Left vacant for more than 20 years, a sprawling 1930s mansion sits neglected, in a state of ruin. Questions hang heavy in its dense silence, each room strewn with the dusty remains of a collapsed empire and hints of romance past. Here, not much is certain but it’s clear that any signs of life have long since departed.
Following the success of his 2017 outing, The Omega Project – which saw a condemned family home in suburban Alphington recast, fleetingly, as a gallery and installation piece before being demolished – internationally renowned Australian artist Rone announces his largest and most ambitious project yet: Empire – set amongst the decaying glory of a once-magnificent manor in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges.
Part exhibition, part installation, part VR and AR experience, Empire combines art, vision, sound, light, botanical design and scent to take audiences on a hauntingly immersive multi-sensory journey into a reimagined past of a faded icon throughout March and April 2019.
Featuring extensive Deco-era styling from interior stylist Carly Spooner (The Establishment Studios, The Omega Project) across 12 of the estate’s otherwise empty spaces, the experience has been meticulously curated to evoke a distinct series of moods as audiences move from room to room.
Thematically linked to the seasons, rooms have been furnished with over 500 individual antique pieces, which Spooner and Rone painstakingly sourced over a series of months. Included is a grand piano that, for several weeks, was left to the elements in the mansion’s garden to achieve its aged patina before being transplanted back into the house – moss, leaves and all.
Complementing Spooner’s film set-like styling is a series of stunning botanical installations by design studio Loose Leaf that reference each season and reflect the perpetual life and death cycles of nature and the estate’s surrounding gardens.
Elsewhere, bespoke scent design by Kat Snowden, lighting design by John McKissock, and stirring multi-channel sound design from composer Nick Batterham (which drew on months’ worth of ambient audio recorded on site in the estate’s gardens, season by season) present sensory elements that draw audiences deeper into Rone’s veiled narrative.
Appearing as ghosts or hazy recollections, a series of the artist’s evocative monochrome ‘Jane Doe’ portraits loom large on walls across the multi-storey mansion. After an exhaustive search for a muse that could embody the mood and aesthetic that Rone envisioned for the project, he connected with screen actress Lily Sullivan (Foxtel’s Picnic at Hanging Rock) – who, as it turned out, was already a fan after seeing The Omega Project in 2017.
Rone says that Sullivan’s understated and timeless “girl next door” beauty cast her as a perfect candidate to inhabit the role of muse for what he describes as his most expansive and time-consuming project to date.
“When I first came up to check out the building I wasn’t sure what to expect,” says Rone of the Art Deco Streamline Moderne style property, which was built in 1933 as the family home of wealthy industrialist and founder of the Aspro brand, Alfred Nicholas.
“Once I got inside and realised that I had free rein on an entire mansion my mind was blown with ideas of what could be possible. It was quite overwhelming,” added Rone.
After its glamorous heyday in the 1930s, Burnham Beeches later served as a research facility, children’s hospital and luxury hotel until being shuttered in the late 1990s and purchased by current owners, the Vue Group in 2010.
Unprecedented in scale and over 12 months in the making, the project has been a colossal undertaking for the Collingwood-based artist, who commenced work on the space in early 2018 – around the same time that he became a parent for the first time.
“From that perspective, the timing was quite intense but when an opportunity like this comes up there’s just no choice,” said Rone. “I knew from the beginning that this was a once-in-a lifetime chance to create something really incredible.”
While Rone says that fragments of inspiration for Empire came from the heart-wrenching melancholia of Johnny Cash’s acclaimed Mark Romanek-directed film clip Hurt, (where Cash covered Nine Inch Nails) he was careful not to dictate the narrative. Instead, he’s opted for unguided ambiguity, encouraging audiences to ask their own questions and create a storyline based on their own perception and experience.
“I want people to walk in and feel like they can explore the possibilities of what might or might not have happened here,” said Rone. “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.”
Empire – an installation by Rone
Burnham Beeches Mansion, 1 Sherbrooke Road, Sherbrooke
Exhibition: 6 March – 22 April 2019
Entry fees apply
For more information, visit: www.r-o-n-e.com for details
Image: Rone, Empire, 2018 – 2019 (installation view)