Exhibition review: Parlour Parlëur, Penrith Regional Gallery

The past and the future collide in the latest fascinating "confabulation" from the ArtHitects team.
Parlour Parlëur. Image is a golden table with green top, half-completed jigsaw and shallow dishes, with torn images adorning the walls of the gallery space.

Travelling an hour to see an exhibition may be construed as “work”, and one might find that a challenge in a busy calendar of arts events. But often making the effort brings rewards. This is the case with Penrith Regional Gallery’s (PRG) current exhibition Parlour Parlëur, created by ArtHitects – ongoing collaborators Sydney artist Gary Carsley and Singaporean architect Renjie Teoh.

Nestled at the base of the Blue Mountains (NSW) in Sydney’s west, the Gallery is a garden oasis on the banks of the Nepean and is steeped in layers of history. Carsley and Teoh reference that history in an unexpected and refreshing way for their latest “confabulation”, as they call it – a hybrid, site-responsive installation.

Taking their cue from Victorian parlours – that public space within a private home – and the French world parlëur, meaning speaker, the artists have created a social space in the main gallery that is part relic and part incubator for new conversations.

To create a framework for this new meeting zone, over 4000 A4 photocopies of a digital interior-scape have been pasted to the Gallery walls, aka billboard paste-up with stage-set spectacular. In the design, the paste-ups riff off fresco wall murals typical of ancient sites, and in a curious way pull on the Gallery’s history as a meeting place for artists, and as the home of philanthropists and creatives, Margo Lewers and her husband Gerald. The voids of information point to the idea of loss, and opportunity for renewal.

There are also soft references to temple architecture in the renderings, and this notion of the gallery, the parlour and patronage as sacred spaces where we are permitted to dwell for periods.

What I love about this paste-up method is that, at the end of the exhibition, it can be simply washed down, the pulp becoming mulch for the heritage garden beds outside. ‘It is a very accessible way to think about art making; it’s a way to flatten or question those ideas about the value of art on one platform over another,’ PRG Curator Nina Stromqvist tells ArtsHub.

Installation view ‘Parlour Parlëur’, Penrith Regional Gallery. Photo: ArtsHub.

It is this kind of fusing of tradition with a new adaptation that percolates across the whole exhibition. For example, Carsley and Teoh worked for several months with the Outer Western Lacemakers Sydney (OWLS) to learn the art of bobbin lace making – a parlour activity of yesteryear. Their handcrafted “artworks” sit alongside, and in conversation with, a piece Carsley made in the 1980s – a lace cutout of vintage plastic sheeting. By pairing them, the artists celebrate the often overlooked acts of creativity within our homes and communities, bringing them into new light and to new audiences in an immersive and uplifting experience.

Collaboration is a key element of this project. But unlike collaboration which often manifests as a finished object, here it is a more literal experience for the viewer.

A bust of Sarah Wentworth (wife of explorer William Charles Wentworth, who was the first European to discover the area where the Gallery is located), sits on a pedestal-cum-parlour table created with new laser-cut technology. As a drawing room stand-in, it echoes the past but speaks about futures, while also drawing connection to furniture from the Lewers’ home.

Across the Gallery, that same bust is animated in a video, and reads aloud letters written to Carsley and Teoh by the artist Marikit Santiago. There’s also a letter writing table where you can sit, and another table with a half-completed jigsaw puzzle of Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting, The Corinthian Maid (1782-84). In it a young maid traces the shadow of her lover on the wall before he heads off to battle.

Across the space, the narrative weaves again. Two pairs of collaborators – found on Facebook groups by the artists – think about the fact that our the art was born out of a resistance to loss and reenact the myth.

Installation view ‘Parlour Parlëur’, Penrith Regional Gallery. Photo: ArtsHub.

The exhibition is dotted with QR (quick response) codes that direct viewers to the stories behind the objects on display – including paintings and stoneware pots by Margo Lewers from the Gallery’s collection. Needless to say, one can easily feel overwhelmed by the level of information in this exhibition. Is it too much? I remain divided on this. Carsley and Teoh’s ability to stitch together so many different mediums, narratives, memories and points of reference in a seamless manner, is really quite remarkable.

The pair have produced a number of large-scale environments, starting in Singapore (in collaboration with Jeremy Chu) and most recently at Wollongong Art Gallery. This incredible work adds to that journey.

Carsley tells ArtsHub: ‘We feel that we have been successful in rupturing the link between spectacle and material privilege that so advantages the big galleries in the city, but also because of the equivalence we have been able to establish between artefacts produced by artists and non-artists.’

Parlour Parlëur is quite an amazing project, and definitely worth the journey for a view.

Parlour Parlëur
Artists: the ArtHitects (Gary Carsley and Renjie Teoh)
Penrith Regional Gallery
9 September – 9 December 2023

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina