Whatever else we might say about the crooked path of American history, it seems beyond doubt that the growth of the continent (and, indeed, of the nation) has tended inexorably westward, away from the Old World and toward the New, so that if the east coast is indelibly connected to the past, building on a legacy of cosmopolitan habits and relations, the west is (or was, at least) wide open, a place where fortunes might be gained and lost, where a man could make something of himself, regardless of who he was or where he came from. The history of California perhaps most exemplifies this trend – along with the cost of sustaining the restless energies that drove it. In a sense, then, it is no accident Gregory Halpern chose ZZYZX as the title for this work. It is not only the unpronounceable name of a western town development, purported to be the last word in the English language, perhaps little more than the fever-dream of some long-forgotten speculator, but it is also a point of linguistic exhaustion, where there are no more resources to play with, not even words.[i] It is a fitting, if admittedly rather oblique epitaph for the human and material consequences of America’s failed utopian premise.
Halpern’s California is an idea, a set of experiences, rather than an actual place. One would be hard pressed to identify landmarks or get any concrete sense of its geography from the pictures. This seems like a deliberate strategy to suggest the dream-like quality of the place, where even its physical outlines are open to question, its identity a continual work-in-progress, lacking any real centre. The topography is all about movement, pictured in the form of streets and freeways, even the repeated motif of stairs; or, conversely, of arresting movement – we also see a lot of fences and barriers, shuttered buildings. The result is a kind of stasis, tendencies that pull is opposite directions and get nowhere. This is, of course, not a literal commentary of the conditions of the place, such as those that define the regulation of its public spaces and so on, but is rather about using its built fabric as a way of reflecting the kind of experience it produces, which is, in turn, the consequence of forces at play in the wider social sphere. The pictures are a metaphorical recounting of those forces. But this social landscape is also fundamentally an affective one, as it defines how we relate to ourselves and to others. The work operates, then, on the level of feeling, on an intuitive sense of how one moment connects to another, and also on the very real dilemmas that underlay the social framework – even as they are furthered by its inadequacies.
The book has its own kind of movement too, out of the desert, into the city and on to the sea, tracing the historical expansion that preceded it. From the outset we are introduced to a setting, light blasted and stark, along with a cast of characters to populate it, beginning with a man who holds a small metal globe in his eye socket, faintly reflecting back the landscape that surrounds him. Perhaps he is a stand-in for the photographer himself, whose singular eye fulfils much the same function, so that this picture also clues us into the fundamental subjectivity of the narrative, which is surely unfolding in the confines of one eye, one point of view; nothing here seems intended to be definitive, and this mood of ambiguity is perfectly suited to the territory that is being crossed – and indeed, imagined – in the work. But even as its trajectory becomes apparent, the narrative still takes a decidedly episodic approach, joining together people and places as if the journey we go on (with Halpern) is following its own logic in each particular moment, outside of the destination itself. This makes sense for a place that was constructed piecemeal, a history and a culture formed from whatever was easily to hand, a notion that is alluded to in a number of subtle ways, such as the cobbled together layers of white-painted boards covering up an empty shop front. No-one and nothing stays very long.
The quality of light is another defining feature of the pictures, but even this tends to extremes, its dazzling brightness exposing every vulnerability of Halpern’s subjects, or its sudden lack immuring them in darkness, which is broken only by the searchlight of a police helicopter or the glow of a raging forest fire; shades in between, though soft and golden, are occasional and seem to pass quickly. The contrast between these opposing states only serves to make the darkness seem darker and the light more painfully lucid. There are no crowds here either, mostly just individuals, alone and isolated. This is perhaps symptomatic of a society than can no longer sustain the bonds that once defined it, or that never even formed them in the first place. And yet, what we call ‘society’ is in fact the sum of those bonds, so the lack of them helps to explain the ruined landscape that we see here (if not what caused the ruin to begin with). The animals Halpern encounters are also often alone and vulnerable, at odds with the urban setting in which they find themselves, cut-off from contact with the natural world even as it presses in on the edges of the city.
