“It is the dried edge of the crumbling wedding cake that has sat in the sun for too many days after the opulent event”
Gregory Halpern’s “ZZYZX” is another book of good ol’ American collapse and decline. On one hand, it radiates a pictorial beauty that is at odds with its subject matter. The bucolic west is no longer a benign horizon in which to measure the imagination and fantasy of pioneer aspirations. The golden honey-dipped valleys still pervade, but alongside of this an undercurrent of impacting dread hangs over the body of work. It, like Alejandro Cartagena’s “Santa Barbara Return Jobs to Us”, is another note on America’s imperial decline viewed from the inside. Both artists are working on an observation. Yet both artists like many people, feel the queasy unease of uncertainty creeping through their vision of land and people. It is the dried edge of the crumbling wedding cake that has sat in the sun for too many days after the opulent event. The cake attracts insects in its’ decay.
American photography from “The Americans” forward has looked at the American dream from within and from the outside. The history of the country’s image has always beheld a tenuous relationship with the land of plenty. Social commentary of this sort is not always as brusque and chilling, but it often bristles against the skin of the country’s imaginary surface. From decadence to decline, the surveys are aplenty with metaphors of the have and have-nots. What Halpern’s book suggests is not nostalgia per se, but a new survey of how to look at Americans and the vast consumptive culture that has prefaced their current state. There in undulating syntax under this that is not corrosive, nor voyeuristic, but suits the purpose to suggest a re-examination of, as Jacob Riis pointed out over 100 years ago, how the other half-lives.
So, perhaps not much has changed, yet everything crucial has changed. The dream becomes a candle that has been blown out. The waft of smoke tumbles over those hills and those valleys and that sun that never seems to truly set in the west and is a reminder of the wick that once gleamed more brightly, or at least gleamed for perhaps 100 strong years. America as an idea has to die. It is a phoenix scenario. It is something to be wary of. The same bird that plunges aflame arises still charred and vengeful and the world now, due to global capitalism lives between its scaled and sharp talons.
The book, like Cartagena’s, is not sorrow-filled per se, but an anxiety looms throughout. I anticipate a longer investigation into the flight of the American dream, but Halpern’s eyes have seized the moment with aplomb and have done so without the pitying condemnation to simply the marginal. He has turned the apparatus towards the land of the free; whose colors “don’t bleed”, and who are at war with its sub-cutaneous image of itself.
Having some antipathy towards the country of my birth, I can identify with his aesthetics. I can identify, with an axe, not a scalpel Mr. Obama, the death knell, the pulse beneath the skin and it suits me to watch the putrefaction take hold.
I have started this review in a backwards manner from which I am usually prone. I tend to look at the metaphor of a piece of work and let it conjure in my mind a sometimes rapacious fantasy that is not always easy to place within the actual work for the audience. The words sprout from an internal place when the work affects me as Halpern’s vision has. I have only visited the American West once in my life in 2014. It was the road trip of dreams with some slight trepidation for one night of experience. I was lucky enough to have as my companion filmmaker James Batley, English and full of piss and vinegar to use the outdated American colloquialism. We had a three week journey of epic proportions around the west and one that is now so ingrained in my being that I cannot imagine my life without it. The reason I mention this is because while going over Halpern’s book, one night on that journey felt like it belonged in-between its pages and for the sheer force of needing to recount my own experiences, I have decided to add the true life allegory to this review. So, if these things are of no interest, please do not feel bad for abstaining yourself from my parallel experience. If you choose to read on, please be aware that this was the America I saw in his book and it is the America that idly sits at the periphery of the empire’s crumbling awkward dissolve.
“The bucolic west is no longer a benign horizon in which to measure the imagination and fantasy of pioneer aspirations”
August/September 2014…. an excerpt, a slice, an unfolding of life….
California seemed like a fair substitute for Greece. After falling out with a dear friend in Athens, I made the decision that life would take James and myself elsewhere. I had chosen to follow a summer relationship to the outskirts of my fevered being. Land of said residency-Killafornia. Tickets to Greece cancelled, tickets to Killafornia were purchased. Of note, two tickets on short notice cost 1666. The currency does not matter, but the omen of its total was a boon to our performance. Bags packed, we headed off.
LAX is a strange airport on little sleep and arriving in the morning when you left your country of residency also in the morning leaves one in a lucid state of a cancerous and doubting affect. The sun beats down on you as you hustle your baggage from the terminal to “short walk” over to the car rental office. Sweat and a pleasant if tired smile crosses your lips from your brow as you try to understand the sun itself, which in Killafornia is like no other place in the world.
