Windows Into Memory

IT is the splendid collection of European paintings that is getting top billing these days at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But on a visit there the other day in search of the restoration of spirit and senses that art can provide, I was drawn instead to a modest video installation in one of the smaller galleries generally reserved for contemporary art.

Several days later now, its images are still with me. Y. David Chung's ``Turtle Boats'' video provides windows into the memory of a Korean immigrant working in a grocery store in an inner-city neighborhood - a store presumably like the ones looted during last year's Los Angeles riots.

``I'm interested in the way a person lives today in an American city and the peculiar contradictory elements that come crashing together,'' Mr. Chung has said. ``How do you deal with this? This work is about a Korean immigrant, his experience. People have a vast store of memories in their heads, but you can't see it.''

The piece seems at first simple enough: A placid-faced shopkeeper serves his (off-camera) customers from behind a (presumably bulletproof) glass partition. A little revolving door set into the partition enables him to deliver the goods and collect the cash in one motion. The encounters with the (generally black) customers seem pleasant enough, although the thickness of the glass partition causes some communication problems for the merchant, surrounded with a zillion items for sale, each of them a bright-colored triumph of American packaging and marketing.

It is for the moment a benign environment - except for the somehow threatening dull roar of automobile engines off-camera as customers drive up to and then away from the store.

But then the roar of car engines yields to a more sinister roar of warplanes, as memory transports this Korean back to wartime Asia. Black-and-white historical footage, its graininess an apt way to signify the graininess of memory, suggests our hero as a young boy, watching the soldiers of the occupying Japanese Army march by.

Other images of more recent memory, of dinnertime at a comfortable suburban home, suggest that his life has not been all struggle, but then we see images of the Los Angeles riots.

Are those his memories from direct experience, or did he just see it all on television too?

And what of the ``turtle boats'' of the title? We are told that they were a type of ironclad vessel the Koreans used to repel a Japanese invasion in 1592. We see them in the video, another image glimpsed through the windows of memory: The boats' oarsmen pull the vessels bravely forward through the water.

The mild-mannered immigrant's story is about survival, about holding one's own against whatever challenge, warfare or urban riots.

We can be grateful to Chung, an artist born in Germany in the 1950s to South Korean diplomat parents, for reminding us of the whole world each of us carries within. But in a society with about a quarter-billion individual stores of memories, so many of them of immigrant experience, of slavery experience, of poverty and deprivation, the larger wonder may be that they don't ``come crashing together'' any more often than they do.

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