WEST ON BOLOGNE
Alpha 60: “What is your secret? Tell me, Mr. Caution.”
Lemmy Caution: “Something which never changes, day or night. The past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.”
— Alphaville (1965)
‘You get five – minutes – with me / Then I’m off – around – the world’
— The Fall, Zagreb (1990)
“What does it take to change the essence of a man?”
— Forrest Taft, On Deadly Ground (1994)
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As the December dusk started to fall on Zagreb, we set out for Pluto. In fact, we set out from Pluto, with Pluto as our destination, and a return to Pluto our final goal. There are two different Plutos in play here, of course. The Pluto of our starting-point, while canine, is nothing whatsoever to do with Mickey Mouse’s four-legged companion. The Pluto we were heading for is more planetary in nature – or perhaps planetoid, or rather ‘plutoid.’ Six billion miles from the Sun, out there among the lonely ice-dwarfs of the Kuiper Belt and the Scattered Disc, terminology can be tricky.
Zagreb’s quadruped Pluto is represented by a carbon-grey sculptural plaque, set just above head-height on the outside wall of the Oktogon. Precursor of today’s shopping malls, the Oktogon is a small, elegant neoclassical arcade built in the centre of Croatia’s capital at the end of the 19th century, back when this inland mini-metropolis was a provincial capital in the Austro-Hungarian Empire*. The story goes that a dog turned up at the construction site one day, “completely emaciated. The workers, and especially the architect Josip Vancaš, took to the dog immediately, fed him and gave him water. Soon the dog became the construction site’s watch dog, which, apparently was not just a title, because looters came to the site to steal clay used to make pottery from the creek in Ilica. During one of these skirmishes, at the very end of construction, the legend says, Pluto lost his life. Mr Vancaš and the workers, grief- stricken, decided to put up a monument to honour the memory of Pluto forever.” (Gordana Mijatović)
The Pluto carving was displayed inside the Oktogon until 2003, when it was moved to its current location. He now pokes his muzzle playfully, sniffingly out onto Bogovićeva ulica, a wide pedestrian street whose pavement cafés are crowded even in winter. This isn’t the first instance of a public sculpture being relocated to this particular thoroughfare – just a dozen or so yards along the way sits the rather more celebrated Grounded Sun (Prizemljeno Sunce) by Ivan Kožarić (b.1921), a bronze sphere roughly two metres in diameter. Kožarić’s piece was unveiled in 1971 in front of the Croatian National Theatre but, in the sculptor’s words, “it was removed because it was judged a ‘hindrance to traffic’. There are a lot of versions of what exactly happened.”
In 1994, three years after Croatia proclaimed its independence from Yugoslavia, the Grounded Sun was brought out of mothballs and installed on Bogovićeva. And this is when our second Pluto enters the picture. Young artist Davor Preis (b.1966) was debating the meanings of Kožarić’s sphere with his friend Vanja Babić when he had a brainwave. As Babić recalls, “Preis suddenly announced that the Sun should have the planets added to it… ‘The planets ought to be done precisely to scale according to the scale of the sun, and the same goes for their distance,’ he decided. The very next day, armed with a map of Zagreb, compasses, ruler, calculator and the book Guide to the Universe, we negotiated the details in Davor’s sitting room. He authoritatively determined the locations: Mercury should be somewhere on Flower Square, Venus on Jelačić Square, the Earth in Varšavska and Pluto… poor old Pluto ended up on the underpass by the cement works, with a diameter of only three millimetres.”
Preis then went about constructing scale models of the planets in metal and distributing them around the city. The result is entitled Nine Views (Devet pogleda)and has become something of an alt-tourism phenomenon over the decades. It’s even in the current Rough Guide to Croatia, which notes that “the remaining planets are much further out in areas of Zagreb that you wouldn’t normally ever want to visit — culminating with Pluto, in a pedestrian underpass beneath the highway to Samobor. That said, tracing the solar system has become a highly popular form of urban safari.”
The planetary positions of the town are a cultural acupuncture, spots for the treatment of the town. Each planetary station is equally significant. The underpass in Podsused (Pluto), a garage in Siget (Uranus) and the lamp-post in Kozari Bok (Neptune) have become places of cultural significance. Preis’s system equates the nameless paths of unappealing locations and neighbourhoods and the neighbourhoods of the city centre that we know so well. They all have equal value. It is all One. All of it is Zagreb. I’ve never been in Kozari bok. I wander round Kožarić’s Sun every day, pass by Mercury in Margaretska, Venus on Jelačić Square and the Earth in Varšavska. The way to Mars in Tkalčićeva is up now [sic], but you can still get to Jupiter in Vocarska or Saturn in Račićeva. Really one ought to get on the tram and go to Kozari bok and see Neptune. But it is such a way. Screw Neptune. For a beginning.
Me and my fellow-traveller, who we’ll here call Tommy Getto**, were in Zagreb for the Film Mutations (Filmske Mutacije) event, an self-proclaimed “Festival of Invisible Cinema” which this year, its seventh, bore the subtitle Slika Kapital (“image of capital”) and ran from November 25th to December 5th. The bulk of the festival comprised retrospectives for the French filmmakers Guy Debord and Claire Denis, before wrapping with a terrific, benshi-accompanied screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s silent 1934 classic Story of the Floating Weeds on the Thursday night.
Tommy and I weren’t leaving until the Sunday, however, and so had the Friday and Saturday to continue what the festival director Tanja Vrvilo later termed our “parallel adventures” – extra-curricular jaunts and hardcore flânerie inspired by the films of James Benning and Patrick Keiller, and in Zagreb made feasible by the fact that on most days the first festival screenings weren’t until 5pm.
On Monday (the 2nd) we’d taken a one-hour train-ride to the industrial town of Sisak – an unfailingly baffling choice to the big-city slickers of Zagreb, who couldn’t work out why on earth two British visitors would go out of their way to spend time in such a supposedly ‘nondescript’ and notoriously polluted backwater settlement. Suffice to say, Sisak didn’t disappoint. Neither did, four days later, Zagreb’s gloriously unreconstructed, little-known city centre dive-bar Pony Express (Poni Expres) not far from the main train station. But, uh, that’s part of a whole other tale…
I’d stumbled across mention of Preis’s Nine Views online while preparing for my visit to Zagreb, but had never seriously countenanced the idea of the full “safari” to tick off each of the spheres. For some reason it was only Pluto which captured my imagination, perhaps because since the installation was completed the hapless lump of rock had been downgraded from (proper) planet to “dwarf planet.” At a 2006 meeting in Prague of the International Astronomical Union – the organisation which decides such matters – a vote resulted in a “clear majority” for the downgrading proposal. As Mason Inman of National Geographic somewhat airily put it at the time, “a planet has to dominate the neighborhood around its orbit. Pluto has been demoted because it does not dominate its neighborhood. Charon, its large ‘moon,’ is only about half the size of Pluto, while all the true planets are far larger than their moons. In addition, bodies that dominate their neighborhoods, ‘sweep up’ asteroids, comets, and other debris, clearing a path along their orbits. By contrast, Pluto’s orbit is somewhat untidy.”
This led to the tantalising possibility that Preis’s Pluto might now somehow reflect the demotion — would it even be there at all? Then there was the coincidence of the other Pluto, so close to the “sun” – much closer than Preis’s Mercury, indeed – which sealed the deal. Tommy and I paid a visit to the faithful hound around 4.30pm, then took to short hop to the city’s main east-west thoroughfare, Ilica, and started heading due west. A quick online search had provided the name of the street where we would find the other Pluto, Aleja Bologne (‘Bologna Alley’). But whereas all the other planets had precise street numbers provided, Pluto’s location was merely identified as “underpass.” How many underpasses could there be on this Aleja Bologne, anyway? And as Ilica turned into Aleja Bologne at the edge of the city centre proper, there should be no great difficulty tracking down the ex-planet…
Getting to the end of Ilica proved to be no easy matter. This is one of the longest streets in Zagreb, running three and a half miles from the main square, taking the walker through grandly-scaled but (largely) crumbling streets built during the Habsburg era, shops giving way to residential zones amid the imposingly blocky former barracks which line Ilica just before the bus and tram station at Črnomerec, Zagreb’s traditional limit. We walked past Črnomerec stream, for centuries the city’s border – there was a toll gate very nearby – without realising this significance, striding on confidently if slightly vaguely in what we took to be a Bologne-ward direction.
