- Beirut's Brood
If evil still exists, it exists solely in the realm of nostalgia.Lawrence Rinder, Art Life
Cornelia Krafft's recent performance, 777, had nothing to do with Beirut's Civil War. At least that is what its participants had hoped. The Austrian installation and performance artist saw the piece in the context of a larger project she has been pursuing for the past year as the Whittlesey Visiting Chair of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Art History at the American University of Beirut. Working with students in her performance art classes, she describes her project as exploring a trajectory "from concepts of jurisdiction to personal morality." Earlier, investigatory works of performance were staged on campus, based on the play Twelve Angry Men. Krafft, a former student of Austrian theatre designer Erich Wonder, and an artist who has taught theatre and film set design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, has produced museum and stage designs, and lectured and exhibited widely in Germany, Austria, Italy, Norway, and Australia. She showed an exquisite eye for the mutable possibilities of degraded space and took a high-stakes gamble when she decided to occupy one of Beirut's overlooked landmarks.
Originally built as a cinema in the 1960s by Lebanese architect Joseph Philippe Karam, the Beirut City Center seemed both an inevitable and impossible place to stage a performance. Variously known by the older generation as The Dome, or The Egg, because of its shape, it had a short life as a theatre and witnessed abominations during the war. Though it sits close to Martyr's Square, on the Green Line that once separated the city's warring militias, it does not draw tourists. Set among parking lots, the landmark barely registers over the din of the city's designer boutiques. Krafft first saw the location in 1995 before the rebuilding of downtown. Even then, she recognized its peculiarity—an elevated, almost droopy, soap-shaped space, with its surface mottled by shelling. It is a cross between the pocked surface of a [End Page 63] planet and the shape of a vehicle that might get you there. It is entered the way sci-fi films depict the access to a spacecraft. As Krafft says: "It's one of the only buildings where you enter and leave centerstage." She adds, "The building itself is a bubble—you're swallowed. Audience and performers are equalized." But to mention a "centerstage" is generous. In fact, what Krafft encountered was an architectural shell that required not only the renting of stage lights, sound equipment, chairs, electrical cords—even the water required for the functioning of the urinals had to be trucked in.
The ambitious development firm Solidere owns the building and gave Krafft full permission to use it. Solidere is responsible for the makeover of downtown Beirut. Gulf countries are fond of the developer's ability to create a "main street" feel from nothing, or from ruins, and Solidere has rebuilt the old neighborhoods impeccably, so that they seem made from a mold. Downtown's charming trellises, high-ceilinged apartments, and cobbled streets may not feel like an old city, but that is not necessarily what its clients want. Rome may not have been built in a day, but rebuilding a city can happen rather quickly. Which is why the location of this performance had a distinctly endangered quality to it; if Beirut is on the verge of opening up a post-war, or at least interim-war dialogue in the arts, it is also undergoing a rapid plastering over. With the reluctance of many people to address the war—at least in mixed company—it is the buildings that attest to what has happened here.
Krafft's 777 was loosely inspired by The Seven Deadly Sins, the Brecht/Weill commission of 1933. Brecht wrote the piece facing his imminent exile from Nazi Germany. In Brecht's libretto, a fascination for American cities and his revulsion for the country's...