The Illawarra Pavilion

In this immersive experience by ArtHitects, large scale printmaking adapts the architectural cues of Hortus conclusus to draw connections between the Illawarra and broader Asia Pacific using Wollongong Art Gallery’s Mann-Tatlow Collection of Asian Art.

When you enter The Illawarra Pavilion at Wollongong Art Gallery, the experience is immediately tranquil. As one of the gallery staff enters a moment after I do, to turn on an uncooperative screen, she comments that she could sit in here for hours because it’s so peaceful.

Within the large, square gallery space, additional faux pillars have been suspended from the ceiling to create a centralised courtyard, completed with a pair of Qing dynasty horseshoe armchairs in glowing rosewood, circa early-1700s. Follow the sound of running water a few steps further, and you find The Escarpment, 2022, a miniature re-enactment of the Illawarra landscape with waterfall, fernery, and a few small goldfish. 

The effect is of an indoor garden or enclosed courtyard, sheltered and quiet: an inspired Hortus conclusus, from where this immersive work takes its architectural cues. As architect Kate Baker has written, an enclosed garden is both a design and an experience. Its nature as both indoor and outdoor makes it ambiguous. But as an installation? The ambiguity is recast as a tension between artifice and nature, by cleverly borrowing from this architectural vernacular within the multi-perspective, large-scale print that covers the walls. The fish, by the way, are real.

The Invigilator, 2022, an animated ceramic figure, floats against a perfectly blue sky and silently watches on from within her gold-framed screen. She begins to explain the immersive landscape to those in the room. “Linking the past and future of this region to the wider one of the Asia Pacific through select objects from the Wollongong Art Gallery’s Mann-Tatlow Collection of Asian Art and Antiquity has enabled the architects to further evolve a singular highly distinctive visual language,” she instructs. Her two-minute lecture concludes with an eerie warning: “Do not touch anything, as I will be watching.” Her gaze shifts and continues to follow you around the room, while an uplifting arrangement composed by Louise Loh begins to play.

The Illawarra Pavilion is created by the artist/architect collective known as The ArtHitects, comprised of the two collaborators Gary Carsley and Renjie Teoh. It delivers a similar spatial environment to that of their earlier installation Savour Labour, 2021, which also used printed sheets of paper that lined the walls. The intensity of this labour is notable; The Illawarra Pavilion took twenty-four days to install with a total of 3,563 overlapping sheets of eighty gsm A4 paper painstakingly wallpapered to create the optical illusion that stretches into artificial space. False balconies, terraces, staircases, and picturesque gardens are always just out of reach, while hallways twist deeper into the illusion. 

The serenity of the space is complicated by the dislocating reality of this multi-perspectival print that encases and enlarges the room, implying an openness to the outdoors that is teasingly artificial, but still beautiful. Other moments of dislocation occur, such as the two horseshoe armchairs mentioned earlier which face away from the viewer when they first enter, like someone has deliberately turned their back on you. This doesn’t counteract the moments of delight and surprise in the experience, but adds further intrigue into the multicultural dynamics it evokes.

Importantly, the installation borrows these chairs and other selected furniture from Wollongong Art Gallery’s Mann-Tatlow Collection, not only placing them in this setting, but incorporating these objects into the print by enlarging and repeating furniture details onto the walls and architraves. This gives the installation a stronger connection to the Gallery and its specific location. The Illawarra Pavilion also draws on other local elements, such as the Illawarra Flame Tree. 

The Mann-Tatlow Collection is comprised of Asian ceramics, objects, and items of furniture from the Neolithic period to the early twentieth century and is wide-ranging and diverse in the taste of William S. Tatlow and Gora Singh Mann, who donated the entirety to the Gallery in 2003. The ArtHitects have chosen mostly pieces from the Qing dynasty – altar tables, cabinets, chairs – pairing these with QR codes nearby that can be scanned to learn more about each one. You must make a choice between reading somewhat didactic information on your phone or being immersed in the sensory experience of the installation. Occasionally the QR code leads elsewhere, to a story or poem written by a local writer in response to the furniture or object in view.

The deeper you travel into this exhibition the more layered it becomes, particularly with the numerous QR codes that invite you to dig a little deeper into the Mann-Tatlow Collection. But a deeper tension exists within the illusion of tranquillity which has already started to unravel, disconcerted by the feeling of being watched and the artifice of any promised relief that you could slip out through one of the many doors or windows into the garden beyond.   

The Illawarra Pavilion 
26 February – 29 May 2022
Wollongong Art Gallery, New South Wales

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