I later learned the origin of this Bologne moniker. Formerly Štajerska cesta, it was renamed in 1970 following Zagreb’s twinning with the Italian city – a union which took place in May 1964 when Bologna’s mayor was the long-serving Communist, Giuseppe Dozza (in office from 1945-1966) and Croatia was part of Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia. That particular year in Zagreb is one of particular ill-fame, unfortunately, as in October some 40,000 citizens (around 10% of the population at the time) were left homeless after catastrophic floods which inundated a third of the city and killed 17. In the intervening 50 years Zagreb has picked up some illustrious twins, including London, Buenos Aires, St Petersburg, Shanghai and Vienna. But bearing in mind the galactic visions of Messrs Kožarić and Preis, the most appropriate sister-city for Zagreb is now arguably the eponymous location of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965), the “capital city of a distant planet.”
Street signs become a bit sparse the further one walks along Ilica, and Tommy and I – proceeding without the benefit of maps, smart-phones or GPS – had to seek occasional counsel from (invariably friendly) locals to ensure we were on the right path. I had, for some reason, presumed that the “Pluto underpass” wouldn’t be far beyond the Črnomerec station, and so we paid particular attention to various candidates around this part of town – not realising we were still some way from Aleja Bologne itself.
One of these underpasses went below a railway line, but this official route was, we spotted, less popular than the more direct option of cutting across the tracks themselves. Darkness had now fallen, and we saw perhaps half a dozen folk nipping over the line before a freight train hove into view. A particular fan of Benning’s railroad epic RR, Tommy produced his digital camera and snapped away as the mute behemoth lumbered past for destinations unknowable (“we could hop it!” … “It’s going slow enough… Shall we?”) A few minutes later, as we observed from a hundred or so yards away, an obviously inebriated local staggered up and across the line – only to be intercepted by a railway employee decked out in a fluorescent tabard. The air was suddenly charged with a certain suspense, as the situation seemed primed for some homicidal outburst – were we about to witness some savage malfeasance conducted under cover of darkness, the assailant unaware of our voyeuristic presence? Nah – the track-man simply helped the tottering drunk on his way, and Tommy and I suddenly felt rather less like Jeff Bridges and John Heard at the start of Cutter’s Way.
We nevertheless used the underpass – conspicuously Pluto-less – to get back to our correct route, striding on towards the seemingly ever-distant Aleja Bologne. As the miles disappeared underfoot, we left behind the city’s buildings and entered suburban, even semi-rural areas, the main dual carriageway to our left, and beyond it the railway line. Benning remained in our thoughts — he had been mooted as a potential guest for Mutations 2014, and Tommy and I mused on how we could show him Pluto… once we had found it ourselves on this elaborate reconnoitre. Perhaps Benning could even do a sequel to his motorbike road-movie North On Evers entitled West On Ilica (for me, West On Bologne has more of a ring.) There’s no doubt that Benning would appreciate the full range of urban, semi-urban, quasi-urban and peri-urban corners of Zagreb we ended up seeing along the way – though he’d probably prefer to discover these during daylight hours, the Wisconsin-born avant-garde maestro never having been one for night-shooting.
When we finally did find the accursed Aleja (like Affleck and Damon in Gerry, we’d lost track of time by this point… “now it’s dark”), our investigation of the many underpasses began, in suitably diligent and determined fashion. All well-lit and (to this pair of urban-raised north-east-Englanders) decidedly unintimidating, the pedestrian passageways provided a range of variations upon a theme of graffiti-strewn semi-squalor. We got to know the graf-trends pretty well: as usual in Zagreb, about half of the scrawls and designs related in some way to local football team Dinamo, with particular venom directed at the stunningly unpopular current owner Zdravko Mamić (I can’t remember ever seeing so much public ad homimem vitriol on display in any other city.)
