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.
The Sun Room
Midnight in the Garden
The Waiting Room
The Blue Room
The Scarlette Room
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?
Fragments of inspiration also came from Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt and the heart-wrenching music video in which you see the singer, mere months away from his death, inside the derelict museum devoted to his career heyday.
I was fortunate to find Lily Sullivan, whose timeless ‘girl next door’ beauty made her the perfect muse for this project, and then to be able to photograph her inside the mansion to glean a true light reference.
Having collaborated with interior stylist Carly Spooner to bring depth to photographs of my portraits in the Omega house, I marvelled at the impact this had on viewers of the work in-situ. With Empire the scope was so much bigger and I was eager to use every artistic medium at my disposal to create a profoundly multidimensional work.
I hope visitors will sense the change of the seasons as they explore the four zones of the installation, just as we did while working here this past year.
In this age of social media, when a photo taken in a laneway can be seen by more people than a mural in a high-traffic location, I have come to view the documentation of my work as the final step in my creative process. The paint on the wall is just the start.
Empire invites you to step inside the photograph, hear the echo of the decaying piano and smell the dry leaves invading the hallway. Then, long after the paintings are gone, this photographic memoir and accompanying soundtrack will present an opportunity to delve into the project afresh; to once again be transported to this special space that we reclaimed, albeit fleetingly, and collectively imbued with story.
— Rone, February 2019
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.
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).