Micky Allan: A Live-in Show

Micky Allan is a pioneering feminist artist who features in the upcoming Know My Name: Australian Women Artists from 1900 to Now exhibition. Yvette Dal Pozzo explores the significance of Allan’s 1978 Live-in Show and shares how it is being re-imagined in a contemporary context.

I was reminded recently that the origin of the word ‘curate’ comes from the Latin word ‘cura’, meaning to care.[1] Peering back through time to feminist artists and curators working in the 1970s, there is a distinct sense of care imbued in their practice. They sought to break down the distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, collaborate with their peers and to make art accessible — all ambitions which are imbued with principals of egalitarianism and empathy. Micky Allan (born 1944) was one such artist working across photography, painting and performance whose pioneering 1970s projects were personable and inclusive.

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Micky Allan pictured with her work ‘The prime of life no.3 (blond woman wearing sun glasses)’ 1979 ©️ Micky Allan/Copyright Agency. Image taken 2019 at the National Gallery of Australia.

Micky Allan’s first solo exhibition titled Photography, Drawing, Poetry: A Live-in Show (Live-in Show) was held at Ewing and George Paton Gallery in 1978.[2] The Ewing and George Paton Gallery, located in the Student Union building at the University of Melbourne, was led by Director Kiffy Rubbo between 1973–1980 and housed some of the most ground-breaking feminist exhibitions of the 1970s. Exhibitions held at the Gallery included Janine Burke’s pioneering survey exhibition Australian Women Artists: 18401940, shown in 1975 and Three Women Photographers, also held in 1975, which featured the work of then-emerging photographers Virginia Coventry, Sue Ford and Micky Allan.[3] These exhibitions were imbued with the energy, intellect and rebellion of 1970s feminism and directly confronted patriarchal art histories and hierarchies of media.

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Micky Allan: ‘Live-in Show‘ 1978, Ewing and George Paton Gallery © Micky Allan

They sought to break down the distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, collaborate with their peers and to make art accessible — all ambitions which are imbued with principals of egalitarianism and empathy.

Allan graduated from the National Gallery School, now the Victorian College of the Arts, in 1967 with a Diploma in Painting. However, in order to forge her own path distinct from her then-husband, painter Rod Withers, she embraced the medium of photography. She was first taught darkroom and processing techniques by her contemporary, feminist photographer Virginia Coventry.[4] Allan combined her knowledge of painting and photography by hand-colouring photographs, a technique she began to employ from 1975 onwards. Allan reflected that for her it ‘seemed obvious to bring these mediums together… they cross over as a part of the same artistic continuum’.[5] This technique was progressive and was subsequently adopted by many Australian feminist photographers.[6] The combination of mediums in Allan’s works shocked some audiences, with photographer Max Dupain reportedly remarking that ‘it should be stamped out’.[7] However, many celebrated this experimentation. Janine Burke, who was one of the first to view Allan’s hand-coloured works at Kiffy Rubbo’s home, described them as ‘delicate… shimmering with subtle colours… unique objects, each carrying a separate imprint from Allan’s hand’.[8] Allan in her practice deliberately embraced qualities which have been stereotyped as feminine, like delicacy and sensitivity.[9] Allan remarked that ‘some qualities of femininity have been defined as not appropriate or serious enough [within the art world]. It is important to integrate them so they can be considered valid’. In incorporating these qualities within her work, Allan elevated and celebrated the aesthetic and thematic tropes associated with femininity.

Allan remarked that ‘some qualities of femininity have been defined as not appropriate or serious enough [within the art world]. It is important to integrate them so they can be considered valid’.

While her family were supportive of her artistic career, Allan’s father considered that ‘women can do quite well if they work hard, but they can never have an original thought’. Determined to overcome this gendered assessment, Allan became firmly embedded in the Melbourne feminist artistic milieu of the time. She was a designer and photographer for the performance venue the Pram Factory; associated with artists, musicians and writers like Sue Ford, Jane Clifton and Helen Garner; and was present during formative moments of the Women’s Art Movement in Australia, including American art historian Lucy Lippard’s influential visit to the Ewing and George Paton Gallery in 1975.[10] In conceiving the idea for the Live-in Show, Allan was inspired by conceptual and performance art including the Experimental Art Foundation’s 1976 exhibition Australian & New Zealand Post-Object Art: A Survey held in Adelaide and National Gallery of Victoria’s landmark 1975 exhibition Performance, Documents, Film, Video, which featured Tim Burns’ performance artwork The Possibility of a Private/Public Space.[11] During this performance Burns spent a prolonged time in a small partitioned space within the gallery, conceptually challenging the distinctions between private and public space. Allan was moved by this performance and within her Live-in Show ‘expanded upon it… making it alive in a living dimension’.