There was time for detours, of course, as we’d long since decided to dedicate this particular Saturday night to our inadvertently epic urban exploration, plugging on into the west towards where the sun – the real one – had sunk among the thick late-autumn clouds a couple of hours before. A pop into an over-lit petrol station provided strong echoes of Philip K Dick’s Time Out of Joint (the chapter where Ragle Gumm stumbles into the roadside diner), an energy boost (chocolate bar), welcome confirmation that we were still on Aleja Bologne, and what I took to be a positive omen. The PA system was blaring out Of the Night – British band Bastille’s re-imagining of the 1993 dancefloor classic by Corona, The Rhythm of the Night. We’d heard the latter at the end of Beau Travail at the Mutations festival just two nights before, and, resisting the urge to spin some sharp Denis Lavant moves within the confines of the cluttered aisles, I interpreted this as some kind of subliminal encouragement from Ms Denis that we were close to our goal.
Cinematic associations abounded at nearly every turn during our expedition, not surprising given mine and Tommy’s cinephile bent and loquacious volubility. A pair of churches over beyond the railway line attracted my attention at one point and the settlement proved easily accessible via yet another underpass – Pluto-less, needless to say. I was later to identify the town as Stenjevec, notable for being a fairly small and quiet spot dominated by a rather large, impressive church. At 8pm on a Saturday night, however, the place was almost entirely deserted – particularly eerie for anyone who’s seen Christophe Gans’ bonkers but atmospheric Silent Hill (2006). We didn’t linger too long…
A little ways further on, after yet another planetless underpass, we decided to seek help on two fronts. Tommy texted some of his pals back home to see if they were near computers and might be able to come up with a more specific location for Preis’s elusive spherelet. I took a more old-fashioned approach, and knocked on the window of a small kiosk selling newspapers, magazines, sweets and drinks – these kiosks are handy relics of the Yugoslav times which you still find all over the place in Croatia. Even out here on the outskirts, with the highway accompanied every hundred yards or so by some huge, banal roadside advertisement (as everywhere in the West these days, advertising not so much goods or events as the concept of advertising itself.)
A young couple sat chatting behind the perspex, and after I established that they spoke some English, I told them in a matter-of-fact manner, that we were “looking for Pluto.”
“You mean — in the sky?!” responded the bloke.
“No, down here on Earth.”
“Is it a bar, a nightclub?”
Mentioning the Preis installation seemed to ring some kind of bell, and the inevitable smartphone (for the 21st-century directions-seeker, much more bane than blessing) was quickly produced.
“You should try here,” said our new chum, his index-finger hovering over a particular building on the screen’s mini-map. “It’s, how you say in English… loony bin.”
I’m not sure if this was intended as a dry insult or a genuine attempt to help – let’s err on the side of charity. In any case, we ignored his well-meant suggestion and kept on and on Aleja Bologne, our hopes rising and falling with each new underpass we came spotted. One of these, actually a tunnel in a complicated road-junction, seemed particularly promising, as well as having a certain bleak, concretey allure of its own – Tommy, whipping out his camera, detected a Michael Mann vibe. By this stage we’d realised that Preis’s Pluto, since it was proportional in size to the Grounded Sun, might not really be a “sphere” as such at all – and so we were assiduous in scanning every possible cranny and wall-space. Or so we thought…
Perhaps half an hour later, having crossed and recrossed Aleja Bologne by every underpass, we came almost literally to the end of the road. Bologne continued tantalisingly on before us, but without any pedestrian means of following it, and seemingly no more underpasses. Later, on a map, I realised we were only a couple of hundred feet from the city’s official border: the Sava river, Zagreb’s main watercourse, which would have been flowing quietly on in the dark towards Sisak and Jasenovac, on and on before disappearing into the mighty Danube at Belgrade.
We’d had no luck with the UK-based computer-accessing pals, and so were by this stage resigned to “failure” – though the experience of seeing so many different sides of Zagreb, so many incidental pleasures and unlikely, untouristy sights, rendered our walk (by this stage over four hours long) a success by any measure. Spotting signs of another village around the corner, we headed away from Bologne towards what I know now was the district of Podsused, and found cosy refuge – it wasn’t a chilly night, but far from warm either – in the ersatz Oirishness of ‘Green Pub’ on Podsusedski Square, a surprisingly busy spot in such a ‘far-flung’ place.
We sipped hot coffee (just under £1 a cup), watching one of the pub’s numerous televisions – was that a weirdly black-haired, permatanned Michael Caine up there, looking like Max Headroom’s dodgy uncle? Bemusement and cinephile speculation ensued… until Steven Seagal hove into view with Alaskan wilderness behind his beefy shoulders: On Deadly Ground! A good portent, or a bad one? By this stage, we were beyond such mantic speculations. No word from Britain, no clue on the ground. Should we double back our steps, re-investigating each underpass again?!
