March 6 - April 22, 2019
High in the Dandenong Ranges a sprawling art deco mansion lies empty, nature creeping through its crumbling walls. Questions hang heavy in the dense silence, each room strewn with the dusty remains of a fallen dynasty and echoes of romance past. Here not much is certain, except that any signs of life have long since departed. Through a cracked window, you spy the ghost of a smile on the lips of a woman, or do you? You are drawn inside, into a once-magnificent hall. You are now entering Empire.
A multi–sensory installation spread throughout the deserted Burnham Beeches residence 40 kilometres east of Melbourne. Curated over 12 months amid the changing seasons, Rone’s most immersive installation to date sees his hauntingly powerful portraits augmented by sound, light, scent, interior and botanical design elements, in addition to VR and AR technology.
When I first visited Burnham Beeches
I felt a very strong pull to create something unique. There could be no better opportunity to continue what I started with The Omega Project and answer the question: if a picture is worth a thousand words, what can be communicated through sight, sound, scent, space and texture?
My starting point was the idea of an unsuspecting visitor walking into an abandoned residence and discovering what has been left behind. The remains of lives lived inside the mansion begin to offer pieces of a story, but unlike in a cinema or theatre, there is no linear narrative to follow. Every new visitor has a unique experience in the space.
Walking through rooms that had been shuttered for more than 25 years prompted me to ask what might make someone walk away from an opulent home like this, and I soon began to layer my own ideas about the man and woman of the house against the walls. What memories might have been created within this structure which is slowly being reclaimed by nature? What meaning do once-prized possessions carry when the owner is long forgotten?
Everyone I know goes away in the end and you could have it all my empire of dirt.– Hurt, Trent Reznor (1994)
The Making of Empire
To help realise his Ozymandian vision,Rone surrounded himself with a veritable army of artists, designers and craftspeople from Melbourne and further afield. Over the course of 12 months, the project team infused the 12 key spaces with mood and meaning as if rewinding a clock on the story of the mysterious woman who adorns the mansion’s walls, stairways and bookcases.
The styling of the empty mansion, which is one of Australia’s standout examples of jazz age architecture, was carried out under the auspices of interior designer Carly Spooner.
She explains: “The objects that would have been valued in a grand house like this are quite different from the suburban home of The Omega Project, but I found my way in by asking questions such as ‘what would the woman of the house have kept on her dressing table’ and ‘what sort of dinners would have been hosted here’.”
Every fixture, piece of furniture and decorative item on display was sourced within Victoria, including the 64 metres worth of hardback encyclopedias that form Rone’s portrait canvas in the study. From a round-mirrored vanity table in the scarlet room to a ceremonial bronze bust in the lounge room, a distinction between feminine and masculine aesthetics hints at an estrangement that seems to emanate from the walls themselves.
Spooner adds: “We didn’t set out to create a pretty scene, instead we’re exploring the juxtapositions in life,
and that means everything from a Gatsby-esque champagne tower to a sun-faded Johnson’s shampoo bottle has its place.”
Regardless of their contemporary worth, the treasures of Empire now sit blanketed in dust and doomed to be lost to the ravages of time.
Carly Spooner is a freelance interior designer and co-director of The Establishment Studios, a photography space and prop store in Fitzroy. She previously collaborated with Rone on The Omega Project and seeks to bring derelict spaces to life in a fashion that is faithful to both the artist’s vision and period design styles. Her work has also been seen lately in Harper’s Bazaar Australia and the 2018 Rigg Design Prize exhibition.
MUSIC AND SOUND DESIGN
The 14-channel soundscape celebrates the beauty in melancholic recollection and invites nature to reclaim the mansion via a combination of neoclassical music and weather and wildlife recordings made on the estate at various points through the year.
Composer Nick Batterham explains: “As you drive up the hill to Burnham Beeches you feel the change in energy and become immersed in nature, so it was important to me the sound design work in harmony with what’s already there while also enhancing the majesty of the visual experience Rone has created.”
The music is divided into four movements representing the seasons, plus an intermezzo. At the southern end of the mansion the solitary piano yearns for its long-lost companion. At the opposite end, the cello responds, augmented by strings. Thunder rumbles upstairs and cockatoos permeate the north wing.
As the birdsong-influenced piano and percussion motifs play through internal speakers, these sounds in turn draw fresh responses from the birds outside the window in the present moment.
Batterham says this layering of sound and the multidimensionality of the installation presented an significant challenge. Unlike a cinema viewer, for example, the Empire visitor can move around and follow sounds coming from different corners of the cathedral-like building.
“This was unlike any other composition I’ve done because every person who visits will have a different aural experience, and that’s what makes it so exciting,” he adds.
Nick Batterham is a Melbourne singer-songwriter known for performing with internationally revered bands including Blindside, The Earthmen and Cordrazine. He has also worked extensively in sound design for film and television, winning plaudits for his compositions for documentaries such as Lionel (2008), Unchartered Waters (2013) and Dying To Live (2018).
