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AsianWeek June 4, 1998
Anneli Rufus

Clocks and Chopsticks: Exploratorium exhibit examines cultural memories

After San Francisco artist Paul Kwan suffered a stroke at the age of 42, he awoke in the hospital with many of his memories missing.

At the time, Kwan was in the middle of filming Pins and Noodles, an autobiographical video that, ironically, traced his journey into the world of Chinese herbal medicine. Afflicted with a skin rash and advised by a Chinatown practitioner to give up some of his favorite dishes, he had done so, dutifully, only to realize what a key part food played in his very identity.

When, like his father and four brothers before him, Kwan suffered a sudden cerebral hemorrhage, Pins and Noodles took a new direction. Now it focused on the artist's struggle to recover: a process of re-learning how to eat with chopsticks and how3, by cooking and savoring Chinese food, to remember who he was. Kwan's struggle, documented in video and other media, is part of the Exploratorium's new "Memory" exhibition.

With longtime partner Arnold Iger, Kwan created an installation using large-scale drawings and collages combining personal journal entries, poems and images. The interspersed footage of Kwan with that of physicians and therapists discussing his illness and its effects.

The installation is among dozens of exhibits and special programs at the Exploratorium probing all aspects of memory: the physiological as well as the personal. For example, visitors can examine a human brain, record their own earliest recollections and help construct a time capsule.

And a photo presentation about the bombing of Nagasaki is accompanied by survivors' remembrances of the event.

Our cultural memories, the exhibition makes clear, are crucial.

These memories, like Paul Kwan's passion for his mother's homemade spring rolls, link us to the world and chisel our niche in it. Surprisingly stirring, despite its apparent simplicity, is a display of personal memorabilia coupled with handwritten explanations, in both English and the writer's original language, of why each item evokes strong memories for its owner.

"It seems a simple ornament," a young man tells us of his leather bracelet. "But it is very important to me. My girlfriend bought it…We can't be each other's lover, we are good friends now. When I left Hong Kong, and came to the United States, she gave it to me…because she hopes that we will meet again…If I miss her anytime, I take this ornament out and recall the memories."… (excerpt)