A European Capital of Culture in 2020, the gritty Croatian port of Rijeka is sparking a buzz a artistic activity.
Tanja Blašković simply can’t get enough of plastic waste. Her mother brings the thick white sheets household appliances are delivered in back from work, friends supply plastic bags. In her work, the Croatian artist recycles the material that was long seen as the symbol of a bright new consumer world but is now considered one of the biggest environmental pests. In Blašković’s hands, plastic is turned into extraordinary female portraits.
Blašković, 26, has a studio in a concrete block, once a liquor factory, on the waterfront in Rijeka. Chipboard panels lean against the walls here, naked light bulbs dangle from the high ceilings, and milky light washes through the tall windows. Blašković, wearing a dress and boots, is cutting colored plastic bags into narrow strips – these are her “paints.” She lays tracing paper over snippets and sandwiches them between plastic sheets to make her “canvas.” Her “paintbrush” is a hot iron, under which each bag melts differently; every time she applies heat, the picture Blašković is working on changes its appearance. The red cheeks of the woman melt into the pink skin, blue and yellow locks of hair fuse together. These layer portraits are Blašković’s very own style. Next year, when the city becomes “Rijeka 2020,” a European Capital of Culture, “the focus will at last be on the art we are creating.”
The city has a creative drive capable of producing great things say many local artists, possibly because the city is a melting pot, almost a layer portrait itself. Over the centuries, Rijeka was part of Hungary, under Austrian rule in the Habsburg Empire, belonged to Italy and, between 1947 and 1991, was part of Yugoslavia. Art Nouveau and Neo-Renaissance buildings stand alongside Socialist-era concrete blocks; restored houses next to crumbling semi-ruins, while overgrown industrial relics bear testimony to a more prosperous past. Burnished yachts bob in the water a mere 100 meters from the container port; the old villas that cling to the slopes overlooking the city are themselves overshadowed by drab tower blocks, while the Učka Mountains form a protective backdrop in the distance.
Rijeka, population 130 000, is the third-largest city in Croatia, its most important port, and the eternal rival of neighboring Trieste, which has not yet been a European Capital of Culture. Rijeka will be receiving around 30 million euros for the year, the lion’s share of which will come from the city itself and Croatia, and ten percent from the EU. By the end of the year, an old sugar and cigarette factory will be renovated to house the city museum. In 2017, the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art moved into the Benčić complex, a former motorcycle factory and foundry. Down in the harbor, the rusting Galeb, a yacht once owned by Yugoslavia’s founder, Josip Broz Tito, is being turned into a museum ship. The 2020 program is packed with 450 cultural events, and the city is counting on collaborations with a community of artists, many of whom have in the past been tempted by the lure of the capital, Zagreb, or even Berlin – but where the competition is tougher and there are more creatives jostling for attention, funding and buyers.
For Blašković, solidarity is what makes Rijeka different. “In Zagreb everyone puts themselves first; here, we put the community first,” she says. “And in the end, everywhere is basically the same. Instead of running away, it’s better to stay and help shape a place.” Last year, Blašković and other artists hung up mirrors in a gloomy corner of the city to bring light into the darkness, planted gardens and sprayed murals on walls. She also holds workshops in kindergartens and plans to transform plastic waste into artistic artifacts – for her, working with her favorite material is also a strong eco-statement.
Photographer Stephany Stefan, 27, once left for the U.S. and dived into Atlanta’s vibrant subculture. Then six years ago, she needed “a break” and flew home. Initially, she felt lost in Rijeka; many of her friends had no faith in the power of art; the first generation after the Balkan conflict of the early 1990s wanted to “become something sensible, like lawyers.” The youngsters moved to bigger cities and forgot their roots. “Now, they want to reclaim them,” says Stefan. “After my return, I felt instinctively that this is where we belonged, that we could make things better if we joined forces.” She set up a students’ art collective, which organized exhibitions and developed netiquette guidelines. Now, as well as working as a commercial photographer, she gives photography classes, sings, composes world music and performs as a fire artist. Stefan spoke Italian before she could speak her true mother tongue because during the Yugoslav war, her parents didn’t want her to grow up with Croatian television, so she watched cartoons on Italian TV. Her art, she explains, is also a search for identity.
There is one spot in Rijeka that symbolizes change: the old Hartera paper mill. The floorboards gape, the concrete steps look like they’ve been gnawed. Through the tall, dirty windows, dim light falls on the remains of the industrial complex. Paper was produced here for 150 years until the factory closed in 2002. Scattered letters document its bankruptcy. Stefan has a vision for the ruin: “I envisage an artists’ commune, with bars, studios, and a hostel,” she says as she clambers over rubble and debris.
For now, the huge complex is still derelict. Life in Rijeka is often a process of planning, and weighing opportunities against reality. The city was prepared to transform the paper mill into an arts venue, but its ownership proved to be a stumbling block: Like many other properties, there’s no one single owner to sell it to the city. Instead, there are dozens, and many have moved away, disappeared or died. Even if the city were to find all of them, it would all ultimately boil down to a question of cash, even with Rijeka 2020 funding, as the renovation would consume far more than originally budgeted.
In Zagreb, people think of themselves first; in Rijeka, community comes first
One person who is constantly leaving and returning is Zoran Badurina, the city’s top musician. Just back from a tour of the U.S. with his indie rock band, Jonathan, Badurina welcomes us in the red glow of Zivot, his club. On weekdays, the place is deserted, but at weekends it’s the epicenter of the city’s nightlife. Badurina doesn’t just want to entertain his hometown, he wants to provide musical education. He first appeared on stage at the age of 12 with a hip-hop performance. Now, at 39, his temples are streaked with silver. “Ask me about present-day Rijeka and I’ll tell you what it used to be like,” he says, back when he was 21 and opened two clubs at once, and the city greedily soaked up everything the punk activists came up with. Back then, Rijeka seemed like New York to him, says Badurina: a city with 100 bands, a party in a different location every day of the week. He would love to recapture some of that spirit and hopes that Rijeka 2020 and its funding will succeed in energizing the local scene. When he was young, he recalls, creativity practically smothered the city; it had to shrink to a healthy size. Now, slowly, it is re-emerging.
Ready for Rijeka
As well as tasty craft beers, CukariKafè also serves excellent, strong coffee.
The concept store Croatia in a Box sells regional delicacies and fashion by local designers.
The seaside resort Opatija and Krk Island are just a 20-minute drive away.
Hotel Jadran nestles in the cliffs on the Mediterranean: All the rooms have a sea view.