Art and history (at this moment)

By Andrei Codrescu

The old Woolworth’s building in Tacoma, Wash., now an AT&T switching station, was taken over briefly by artists and turned into a nostalgically barbed installation. One of the artists, Jan Gilbert, from New Orleans, filled windows with historic photos from the days when the Woolworth’s lunch counters became the frontlines of the Civil Rights movement. And then she led a jazz funeral through a cheery market of flowers and fruits sold by mostly Asian farmers. The Chinese inhabitants of Tacoma were expelled by the city in the late 1800s, a historical moment explored by Houstonian John Runnels with neon signs flashing “All Chinese Out,” “Sinophobia” and “Xenophobia” above a row of laundered white shirts. The whitewashed windows were scribbled with Chinese poetry. Some locals weren’t sure what it all meant, because if Tacoma is anything it’s in Washington where the people are nice, law-abiding and very sensitive about their past, which consists mostly of killing Indians, abusing the Chinese and deforesting the mountains. Seattle has been way hip for some time, leading the world in piercings, coffee, protests and grunge. Tacoma would like to catch up so that one day someone might exclaim about it what someone might easily exclaim about Seattle, namely: “I’ve seen the piercedest bodies of the last generation waiting for green at red lights on car-empty avenues.” Tacomites are also partial to sculpted fish that leap or jut out of civically ordained fountains and to glass, which they keep in museums. Many cities are now trying to revive their once-thriving downtowns by hiring artists to test the water. If the artists drown, the developers wait another year. In this case, the South, which has been a model of artistic fearlessness since the days of Brer Rabbit, was also represented by yours truly, a Dixie Transylvanian, who created a special one-man show based on a single character-building instance of eating liver and onions at a Detroit Woolworth’s in 1966. If you are still reading, take note. A true artist needs no more than the touch of an onion ring at a tender crossroads of life to create a hefty oeuvre. In any case, the art went swimmingly, and on the last night we artists had a real-life chance to confront history instead of merely commenting on it. While we were eating our ginger and lemon grass in a Thai restaurant, we noticed Paul Wolfowitz, the “architect of the Bush doctrine,” chief instigator of the War in Iraq, eating his own tofu ginger at a corner table with a general and a Secret Service guy. What do you do if you’re an artist? You quickly write a heartfelt poem of protest and send a child to deliver it. (One of our hosts had the perfect cherubic child for the job). You also start to sing “Give Peace a Chance,” “Masters of War” and Country Joe and Pete Seeger classics. That’s what you might do anyway, but we didn’t do any of that, because 1) we weren’t in Seattle, and 2) we were afraid for the child. As the warmonger left the eatery, we noticed that his body was short, dense and, possibly, very hairy. In fact, I believe that I really saw a wolf loping out of there, perhaps a werewolf, Werewolfowitz. Good thing we didn’t send the kid, look what happened to Little Red Riding Hood. Also, Tacoma still stands.