Kunsthalle Zürich and the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg). After a long opening night with many drinks and much discussion, we met for brunch in the hotel restaurant across from the museum.

Yilmaz Dziewior


In both its production and its reception, Teatro Amazonas is actually one big experiment. Although I cast the audience and asked them to appear in a film, I didn’t tell them how to dress or where to sit or give them any direction during the shooting. I didn’t know what would happen once the Choral do Amazonas began singing and the camera started rolling. They could have clapped at the end, all walked out, or not talked at all. Of course I hoped that someone would walk down the red carpet but nobody did. The film is really completed only when it is viewed by another audience, and each time it is shown I know it will change depending on the audience. It wouldn’t function if it didn’t have the social space of the cinema. Strange things happen. I really liked it when someone in the film was walking out and someone in the cinema, from the same side, did the same thing. Things like this make it complete.

When I first thought of making Teatro, I knew I wanted to film an audience listening to a piece of music. I had just completed my film Goshogaoka, which was shot from the other side, looking at a stage. Goshogaoka was shot in Japan in a very American setting, and I wanted Teatro to cover similar ground, so I began to look around for an opera house that would offer some of the same possibilities. Of course Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo came to mind because of the opera house in the middle of the Amazon. The theater we used is amazing, a product of the rubber boom at the turn of the century. At the time, Manaus was the richest city in the Americas. Having recently arrived from Europe, the local aristocracy wanted to build an opera house to place the city culturally where it was financially. Much of the music hall was made by the very best European craftsmen out of the very best Brazilian materials, with the whole thing filtered through a European vision of what the jungle is.

Goshogaoka was my first real experience in making work in another country. Going into it I knew I wanted to address certain ideas surrounding ethnographic film. One reason for choosing the subject of basketball and the setting of the gymnasium/theater was because both were so American. It made sense to have this reflection of my own culture as a starting point, and it worked well as a method for doubling the reflection of the audience. After I made Goshogaoka I wanted to expand on the idea and get rid of the aspects of fiction that I used previously, like choreography and costuming. It led to a very literal interpretation in Teatro—one audience looking at another.

The score in Teatro was composed specifically to match the duration of the film. Since most of what happens visually is hard to mark time by, the sound is what keeps the audience aware of the passage of time. I wanted a slowly fading choir that is gradually taken over by the ambient sounds of the audience. The singing ends at twenty-four minutes, and for the last six minutes of the film all you hear are the sounds made by the audience in the theater. Someone came up to me after the screening and told me that even though she knew the camera didn’t move, she had felt the image getting closer because the score’s gradual fade had given the impression that the camera was zooming in and the details were becoming more visible. The fading of the choir also makes the audience in the cinema aware of their own sound. As the end titles roll, the cinema audience provides the only sound.

I have always been influenced by structuralist film in both my film and photographic work. I use the formal durational framework quite a bit. I often set up a structure in which things happen that are uncontrolled by me. So far I have used the basic elements of filmmaking. For example, I’ve structured my films according to the length of a reel—Goshogaoka is six ten-minute takes, and Teatro is one thirty-minute take, both with no camera movement. Filmmakers like James Benning and Chantal Akerman are important to me, because of the way they direct a lot of attention toward details, as is Jean Rouch, because of the way he discovers what he is filming through collaboration with his subjects.

Because I live in Los Angeles, everyone always asks me about the film industry. It’s funny because my work really has nothing to do with Hollywood except in its technical means; I mean, my work is nonnarrative and doesn’t attempt to quote or play off Hollywood films. On the other hand, I don’t know if I would actually have gone so deeply into film if I didn’t live in LA. The industry is everywhere, and everyone and everything that makes this kind of work possible is there.