As we weighed the possibilities, one eye on the clock – it was around 9pm at this point – I noticed that the pub’s music system was operated by the shaven-headed barman using a laptop computer rigged up to a monitor. As he fiddled with the mouse, I spotted certain logos on the screen… The internet! Could we, should we…? It felt like cheating, but after conferring with Tommy and after asking the (mercifully fluent-in-English) barman I was tapping away at the keyboard.
Wikipedia yielded a page for Nine Views and, a click or two away, an actual map showing the precise location of Pluto – Pluton in Croatian – officially 7.6km from the Grounded Sun. I beckoned the barman over.
“How far away is this?”
“Hmmmm. You are in car, yes?”
“Uh, no, we’ve walked here from… the centre of Zagreb.”
“You are not normal.”
(Ideal retort to this would have been Lemmy Caution’s line from Alphaville: “I refuse to become what you call normal.”)
“Walking, it’s maybe half an hour,” confided barman. We were there in less than 20 minutes – the ‘Michael Mann’ underpass! A photo online had revealed a metal plaque roughly the size of smartphone, affixed to one of the underpass’s concrete pillars. I spotted it first, running across the roadway – not many cars passing at this time of night – to a narrow walkway, maybe a foot wide, adjoining the pillars. I touched it – with the hand that had touched the hound, back on that long-forsaken planet called civilisation.
Pluto had been found. Or, in fact, not. The “planet” itself, all 3mm diameter of it, some kind of miniature ball-bearing, was missing, had been chiselled off. (“Alongside Grounded Sun, Zagreb has now acquired its Grounded Planets. At least for a time. Dilapidation, in the form of the human desire for destruction, will certainly work its way” – Vanja Babić.) Removed by Preis? Some miscreant? Or an assiduous representative of the IAU? By this point we neither knew nor cared, overcome with tiredness-zapping elation as we explored the underpass in a kind of triumphant daze.
A sobering note was injected by a small bouquet of flowers against a wall, marking the site of a death… Another Pluto pilgrim, whose end had been unluckier than ours? Tommy Getto and I ate an orange each, shook hands, took photos. We now somehow grasped the ungraspable scale of the solar system. We felt like we had walked it, every inch of it. And then set back off towards the lights of the city, arrow-straight eastward and double-quick time all the way.
From Pluto back to Pluto the dog it took less than two hours. We got back to Bogovićeva before 11pm. I later worked out that the distance from Green Pub to the Oktogon is 11.3km each way, 22.6km altogether – or a fraction over 14 miles, as the crow flies. But who flies like a crow, anyway? Who wants to dominate their neighbourhood when instead “somewhat untidy” progress can be made? Pluto looked on, impassive but welcoming, from his unchisellable perch on the Oktogon wall. In the Zagreb night we touched his tail, for luck.
21st December 2013
*[Zagreb] has its own quality. It has no grand river, it is built up to no climax; the hill the old town stands on is what the eighteenth century used to call ‘a moderate elevation.’ It has few very fine buildings except the Gothic Cathedral, and that has been forced to wear an ugly nineteenth-century overcoat. But Zagreb makes from its featureless handsomeness something that pleases like a Schubert song, a delight that begins quietly and never definitely ends.
We believed we were being annoyed by the rain that first morning we walked out into it, but eventually we recognized we were as happy as we have been walking in sunshine through really beautiful cities. It has, moreover, the endearing characteristic noticeable in many French towns, of remaining a small town when it is in fact quite large. A hundred and fifty thousand people live in Zagreb, but from the way gossips stand in the street it is plain that everybody knows who is going to have a baby and when. This is a lovely spiritual victory over urbanization.
— Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941)
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** Tommy Getto is known on Earth as Michael Pattison. His (subjective and therefore highly unreliable) account of the night in question is available here. He took all the photos above, except the ones of the Grounded Sun, Pony Express, Lemmy Caution, Denis Lavant and Michael Caine. And of course the one of Tommy Getto himself (just under my byline) – I took that one. And this: