Time & Memory in Exhibit and Installation Work: A Conundrum

In this article, Monica Liuting (2016) writes about her installation for the Inside Voices: An Oral History Exhibition in April 2017. Here we see her struggle with the question about how to represent place, memory, and the passage of time in her exhibit.  

My classmates and I were talking about our plans for the final exhibit in Amy Starecheski’s fieldwork class. I imagined the exhibit in my mind – a red brick wall, with the narrators’ photos plastered like a mosaic on the wall – birthdays, holidays, friends and families, like an episode of Will & Grace – people’s lives on TV shows are always holiday after holiday. I couldn’t “see” the shape of the mosaic in my imagination, because I don’t know what “life” should look like - a heart shape, a face or a building? I went to take photos of places that had value for the narrators – it is no more than street views of today’s Queens, Long Island and Newark. The relevance of their stories and my photos is half true (the location), and half invented by my interpretation.

I described my exhibit in class: “My interviewees came to Newark (which could be the city or a symbol of their current lives in the city) with pieces of their past. I want to show their past and present in photos.” I believed people could “see” the history in their narratives, but I couldn’t “see” anything related to their memories in my photos. The Baisley Pond Park in Queens, which was described by an interviewee in her childhood stories as “big and beautiful”, is an ordinary green land with a playground, and Chelsea Avenue where the narrator grew up felt safe and familiar - was covered by half-melting snow in Spring and didn’t look much different from the next block.

When the narrator said, “I looked back at my life”, she meant the invisible time-path, which no one else could walk back except the narrator. She constructed a labyrinth with her narrative and what I show in my exhibit should be the description of this labyrinth she alludes to.

I described the “house” of narrative to Amy and friends from different fields.

   “I want to create a model of house but I haven’t decided how to present the dimensions and the changes in the narrative.”

I was so sure the narrators’ stories had shapes, and I believed all audiences could see the stories changing, like a screen saver, twisting and twirling in different dimensions.

   “You mean you are in a house and this person’s stories fall on you like snowflakes and you become lost in the information?”, my boyfriend (with an art background) asked me.

   “No. The narrative has concrete shape and is constructed by invisible materials, like logic, accumulation, and mutation. I want to capture its shape at a certain moment. But I know the image of narrative in your head now.” I said, “You interpretation could be a contrast to mine. I will make it part of my exhibit.”

  “Ok. Be sure it is a giant glass cube, as big as you can make. Borrow a blower and blow the paper like drifting flakes so the audiences will feel the confusion.” He was so excited that his idea had become a contrast to mine.

I replied, “Um, I am not sure we can do that in the Social Hall, and that’s definitely not my feeling. The narrative has a shape to me and I want to show the structure and the fluidity in combination with her conscious and unconscious construction. I want to use stillness to show dynamism.” I made a glass globe with a 1 gallon jar with important names printed on plastic slices as snowflakes, which will fall on the narrator as well as the listeners.


Two weeks later, I found out I couldn’t find a perfect house model. All the houses, dollhouse, 3D model, are copies of real buildings which are for practical use. So I decided to use a living room as the metaphor for the “space” created by narrative. All the furniture in the living room was life-size but covered with transcripts of the interview. Audiences would have double experiences – familiar and strange.

I asked a friend from architecture where I could make a 3D living room with the lowest price. He asked me: “They are all expensive but why not make one with wood planks.”

  “But I am a student of Oral History, not architecture.”

I realized I should make the “strange” part of the living room “stranger” so that people wouldn’t think I was going to build a real room. Apart from making the “room” a visible and solid space, how do I show the time in the narrative? A friend from the world of art said: “Light could be a way to show time in paintings. And you can use shadows to create the feeling and an extent of accuracy in time.” But the time in oral history narrative doesn’t need things to “represent” or “indicate.” It is more like programming.


My classmate, Emma Courtland commented on the idea of “space”: “I always wonder WHAT MEMORY LOOKS LIKE.” It reminded me that I was creating a world with a new system of language. So I abandoned the idea of using a picture of “wolf eyes” to indicate the shadow in memory, because in a world created by codes, like the DOS system, it is impossible to see any images or any meaningful languages. All the stories, sad or happy in narrative systems are series of codes. And later I realized there is a name in computer science for the combination of computer command and ordinary languages - pseudo code.

People told me how they loved the sofa – the first piece I finished. But the chest took longer than expected. Emma, Robin Miniter (another OHMA classmate) and even their roommates were looking for a chest with the perfect shape and size for me. I had browsed all kinds of dressers, chests and bookcases in Asian stores, Victorian antique shops and even IKEA and had no idea how to show different dimensions in the space relationship created by furniture – is it a simple inside and outside relationship, or is the story “inside” totally blocked from the audiences? I had tried different ways to show the relationship between the dimensions of stories by different materials - wood plank, paper slips, and transparent plastic. But my art friends told me, “Art is different from explaining. If it is not attractive, it is not art.” So the last week of work on the exhibit was subtraction - tearing things down.

Robin Weinberg (also an OHMA classmate) used her big car to transport the furniture from my apartment to the exhibit space and the ladies made a transportation team to assemble and disassemble all my pieces for the exhibit. The teamwork really brought the cohort together. Learning is sometimes a lonely journey, so I cherish every minute working together with people in the team. I was surprised by how people liked the exhibit, and how they listened to the stories in the uncomfortable environment I deliberately created – a lifeless, claustrophobic corner isolated from the event. Like in all oral history interviews, we walk through decades of memories to create a corner of collaboration.

Monica Liuting comes to OHMA with an MA of English Literature from China University of Geosciences, Beijing. She worked in Changzhu Historical and Cultural Ancient Town Program (Shannan, Tibet) as an interviewer and writer after graduation. She came to OHMA with an interest in exploring the construct of the narrative in sociological, literary, and oral historical domains. She was an intern with the Queer Newark Oral History Project in 2016 and is working on her thesis project on Chinese Young Artists in 2017.