Ally McKay

Ally McKay / Futile Attempts at Happiness / 2017 / 21 x 13 x 1.5 cm / string and Staples on system card

Ally McKay situates her practice somewhere between text and material poem. Since graduating QCA with Honours in 2015, Ally has been fiddling with gathered materials in the form of small scale installation and paper based sculpture, to express experiences that resist verbal and written representation.

Ally is concerned with translating moments of vulnerability to consider the nature of relationships, exposing the inevitable grief that must accompany love. Most recently, her work is investigating the unsteady nature of solitude and the rise and fall of resilience.

Interviewed by Miranda Hine

MH: Text and poetry are a major part of your work, whereas a lot of artists seem to use their work instead of words. What’s the attraction to text for you?

AM: Reflective writing has been something I have done since I was very little, I’ve always kept journals and written poetry on scraps of paper growing up.

My attraction to text is multifaceted but mostly it is the act of writing, scratchy pen on paper goodness which I find cements something for me. I often feel scrambled in my thoughts until I pen them and everything seems to decode.

When I use text within my practice, it is often to confront subjects I struggle to verbalise. So there must be something about the directness of the medium that I am attracted to and the authority attached to that as well. Most recently, I have struggled to use text to translate the complexity of grief, as I found words brutally direct with regards to this kind of subject matter. As a result, I have landed into this zone of material poetics, using materials to somehow compensate for the words I cannot find, countering this directness through a sheer presence of materials.

I think within my practice as a whole, there is this ongoing relationship between text and my visual/material practice and I am constantly negotiating my work within these boundaries. I find when I am not writing, I am making. Similarly, when I can’t find the right materials or inspiration in the studio, I find myself writing. Perhaps this is also my attraction to concrete poetry as a way to combine the two.

MH: I’ve always perceived the post-war emergence of concrete poetry as quite masculine and assertive. What would a concrete poetry revival movement led by Ally McKay look like?

AM: I would agree with you to an extent here, although I have never really thought of it in these terms. I came across the work of Nicholas Zurbrugg most recently and have been really inspired by his wacky connections to concrete poetry, text and performance. He instigated a concrete poetry magazine called “Stereo Headphones” which involved a number of artists working with text and the space of the page. I think you can still achieve a subtlety within concrete poetry and I am interested in the tension between that direct assertiveness that you mention in contrast to more ambiguous text using the visual to layer meaning.

I am inspired by what Zurbrugg started, being a Brisbane based artist also, connecting artists internationally, conducting interviews and creating platforms for artists to engage with each other. I would like to do something similar to encourage a revival of the page as a creative space, and distribute works in a less formal context than the exhibition space. So when I do start to organise something of this manner, I would invite artists to contribute a page of concrete poetry or work which responds to the boundaries of the page and create a document that could be distributed in both a printed and electronic format. For me personally, I love the challenge of working within the field of the page and the history behind text as a medium inspires me to be more creative with something we rely on and use on a daily basis.

MH: I loved your desire to keep a sense of community within practicing artists outside the institution, through a curated program of open studios. Please tell me you have a plan to start this!

AM: I am interested in getting involved with public programming and connecting artists outside of the small talk of opening nights and I am always thinking about how to sustain my livelihood and stimulate creative practice away from the institution.

The main thing I miss about uni is that sense of community and feeling like you were all in something together. I think there needs to be more sharing about how people manage their practice while working crappy jobs and more support in the everyday parts of the art world, not the dress ups of it all. So I have been thinking about how to do this and break down these barriers.

One thing I am really concerned about as an artist is not getting honest feedback on my work and I thought maybe a curated program of open studios would present an opportunity to expose work to new audiences so that your work is being seen by fresh eyes. I know myself as an artist, I really struggle to edit out my good and bad work and sometimes I hide things away in the studio as well. I think this would be a good entry point to answer questions and create some beneficial feedback that can be constructive.

I have been starting up some art making nights with a group of friends where we take it in turns to have dinner and present a small piece of our work, like a mini critique. I have vision to keep growing this humble beginning to create a making space where people can bring their projects with a set talk at the end offering feedback, open to work in progress chats and studio visit cycles. I am about to go away for a while so hopefully when I get back I can invest more time into these thoughts.

MH: You work a lot with system cards. Is there something to do with order and control that draws you to mediums like that?

AM: Yes, definitely something about order and control, reconstructing and deconstructing systems, and I think something of rebuilding also. There is an emptiness to them and structure within the lined construct that I keep coming back to.

MH: References to rainbows appear in your work quite frequently. I suppose I've never thought of rainbows as representing much more than happiness and pride, but you seem to pick up a fragility that lurks under their bright facade. What do they mean for you?

AM: Rainbows keep standing in for a lot of my emotions at the moment. I am feeling them as almost a strange sad visual metaphor for chasing this unobtainable happiness we are all after. The illusionary nature of them, being fleeting and momentary strikes a chord with me. The shape also keeps reoccurring in my life, this wave of starting low, hitting a peak and then coming back down seems to me a lot more of a reality than this colourful strong symbol of happiness and pride. I didn’t think of them as fragile but I suppose you are right, there is this fragility to their experience also, always after rain, after bad, there is this symbol of good. I feel a sense of uselessness with rainbows, we chase them and it is something we can never quite obtain.

MH: Since you’ve left university, what motivates you to get in the studio and keep working? Is it a daily struggle or a joy?

AM: When I finished uni I remember really worrying if I would continue practicing, and a friend simply said to me, of course you always will, it’s what you’ve always done. And I do, I’ve had a break from honours, done a small clay course, and small workshops along the way. But I surround myself with creative people and keep making myself commit more time to art. I am always most motivated when I am in a state of anxiety, which is not the most healthy way to stimulate my practice, but I create work from life experience and everything is very much emotion based. Sometimes it’s a daily struggle, sometimes a joy, I think like the rainbow, very up and down.

MH: Is Brisbane where you see yourself in ten years?

AM: Yes, I think so. I intend to travel and do some other things in the meantime… Here’s hoping. But Brisbane is home and I do feel attached to it in some way and it definitely has a lot of creative potential which I really want to contribute to.

Ally McKay took over the In Residence Instagram 22-28 May, 2017. see more of her work at

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