Nature and the seasons pervade the mansion through a mixture of delicate, wild and formidable pieces by leading oral designers Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler. Tufts of golden grasses emanate from the floor and autumn leaves lie scattered while gnarled branches seem to crawl along the walls, forcing the visitor to duck and tread carefully through the shadows.
Many of the natural materials in the installation were collected on-site or along the road to Burnham Beeches, including the spectacular ruin of a century-old tree that takes pride of place in The Lobby.
Charlie Lawler explains: “Through our work, we react on the relationship between built environment and nature which we feel complements Rone’s art and the story behind Empire. Similarly, we love this idea of the beauty that can be found in decay.”
He continues: “There is beauty in every life stage of plant material. Having the freedom of time and space in which to explore this process is always exciting to us – and we don’t normally have 15 empty rooms in which to dry thousands of fallen leaves.”
The standout pieces, says Lawler, are those where Mother Nature has done the hard work, such as the hydrangeas found frozen in time as if trapped under winter’s spell and now on display in The Waiting Room.
WONA BAE + CHARLIE LAWLER
Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler are the brains behind Loose Leaf, a Collingwood design studio specialising in experiential art installations using natural materials. Their work has appeared in the likes of The New York Times and The Telegraph (UK), with past commissions including the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Rolex and Google. In 2016 they published a coffee table book for plant lovers.
The next dimension to be overlaid was scent, courtesy of Fremantle-based perfumer Kat Snowden and diffusers placed strategically throughout the mansion. Inspired by the seasonal and narrative shifts between rooms, as well as lighting. Snowden created four fragrances that further distinguish the four zones of the installation.
She explains: “I used a combination of natural and synthetic aroma compounds to capture the different seasons in a way that also reflects the disuse of the space and maps on to the interior styling. In the wintry rooms the moss you can smell is a damp moss, for example, while in the springtime rooms the oral notes are tempered by a powdery scent reminiscent of a long-unopened wardrobe.”
As a powerful trigger of memory and emotion, scent is a logical addition to Rone’s work. “The olfactory experience is purely an extension of the visual one,” adds Snowden.
Kat Snowden is a Victorian-born perfumer and cosmetic chemist based in WA. She is founder of Clean Slate Skin Care and recently produced the scentscape for Dali Land as part of the 2019 Fringe World festival in Perth.
To extend the life of his ephemeral artworks, Rone called on filmmaker and longtime collaborator Lester Francois to create a VR experience that could live within Burnham Beeches and long after his portraits have been painted over.
Inside the installation’s VR room, you are invited to don a headset and witness the installation coming together through a short 360-degree lm featuring monoscopic and stereoscopic footage captured at various stages in 2018.
The new Empire lm follows a quick tour through a virtual gallery of Rone’s previous works and Francois’ acclaimed 2017 documentary about the artist.
Francois says: “As a longtime fan, it’s important to me that we document Rone’s impermanent work for future generations, for people on the other side of the world and others who might not otherwise get to see it in real life – and VR is the perfect medium for that.”
He adds: “For visitors to Burnham Beeches, the VR experience will provide some historical background as to how one of Victoria’s foremost artists has transitioned from street artist to fine artist.”
Lester Francois is a Melbourne filmmaker known for his work exploring subcultures using cutting-edge technology. He began documenting Rone’s work in 2016 and was invited to screen his first interactive VR experience about the artist at international festivals including SXSW and Cannes NEXT. He is co-founder of StudioBento.
To stretch the bounds of Empire further, immersive technology expert Rayyan Roslan and his team at Phoria created an augmented reality app. The app, installed on iPads provided at hotspots within the installation, superimposes a digital twin on to the physical environment so that you can simultaneously appreciate Rone’s work and see what the space looked like before he entered it.
Roslan explains: “Essentially we’re using 3D mapping, and the positioning technology within the iPad camera, to let you step into a point in the past. It’s like having x-ray vision; you can see the bones of the space and how it has been transformed in real-time as you walk through it.”
He says the technology, developed in Melbourne, has moved on signi cantly since he rst collaborated with Rone on the digitisation of Empty at the derelict Star Lyric Theatre in 2016.
Designed with the preservation of heritage-listed buildings in mind, this scale of augmented reality allows you to gain a deeper understanding of your spatial environment and potentially experience emotional resonances more keenly as a result.
Should the building remain structurally intact, future visitors to Burnham Beeches might access the app to view added layers of 3D imagery as well as the Empire VR lm. For now the aim is simply to add to the visual journey of Empire for a few minutes at a time, rather than mediate it through a screen.
“We hope it adds a bit of drama to the experience and encourages a greater appreciation of Rone’s very involved process,” adds Roslan.
Rayyan Roslan is co-founder of PHORIA, a Fitzroy-based studio specialising in extended reality (XR) technologies. His team recently built a 3D modelling app for Google-IO, an immersive installation for the Pitch Music and Arts Festival and a VR therapy platform for Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.