When a home is abandoned, what memories linger in the dusty halls? How do the lives of the family who once lived there and the history of a time now past permeate the architecture? These are the questions evoked by Melbourne artist Rone’s latest installation, Empire.
Faded glory and neglected mansions have long pervaded film and literature – from Miss Havisham’s ghostly abode in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, to Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard and the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, artists and audiences have been irresistibly drawn to places where the past hangs heavy in the air. Yet where media such as literature and film are by necessity a representation, Rone’s Empire is a full-body immersion into not only the visual decadence of ruin but the sounds and scents of another world.
Part installation, part exhibition, part VR and AR experience, Empire takes place inside the crumbling walls of Burnham Beeches, a 1930s mansion set amongst magnificent grounds in Sherbrooke, which has been vacant for more than 20 years. Burnham Beeches was designed by architect Harry Norris for the family of Alfred Nicholas, who made his fortune founding the Aspro brand. The family lived in the home for only four years before Alfred’s death, and over time the mansion was used as a children’s hospital and a luxury hotel until it was shuttered in the 1990s.
Rone, whose haunting portraits have been painted on buildings around cities the world over, has always captured a connection between the faces and the urban structures on which they are painted. His 2017 installation The Omega Project saw a condemned Alphington suburban home become the ‘canvas’ for his work, an approach taken a step further at Burnham Beeches. Visitors are encouraged to wander into every room, up the magnificent staircase, past an abandoned feast complete with spiderwebs and dulled silverware, into dusty bedrooms where grasses sprout from the furniture, and through hallways in which skeletal branches break through walls, slowly taking over the building.
“I want people to walk in and feel like they can explore the possibilities of what might or might not have happened here,” Rone explains. “I love exploring the concept of how — and why — something so magnificent can be left to decline into ruin. Empire is about offering audiences the chance to create their own story; to temporarily transport their minds to another place, another time. It’s not often that you can be so fully immersed in another era like this. It’s almost like we’ve discovered a forgotten time capsule and cracked it open for the world to see.”
The history of a place that began as a dream family home doomed to only four short years of life, and which weathered world events from the Great Depression and the Second World War, is woven throughout Empire. Working with stylist Carly Spooner and florist Looseleaf, Rone creates a surreal world in which his portraits of actor Lily Sullivan painted on a grand scale are imbued with the melancholy and charm of a bygone era. Here and there, the artwork seems to embody the house itself as a portrait is glimpsed below creeping vines or overlooks a dusty grand piano surrounded by crumpled sheet music and great drifts of brown leaves.
A musical score by Nick Batterham and subtle scents by Kat Snowden contribute to a moving experience that sweeps one up in an atmosphere where it is never quite clear what is real or what simply might have been.
Empire runs from 6 March to 22 April, 2019. Tickets available https://www.r-o-n-e.com/