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Micky Allan and Tin Sheds Art Workshop ‘Photography, Drawing, Poetry. A live-in show. Micky Allan.’ 1979 Art exhibition poster Purchased 1982 © Micky Allan/Copyright Agency

In the Live-in Show, Allan took the opportunity to exhibit her photographs, drawings, paintings and poetry as well as using the gallery as a site for a progressive performance. For the two-week duration of the exhibition, Allan moved furniture sourced from her own home, second-hand shops and friend’s houses into the gallery. This included a bed, a TV, tables and chairs and a kettle — everything but the kitchen sink. While the idea of recreating a domestic environment within the gallery is now a familiar trope, employed by contemporary artists like Tracey Emin in her iconic 1998 work My Bed and Destiny Deacon in her 1996 tableau My Living room, Brunswick 3056 — at this time it was a revelation.[12] The exhibition also included a park setting complete with branches, a park bench and leaves strewn over the gallery floor which transitioned from green to brown over the duration of the exhibition. This park setting was crucial in ‘bringing the outside world into the gallery’. These two familiar vignettes disintegrated any traces of the formality found in the typical white-walled gallery. The inclusion of Allan’s bedroom furniture and domestic accoutrements allowed the space to functionally operate, as she ate, worked, socialised and slept in the room during the exhibition. It also transformed the experience for visitors, blurring the boundaries between private and public space and encouraging art to be unpretentious and approachable, to be experienced in a ‘combined rhythm’ within everyday life.[13]

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Micky Allan: ‘Live-in Show‘ 1978 Watters Gallery © Micky Allan

It also transformed the experience for visitors, blurring the boundaries between private and public space and encouraging art to be unpretentious and approachable, to be experienced in a ‘combined rhythm’ within everyday life.

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Micky Allan: ‘Live-in Show‘ 1978, Ewing and George Paton Gallery © Micky Allan

The works featured in the show included My trip (1976), a self-published pamphlet which was available for purchase at local Melbourne newsagents which recorded a solo road trip throughout rural Victoria.[14] Allan also exhibited her influential hand painted photographs including her series Performance (1976) which was fixed directly to the wall in strips.[15] Performance, a project supported by an Australia Council for the Arts grant, recorded actors at the Pram Factory performing in productions as well as ‘performing’ in their daily lives, disintegrating the divide between art and ordinary life. The Live-in Show also featured Allan’s iconic series’ Babies (1976) and Old Age (1978).[16] These photographic series, which were professionally framed and hung, found their place amongst plastic animals, postcards in cheap frames, plants, books and lamps. This exhibition design further broke down distinctions between high and low art and increased accessibility.

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Micky Allan: ‘Live-in Show‘ 1978, Ewing and George Paton Gallery © Micky Allan
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Micky Allan: ‘Live-in Show‘ 1978, Ewing and George Paton Gallery © Micky Allan
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Micky Allan ‘My trip’ (detail) 1976 Purchased 2012 © Micky Allan/Copyright Agency

Allan has remarked that much of her work, including the Live-in Show, has been narrowly investigated due to its feminist diaristic nature as it fulfilled the second-wave feminist dictum ‘the personal is political’.[17] Art critic Memory Holloway described the exhibition in The Australian as an ‘adventurous exposure of the self’.[18] However, the Live-in Show goes far beyond autobiographical themes, rather, Allan’s exhibition design and performance radically confronted and ‘chang[ed] the experience of being in an art gallery’.[19] Allan did not only emulate the look and feel of a domestic social space, but performed socially as well. She directly engaged with viewers throughout her ‘live-in’ performance, inviting people to linger in the space and have conversations about the exhibition and the works, integrating private contemplation with public discussion.[20] Allan reflected that she ‘wanted to change the experience of the gallery goer from one of white walls, hush, hush, don’t speak, say what you really think when you get out of here’.[21] Visitors of all ages not only viewed but participated in the exhibition as they prepared and ate meals and lounged on the bed whilst children played with the leaves and created drawings on the communal table. In this sense, Allan amplified the social relations implicit in art production and viewership by making the entire gallery experience part of her performance.[22]

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Micky Allan ‘Babies IV [with dummy]’ 1976 Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982 © Micky Allan/Copyright Agency

Allan reprised the Live-in Show at the commercial venue Watters Gallery located in Sydney later in 1978. Gallery director Frank Watters was a keen supporter of feminist and progressive artists and hosted notable exhibitions including Vivienne Binns: Paintings and Constructions (1967), An exhibition of work by homosexual and lesbian artists (1978) and The D’Oyley Show (1979).[23] Allan’s exhibition was well attended and received. It attracted visitors like festival director Jim Sharman, who whilst viewing the exhibition, invited Allan to undertake a large-scale commission for the 1982 Adelaide Biennial. The writer and art collector Patrick White also visited and immediately purchased the series Old Age, gifting them to the Art Gallery of New South Wales the same year.[24] This progressive performance exhibition was a springboard for Allan’s artistic career and the influence of the Live-in Show still lingers today.

