The first Industrial Art Biennial, “Utopia = Reality,” opened in Labin, Croatia, March 2. This was the first such venture in the former coal-mining town situated in the Istrian peninsula, at the head of the Adriatic Sea. With its main source of livelihood now defunct (the last mine closed in 1989), the region has been searching for new ways to sustain itself, and like other such places throughout the world, it has turned to art and local history (including the restoration of the mines to create a multilevel underground city).
Celebrating industry, the opening ceremonies of the biennial marked the 95th anniversary of the very short-lived Labin Republic—the result of a 1921 Spartacus-like uprising in which the town’s miners revolted against the Fascists and declared an independent state. In attendance at the biennial was the president of Croatia, the governor of Istria, the mayor of Labin, a raft of government officials, and the two curators of the exhibition, Lucrezia De Domizio Durini from Italy and Branko Franceschi, a native son and director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Split. It was held in the town’s Civic Center, the former headquarters of the miners, the facade of which supports an enormous mural outlining Labin’s story and features the hugely smiling, soot-smudged face of an unidentified miner.
The Civic Center is also the site for the works of 16 Croatian artists, selected by Franceschi. These cleave to the theme of industry and economics. Minute of Silence (2012–13), a striking, wraparound five-channel video installation by Nadija Mustapic and Toni Mestrovic, immerses viewers in the culture of shipyards. Domizio Durini dedicated her project, complete with a tree planting, to the galvanizing spirit of Joseph Beuys (1921–86), with whom she and her late husband, the photographer Baron Giuseppe (Buby) Durini, were closely associated. The works of the other artists were chosen with Beuysian principles in mind, although their relationship to social, environmental, and educational issues is not always evident. At another space in the Civic Center complex, La Difesa della Natura (1972–85), dominated by photographs of Beuys taken by Buby Durini, reprises the German artist’s ethos best and is one of the biennial’s highpoints.
The remaining projects are scattered throughout Labin, appearing in various public spaces: a library, food market, bank, middle school, park, music school, factory, the Municipal Museum, and the National Art Gallery. The latter site is the closest to a white cube (not always a negative) and is hung with photographs curated by Giorgio D’Orazio, an Italian critic. One standout is Ricardo Calero’s picture of cast-off, red, Spanish passports shown bobbing over rough blue seas in solidarity with immigrants who have been denied entry into Spain. Overall, the exhibition could have used more thematic focus and installational panache, even if funding was limited. But this is the biennial’s first time out; building on the experience, the next edition will likely be more consistently engaging.