When Rone first conceived of Empire – his vast sensory installation in an abandoned Dandenong Ranges mansion – he never thought he’d spend the next year scouring Melbourne for old encyclopedias.
‘Trying to find 64 metres of books all around the same side with a leather back – that is a challenge,’ laughs the celebrated street artist. ‘I’ve since found that a lot of thrift stores no longer accept them as donations, these sets of encyclopedias, because no one buys them – they just take up shelf space. So every set of books that I’ve bought for this is a representation of another suburb of Melbourne that I’ve driven to and collected from Gumtree.’
Rone needed the books to deck out the ‘library’ in the mansion: in the room, one of twelve that audience members can visit, water has spread over the floor, reflecting back the melancholy face of a girl painted onto the wall. The water has been dyed black; it looks like spilt oil. Many of the bookshelves, which house the encyclopedias, have been half submerged.
With its curvaceous walls and ample deck, the art deco Burnham Beeches has long been shut to the public, retaining legendary status amongst locals. When I meet Rone, on a cool, misty day, it rises out of Sherbrooke Forest like a great white ocean liner emerging over the horizon. Inside, it appears even more ghostly, as if the owners have just walked out. In every room are signs of decadence and decay. A large dining table is set but the silver – salt shakers, cutlery, an ornate pheasant – is covered in dust. Oyster shells have been chucked, along with half-burned candles, in the fireplace. Brown crisp leaves pile up in the corners under the spider webs and vegetation sprouts out of ripped leather chairs. Painted on the wall, gazing over it all, is the girl. She looks sad.
Playing on a certain type of Hollywood nostalgia – as well as creating beauty out of dilapidation and destruction – has become Rone’s trademark. This latest project, a sort of fantasy film set which is his largest yet, follows similar takeovers in recent years at the old Star Lyric Theatre in Fitzroy and the Alphington paper mills, which were demolished in 2017.
Born in 1980 (real name: Tyrone Wright), Rone grew up in Geelong, Victoria, and made his introduction to art through graffiti. ‘You could get yourself into dangerous places and I didn’t ever get arrested but I was caught and released. I talked my way out of a few things,’ he grins. Today, his work is hot property – literally. Rone, dressed when we meet in low-key black trousers, a black t-shirt, black cap and black glasses, remains humble. Still, he is aware that given his status, ‘I can probably ask anyone who owns a laneway and they’ll let me paint it’.
‘I’ve had real estate agents advertising a derelict house that I’ve painted in illegally, saying: “This house has an original Rone inside”,’ he shrugs. Other property owners doing renovations have told him how sad they were they couldn’t keep his work on certain walls. Then, last year, celebrity chef Shannon Bennett approached him. He was due to redevelop Burnham Beeches into a $40 million hotel complex. While it was still unoccupied, why didn’t Rone paint a wall or two?
‘I really took everything with a grain of salt – because you look at this place and go you can’t do anything here: it’s too big, it’s too far away,’ recalls Rone, who funded the project himself. ‘It’s such a beautiful building on the outside but it was stripped, totally soulless, like a construction site. There was stuff stored everywhere, totally void of any character. Then I had that realisation; a perfect blank canvas. I can create an entire vision here.’
Rone began with seven chandeliers and 200 metres of velvet curtain. Working alongside interior stylist Carly Spooner he found 500 antiques and vintage pieces of furniture – in garage sales, thrift stores, and scrap heaps – to fill the house from top to bottom. The result is to enter a different world: a scent has been specially created, as has a soundscape by Nick Batterham, and a profusion of floral sculptures. For his wall paintings, Rone asked Lily Sullivan (who played Miranda in the television remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock) to pose for him. It’s an idealised version of the actress: recast, in this flight of fancy, as a silver screen siren from days gone by. ‘The way I paint her is not exactly a representation of her, because she’s a very bubbly, funny girl. But I’m very much trying to make it look as if it’s a timeless classic beauty image,’ he says.
Part of the appeal of Empire is the chance to have a sneak peek inside Burnham Beeches. Designed by Australian architect Harry Norris, and completed in 1933, it was commissioned by Alfred Nicholas, who made his fortune through Aspro pharmaceuticals. Over the years it became a medical research facility, country club, and luxury hotel, before the last residents moved out, leaving it empty.
After six weeks, Empire too will be dismantled, with every last piece of furniture, every last leaf and fleck of dirt, removed. The impermanent suits Rone: ‘When something is fragile you appreciate it a little bit more. Something in that state becomes more beautiful in a sense or more important.’ He mentions the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi or ‘golden repair’, in which broken pottery is pieced back together using gold lacquer in-between the cracks. Rone loves that the craft highlights the vase’s faults, and history, making it more beguiling. ‘I remember seeing that in a museum and going that’s what I’m talking about,’ he enthuses. And yet he admits that ‘the thought of breaking down those tables or throwing away that chandelier is quite heartbreaking in a sense.’ He thinks he might have a bonfire, to burn it all, or donate some items. Others, that aren’t too big, he might keep.
Ultimately, ‘I always have to remind myself the concept of the show: realising that all this material stuff is worth nothing, it’s all dirt in the end… The empire of dirt.’ If Rone takes anything away from the project, which ends on 22 April and has already sold out, it is that of his son, born the same time the artwork was conceived. ‘It’s really spun me out,’ he says. ‘There’s photos of him here in the autumn lying outside in this little teddy bear suit. Now he’s up and walking and can say a few words – he’s really grown up here.’ Rone smiles and drinks in the grand, melancholy Burnham Beeches. ‘He might look at these photos one day and say: this was our first house.’
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