Car in tow, we headed in to the heart of Los Angeles itself to stay with our friend Alex, who was kind enough to sponsor our stay for three weeks, an act that I can probably never repay as I have never had a fever of 104 degrees after being dehydrated in Death Valley previously and thus had to have been driven to the LA county hospital by Alex where I sat on a stretcher across from a man frothing at the mouth, handcuffed to his stretcher speaking about inter-planetary evolution. For my sober state, the words oddly made sense no matter the man’s condition, but that is not this part of this excerpt.
Arriving in Los Angeles, one wants to do things such as go to Los Compadres restaurant to meet the aforementioned summer relationship only to get there with best friend in tow to find that the intended party, the impetus if you will for the entire trip sat across the Atlantic shows up with finger bruises on her legs not from your own hand. I participate into an unfolding rage and a shouting match over a half-eaten burrito and half-empty tequila glass. Throwing 100 dollars on the table “Fuck this. James, lets go” Striding angrily past the waiter, I ventured outside to smoke off the pure rage associated with those bruises. A new experience was in the mix. The point of the trip abandoned, James came out gingerly as he does only to say…”It was actually 120 bucks, but it’s covered”. The actual insult of the whole experience was that this fucking restaurant in this plastic sun-drowned town had asked for 120 bucks for the insult to my manhood. “Let’s order an uber”. Night passes.
The next day, we awoke far better for the tequila not drank and spent time laying out our plans for the time in Los Angeles- things and places to see…Danzig’s house, The Manson Family Cave, Death Valley, Salton Sea and a drive through the hills. All these things would be accomplished. The Death Valley story is best left for a book in and of itself.
Having prepared breakfast and spending a little time with Alex’s cats Henry…and the other one who someone how managed to perch for the entirety of our stay on an ajar door, we got in contact with my old friend from Minneapolis Samantha. Sam and I had done darkroom time for our degrees in Minneapolis. We had gone on fashion shoots together (no shit) and were both from Wisconsin. She had relocated to sunny California some time before I had fucked off to England and it was our intent to meet and see what to do. Sam had found a party in Hollywood Hills. If memory serves correct, we made plans to attend an actual party in the hills. It was a Friday and James and I had mixed feelings about the whole thing, but fuck it, easy uber ride home, innit homie?
Time Passes and we meet at the address provided by Sam and manage to get into the party. Outward to the pool the three of us pushed forward. Like many places in the hills, the house overlooked the city and the drinks and other consumables were at hand. Having consumed said consumables; the evening began looking up a bit though we did not speak to many people at the party. It seemed an odd mix of rich kids and us. I have the distinct memory of speaking with an association of Sam’s named Janelle whom I kind of wanted to strangle or drown in the pool, but due to the consumables, could not muster my usual sense of self-worth and appropriate venom to do so. Irritating is only a word for most people, Janelle was irritation incarnate.
The evening wears on and by the time 3 a.m. rolls around people around the party start dipping in and out of various rooms within the large house, ostensibly not sharing in their own treasure trove of consumables. Sitting near the edge of the pool a young inoffensive man in his late 20’s strikes up a conversation with James. I thought shit; at least one of us is getting laid tonight and probably best it be James given my own dissatisfaction with close proximity to other people at the time. The conversation wears on for about 40 minutes. Some asshole from inside the belly of the hyper-modern calamity that is the house begins to gregariously announce that the party would end soon-an obvious ploy for bringing those extra performers such as ourselves to a quick exit stage right in a play that would simply turn into some rotten pile of festering and fornicating flesh. It was clear James, Sam and I would need to catch the uber back to our various locations.
The boy, who had been speaking to James, suggested that we continue the party. We would need to drive about 20 minutes away to their place outside the city where their friends already had another party in progress. Feeling warm and open to suggestion, James and I were on it. “Sam”? “Dunno guys, where is it”?