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Micky Allan: ‘Live-in Show‘ 1978, Ewing and George Paton Gallery © Micky Allan
Micky Allan: ‘Live-in Show‘ 1978, Ewing and George Paton Gallery © Micky Allan
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Micky Allan: ‘Live-in Show‘ 1978, Ewing and George Paton Gallery © Micky Allan

In 2019, Allan was approached by National Gallery curators Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt to re-imagine this work within the exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists from 1900 to Now. This upcoming contemporary reprisal, complete with a television, bed and space for visitors to comfortably lounge, will pay homage to the progressive nature of the Live-in Show. When asked about the personal significance of re-enacting the 1978 work Allan reflected, ‘Maybe I have proven my father wrong!’, as her original concept reverberates and resonates with individuals across time. Curator and academic, Amelia Wallin, describes the motives behind revisiting touchstone moments, ‘to return connotes that something is unfinished, incomplete, or ongoing; a feminist return… is a project of expansion’.[25] In Know My Name, the ongoing inter-generational significance of Allan’s Live-in Show is evident as the concept permeates through time and connects with feminisms past and present. This is evident as the thematic concerns embodied within the Live-in Room are echoed in works created by Australian women artists ranging from 1900, like Misses Hampson’s Westbury Quilt (1900), to the contemporary moment, such as the performance collective Barbara Cleveland’s Bodies in Time (2016).[26] Crucially, within the exhibition the Live-in Show will preserve the same sense of care and consideration which was core to its conception. The familiar domestic setting will act as a breath of fresh air within the energetic exhibition. Over forty years later, Allan is still making audiences feel at ‘home’ within the Gallery.

Yvette Dal Pozzo is the Assistant Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

You can be part of making this exciting re-staging a reality by donating to our annual appeal, with a focus on Know My Name projects in 2020. Donations at all levels are welcome and we thank you for your loyalty and support.

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The Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now exhibition opens 2020–2021.

[1] “Janine Burke: Defining Moments: A room of their own: creating a space for the feminist collective,” Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, accessed May 1, 2020, https://acca.melbourne/program/defining-moments-a-room-of-their-own-creating-a-space-for-the-feminist-collective/.

[2] “Live-in Show,” Micky Allan, accessed April 30, 2020, http://www.mickyallan.com/Bodies/Live-inShow.html

[3] “Charmaine Ching: Remembering the Ewing and George Paton Galleries,” Museums and Collections University of Melbourne, accessed April 30, 2020, https://museumsandcollections.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/1741809/06_Ching_Ewing-and-Paton.pdf.

[4] Memory Holloway, “In the Tracks of Isis,” Micky Allan: Perspective 1975–1987 (Melbourne: Monash University Gallery, 1987), 4.

[5] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes and references for this article were sourced from an interview conducted between Micky Allan and Yvette Dal Pozzo on May 1, 2020.

[6] Dr Shaune Lakin, Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, regards Allan as the “primary practioner” of the hand-coloured photographic process. Following Allan’s hand-coloured photographs, the technique was widely embraced. The rising popularity of this technique in the 1970s is evident as Tin Sheds Art Workshop in Sydney held an exhibition of hand-coloured photographs in 1979.

Sally Pryor, “Hand-coloured photos were once subversive, now beautiful, as seen in new exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia,” The Canberra Times, April 1, 2015, https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6069695/hand-coloured-photos-were-once-subversive-now-beautiful-as-seen-in-new-exhibition-at-the-national-gallery-of-australia/.

“Colour my world: handcoloured Australian photography,” National Gallery of Australia, accessed April 30, 2020, https://nga.gov.au/colourmyworld/.

“Hand coloured photo show. Open to everyone, especially at the University….An artist in residence event.,” National Gallery of Australia, accessed April 28, 2020, https://cs.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=84345.

[7] Max Dupain reportedly stated this when viewing an exhibition organised by Christine Godden at the Australian Centre of Photography in Sydney which contained one of Micky Allan’s hand-coloured photographs.

Micky Allan, interview with Yvette Dal Pozzo, May 1, 2020.

[8] Janine Burke, “Micky Allan,” Know My Name (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2020), 26–27.

[9] Allan has articulated the reasons behind embracing ‘female’ qualities in her work, “I made a decision a few years ago not to hold back in any way from generating anything in my work that might issues from my femaleness. I don’t care how delicate, how soft, how subtle it becomes. Love, compassion, beauty, praise. In their clear form they are neither male nor female, but how far have we associated them really with the ‘female’ and therefore the ‘lesser’ and women have thrown them off in reaction.”

Micky Allan, “Micky Allan [artist’s statement],” undated [approximately 1994], accessed in National Gallery of Australia archive, 3.