In fact, Halpern spends almost as much time observing what lies beyond the urban centres as he does life on the streets, in the process emphasising the way in which these places seem to have been erected haphazardly on top of what is basically an inhospitable wilderness, which often breaks through the surface, or necessitates an uneasy accommodation, such as with the several rows of pink terraced houses seemingly built into a cliff. It’s hard not to feel these dwellings are on borrowed time, a flimsy charade compared to the rock that appears to enfold them. What stands out above all is the seemingly provisional quality of the places that Halpern has photographed, which is perhaps a measure of how the society they support is, in itself, a somewhat tentative arrangement, without the deep roots of a long, shared history and only the semblance of a ‘community’ structure. It is the sense that, for all the energy and enterprise they supposedly represent, the culmination of a centuries-long trend in national development, these places are only sketchily outlined on the landscape, clinging to the present for whatever little can be had out of it, with no past and no future, just quick-fixes and motel living.
Many of Halpern’s subjects are also people on the margins of society, with few resources and seemingly little control over how they are represented in the pictures, a fact that has not always been adequately addressed in the conversation around the work. However beautifully realised it might be – and it is – there remains something dissonant about the idea of real poverty and suffering being aestheticized for the delectation of an ‘enlightened’ audience. It is not the case that these people can’t be photographed or that they themselves can’t engage with the process in a conscious way; though often startling in their intimacy it is likely that most of these pictures are the result of some kind of conversation between the photographer and the people photographed. But this engagement, on the part of the photographer and his subjects, is not really made explicit enough in the work. Similarly, the decision to concentrate so much on the lower-end of the socio-economic scale without providing much sense of context for the disparity of wealth (and race, for that matter) at its root risks naturalising the situations that are depicted, suggesting they are without a very real set of causes. Of course, there is no obligation for an artist to provide ‘balanced’ commentary and Halpern is hardly sugar-coating the issues at stake, but not to try find some way to acknowledge his own position is, at the very least, naïve.
As a result, some aspects of the work – and some images – tend to feel a bit forced. One of the most telling examples in this respect shows a calloused, grimy hand holding an iPhone that displays the Warner Bros. logo on its screen, a neat summary of what it seems like the work should be about – the contrast of reality and illusion, the atomizing effects of contemporary life – that actually ends up breaking the spell that has been so successfully established elsewhere, not least because it relies for its effect on a symbolism that is in many ways external to the work itself. Another image of an African-American woman looking through some kind of eye-piece or optical finder is rather too pointedly followed by an image of what is presumably a police helicopter sweeping the darkness below. This stands out as a rare misstep in what is an otherwise accomplished narrative. More successful are the repeated references to mark-making and writing, tracing an arc in the pictures from that descends from an opaque but still somewhat recognisable reference to the systems of the Kabbalah that in a later image is rendered as a crude mess of crayon scribbles. Language and sense, the very means of social exchange, seem to have broken down.
This is clearly a subjective work, then, and one whose existence appears to depend on the idea that the social and historical forces now shaping the world we live in can only be approached in a round-about way; they are simply too intangible to be seen directly, even though the pressure of those same forces has resulted in a painfully riven social landscape, the majority of its inhabitants adrift in the shadow of inaccessible wealth. If the West (and California, in particular) is America’s Promised Land, the end of its wandering, both practically and, as it were, spiritually, then the failures encapsulated by the manifest impossibility of that utopian aspiration can’t help but undermine the coherence of its national identity. Halpern has witnessed the consequences of this fracturing at ground level and he has fashioned a powerful account of its legacy, by no means confined to the recent present, but stemming from years and decades of public need not being met, of suffering not assuaged, of favouring the pathologies of private profit over the common good. He does not pretend to offer solutions for these problems, or even a concrete diagnosis of what they might be, but the sense that something is wrong with the world he depicts is obvious, the sense, perhaps, that some once-vital component of our humanity has been recklessly squandered.
Gregory Halpern, ZZYZX, Mack, 2016.
[i] Allegedly pronounced zye-zix, but you can make up your own mind about that. The derivation of the name is mentioned nowhere in the book, which seems a like a bit of a missed opportunity, but presumably arises out of desire to not identify the work too closely with any single location.