Sam gave us a quizzical look that for various reasons that we did not understand, but the boy seemed decent and was actually funny in his patter, though we came to decide his mode was not predatory. “Guys, I have to be up with Saoirse (her daughter) early, so you guys go ahead, I’ll take a cab back”. Goodbye’s were said and Sam left, leaving James and I with …what the fuck was his name…probably also best left with memory carried on with the plan making. The boy’s mates show up and announce they are going to get the car. We leave the hill house and pile in a car of an unspecified make, but of no real economic value. “We might need to get some beer at the early serving gas station”. …”Uh…huh”? “It’s too late for most places, but there is a gas station on the way that opens soon and we can get some beer”. At this point James and I, besides being a bit tipsy, are obnoxiously charged with consumable power and the idea feels right. “How do we get back though”…”no problem someone will be heading back tomorrow or you can taxi it”. Sounded like a plan, the car starts and we sit giddily waiting to carry on.
After about 40 minutes pass, James, in the back seat…”Is it close”? “Yeah, we should be at the gas station in 20 minutes to grab some beer and head to the house”. 30 minutes pass and we indeed get to the gas station, the promised land of shitty watered down American beer. After waiting another 30 minutes in the car, the guys come back with 6 cases of bullshit swill and we are on our way. After another 20 minutes in the car, we pull off the freeway into a quaint (if by enhanced night vision standard) residential neighborhood. I turn around and shoot James a look in the backseat. He half returns it to me from behind his open beverage, not sure of why anything exciting could possibly exist here. Its the kind of neighborhood you see in soap operas or the rare topographic outside shot of 90s pornography where the hidden anxieties and undercurrents of perverse play lie just beyond the banality of the white garage door.
“It was actually 120 bucks, but it’s covered”. The actual insult of the whole experience was that this fucking restaurant in this plastic sun-drowned town had asked for 120 bucks for the insult to my manhood. “Let’s order an uber”. Night passes”
We finally pull into the driveway (already nearly full) with similar cars of similar economic status. The house is a non-descript bungalow with a wooden fence that we have to knock on until a man comes out to open it. We are lead around the side of the garage to the back door of it. We enter. The garage has been converted into some sort of spectacle ranging from a exaggerated DJ booth, red and blue lit from overhead lights to what looks like might double as a meth lab. We are led into the side room of the main house after giving salutations to the two DJs, both in their late 40s, early 50s who simply nod, pound house music and smoke spliffs. Led into the completely normal second living room of the house, the driver, our new friend tells us to make ourselves comfortable. We are apprehensive, but also incredibly high, so we go for it. Walking into the main living room, which is also darkly lit, we make out a number of figures within perched on the outdated 80’s sofa, but also a Korean-American dude, also on DJ decks playing perhaps a more spirited version of Lil John and DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What”. From this perspective we notice there are people sat outside who are illuminated by the oncoming dawn light. Within seconds a next to naked 18-ish year old girl runs in from the side room cavorting with two gropey dudes in the Dj Snake room before running up to me to ask who I was, before assessing me and drunkenly indicating “oh, you’re nice”, then runs back to the next room. James and I are still a little out of it and not quite sure where this is all heading.
Strangers wade in and wade out. We decide to meet the people on the patio who seem inhospitable to say the least. They are friends and clearly do not want more friends, especially foreigners. We head back inside, feeling dejected, but not giving a total fuck. We enter the second living room to a group of men standing over the half-naked girl who looks somewhat Pulp Fiction comatose. At this point, things are definitely awkward. We cannot figure out what is going to happen next. A rather buff dude, who has been giving me hate eye since I stepped in the door, picks the slackened girl up over his shoulder, cave man-like and takes her away. The others follow, and I can’t shake the feeling that this whole thing is about to go pear-shaped. The sound of the girl screaming ensues and James and I follow the sound to see the previously mentioned men blocking the door of the bathroom and the shower running, though we cannot see much else. Minutes pass and the girl walks out trembling and wet. Not good with the drugs at 18, are ya?
The night is beginning to take on the shape of day and James and I try to find a way to get back to LA. We speak to the boy who had given us the promise of a ride back reveals his contention that everyone is too wasted to be inclined towards our return, but indicates not to worry as someone would be driving back AFTER THE WEEKEND WAS OVER, meaning Monday. Flight buttons are ringing loud enough in both of our ears for others to hear them. James and I shoot each other furtive and strained glances and both walk separate ways only to reconvene in the smaller and now empty side room. “What the fuck”? “Mannn, I can’t stay here much longer”. Sniff. Snort. Whirrrrr. “Dude, we gotta figure this out”. Sniff. Snort. Whir. “Lets get some air out back and decide what to do because I reckon we have about 2 hours before everything wears off and were up shit creek with zero paddle”.
We head out back only to find we are not going to be alone. A new player enters the game and immediately takes a fancy to James, much to the annoyance of James who is not finding him a rewarding suitor. Also, included in this scene is a Jacuzzi with a couple in it. There is a large man, shirt off and full of tattoos that when I appraise of their nature, I find them a bit worrisome in a racial intolerance sort of way, though his partner is crime is a girl from Singapore who immediately beckons us towards inside the Jacuzzi. At this point, I am at odds with being semi-attracted to her form, but completely discombobulated by the environment and her face, which seems to shift under a floating pattern of grimace, anger, joy and desire. The large man appraises us with a watchful eye, which seems to be saying, “Get in the fucking Jacuzzi, fucking NOW”. James and I sit un-moveable on the garden patio brick. The clattering mouth of James’ attractor murmurs at his ear and the “night” is wearing off quickly into further unease. We sit. We fade. The girl again beckons us from the Jacuzzi in broken English as she turns on the garden hose at the edge of the water and the large man’s face lights up in a malevolent grin as she drags the house under the surface of the water and he, like a 13 year old girl goes “oooooohhhh baby hahahahah”. The hose re-emerges and he turns with his hairy back towards her as she runs the cold water over his hairy tattooed mass. James and I look on befuddled. She takes the hose down his back and back under the water’s edge to regions unspecified, but clearly indicated by behavior. Again, we are beckoned in. The only thing I can do besides show my pressing anxiety is to say, “Dude, I’m outta beer, shall we grab another? You guys need anything”…no answer, but further hose movements ensue. We stumble back inside and decide to make a run for it. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being in a place like this. It may not sound ominous or perilous by any degree, but between the consumables and fear that you won’t be able to return to Los Angeles for days on end does produce a certain special kind of need to get the fuck out asap feeling.
We head into the house, decide that we will make a break for it as dawn rises. We ask the boy who brought us about options to which he has become unhelpful and tells us just to stay. A feeling of declared entrapment ensues. The rather buff dude also concludes, again half-menacingly that we should stay. His evil eye is not fading one bit and now I feel like were about to get GACY-IED in Fullerton.
We wander around not saying a word, trying to smile at the zombies within the house. Looking at James, I nod towards the garage door. We head out the side, past the house djs still at the tables under the blue and red lights in the garage/meth lab out the side door, unlock it quietly and head briskly down the drive and into the residential streets without so much as a clue as to where we are going. The consumables are wearing off, the hangover is wearing in and the warm break of a late August day is about us. “Dude, I’ve got an hour until I pass out at best”, I mutter to James. I can tell by his eyes and nodding that he might have more or possibly a little less.
We walk down one street across another in the silent morning hours trying to find a main street to find a gas station. Both of our phones are dead and the thought of being stuck in the time warp of Fullerton is pressing on us. We wander. We pass a lady jogging, age- maybe in her 50’s. “Excuse me”. I try to stop her for directions. She ignores our collective state and us. I yell “HEYYYY, Can you point us to a gas station”? Annoyed, she points us back the way we came and tells us the next station is maybe 30 minutes on foot before jogging on. At this point, I am so fatigued that I cannot even tell her “thanks” in my rudest voice. We head back and press past the point which leads back to the Fullerton death house down the hill and we can almost see the gas station when we notice a car driving on the other side of the road with the rather buff guy from the party and two male friends. They seem to be looking at or for us. They do not stop due to the pressures of the mounting morning traffic, but I feel their insistence and glares as if we made off with the meth and they know about it.
We head hurriedly on. We get to the small gas station and try to speak to the Korean attendant whose English is worse than the girl from the Jacuzzi. We tell him we need a taxi. I sit down unable to move next to a gas pump while James, with the last of his strength manages to get the guy to call us a taxi, which happens to be his cousin. He tells us that it will be 45 dollars, which we luckily have between us. A small mini-van arrives 20 minutes later as the sun’s heat now confounds our condition to perilous levels. We get in and I pass out in the backseat. About five minutes from Alex’s flat, I awake just in time to notice we are passing the large Scientology building that I can see from her bedroom. We pull in front of the apartment complex and get out just as a loud joyful Colombian marching band plays merrily down the next street. It is some mix of surrealism and lucid dream state. The band is marching and sound of Spanish voices reaches unparalleled levels in my ears, yet knowing I am back and slowly lumbering towards the door, I can only smile.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Gregory Halpern.)