[10] “Performance,” Micky Allan, accessed April 30, 2020, http://www.mickyallan.com/Bodies/Performance.html

[11] Stephen Jones, “Video art at the National Gallery of Victoria: 1973–78,” Art Journal 52 (September 25, 2014), https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/video-art-at-the-national-gallery-of-victoria-1973-78/.

“Australian and New Zealand Post-Object Show-A Survey,” Design and Art Australia Online, accessed May 1, 2020, https://www.daao.org.au/bio/event/event_incoming_people/post-object-art-in-australia-and-new-zealand/.

[12] Daniel Palmer, “Photography as Social Encounter: Three Works by Micky Allan, Sophie Calle and Simryn Gill,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 14, no. 2 (2014), https://www-tandfonline-com.virtual.anu.edu.au/doi/full/10.1080/14434318.2014.973011.

“Tracey Emin: My Bed,” TATE, accessed April 30, 2020, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/emin-my-bed-l03662.

Alina Cohen, “Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” Ignored Society’s Expectations of Women,” Artsy, July 30, 2018, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-tracey-emins-my-bed-ignored-societys-expectations-women.

“Destiny Deacon,” Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, accessed April 30, 2020, https://www.roslynoxley9.com.au/artist/destiny-deacon.

[13] Micky Allan, “Micky Allan [artist’s statement],” undated [approximately 1994], accessed in National Gallery of Australia archive, 2.

[14] “My Trip,” Micky Allan, accessed April 28, 2020, http://www.mickyallan.com/Bodies/MyTrip.html.

[15] “Performance,” Micky Allan, accessed April 28, 2020, http://www.mickyallan.com/Bodies/Performance.html.

[16] “Babies,” Micky Allan, accessed April 28, 2020, http://www.mickyallan.com/Bodies/Babies.html.

“Old Age,” Micky Allan, accessed April 28, 2020, http://www.mickyallan.com/Bodies/OldAge.html.

“Old Age,” Art Gallery of New South Wales, accessed April 28, 2020, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/116.1978.1/.

[17] Micky Allan, “Micky Allan [artist’s statement],” undated [approximately 1994], accessed in National Gallery of Australia archive, 2.

[18] Memory Holloway, “The Many Faces of Women,” The Australian, June 6, 1978.

[19] Micky Allan, “Micky Allan [artist’s statement],” undated [approximately 1994], accessed in National Gallery of Australia archive, 2.

[20] The creation of this inviting environment was deliberate as Allan was frustrated that viewers “would have all the interesting discussion when they were at the coffee shop, when the artist was nowhere near”. In making her exhibition more informal, Allan de-mystified the divide between creator and viewer.

[21] “Live-in Show,” Micky Allan, accessed April 28, 2020, http://www.mickyallan.com/Bodies/Live-inShow.html

[22] Allan’s Live-in Show reflects what curator Nicholas Bourriaud would describe as “relational aesthetics”. In 1998 Bourriaud defined the term as “A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space”. For more discussion of Allan’s works in relation to relational aesthetics and social encounters refer to Daniel Palmer’s text “Photography as Social Encounter: Three Works by Micky Allan, Sophie Calle and Simryn Gill”.

Daniel Palmer, “Photography as Social Encounter: Three Works by Micky Allan, Sophie Calle and Simryn Gill,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 14, no. 2 (2014), https://www-tandfonline-com.virtual.anu.edu.au/doi/full/10.1080/14434318.2014.973011.

“Relational Aesthetics,” TATE, accessed April 30, 2020, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/r/relational-aesthetics.

[23] “James Gleeson Interviews: Frank Watters,” National Gallery of Australia, accessed May 1, 2020, https://nga.gov.au/research/gleeson/pdf/watters.pdf.

“chatting with artist vivienne binns about her life and the importance of feminist art,” I-D, accessed May 1, 2020, https://i-d.vice.com/en_au/article/nen4qk/chatting-with-artist-vivienne-binns-about-her-life-and-the-importance-of-feminist-art.

“The D’Oyley Show,” Art Gallery of New South Wales, accessed May 1, 2020, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/175.1981.5/.

[24] Jenepher Duncan, “Micky Allan — Biography,” Micky Allan: Perspective 1975–1987 (Melbourne: Monash University Gallery, 1987), 12.

[25] Amelia Wallin, “Feminism in the Archives and the Archive in Feminism: Propositions Gleaned from Alex Martinis Roe’s To Become Two,Performance Paradigm 13 (2017): 137, https://www.performanceparadigm.net/index.php/journal/article/view/197/194.

[26] “Westbury Quilt,” National Gallery of Australia, accessed May 1, 2020, https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?IRN=120013.

“Bodies in Time,” Barbara Cleveland, accessed May 2, 2020, http://www.barbaracleveland.com.au/#/bodies-in-time/.

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