The drive from Melbourne to Burnham Beeches takes you along the winding roads of the Dandenong Ranges. As you exit the sweep of the property's shady driveway the cream curving lines of the Art Moderne style house come into view. There is a sense of arrival. By the time you cross the central lawn and stand under the cantilevered entrance you have already moved into a space that is other-worldly.
Designed in the early 1930s by Melbourne architect Harry Norris for the wealthy businessman Alfred Nicholas, Burnham Beeches is the setting for an extraordinary work titled Empire. Step across the threshold and through the heavy draped red velvet curtain and you enter a world of the imagination. The abandoned interior has been taken over by an immersive project conceived by Melbourne-based artist Rone (Tyrone Wright) and collaborators. A year in the making, Empire is open to the public for only six weeks (from 6 March to 22 April 2019) by timed ticketing. It quickly sold out and I'm not surprised.
Rone is known for his monumental stylised portraits, most commonly of attractive young women, that fill walls and urban facades from Melbourne to London, Paris, Havana and Detroit. Scale plays a vital role. Beautiful and flawless, these billboard sized painted images are quite simply arresting.
The title Empire alludes to past grandeur; an imagined time when a house such as Burnham Beeches was in its heyday. It suggests an opulent lifestyle that has long gone. What we witness now are the hints, the vestiges of these imagined lives, which have left their mark on the now abandoned and decaying interior of the house. Sagging chairs and overstuffed couches with heavy curving arms show their age. A bed is dressed with a fine eiderdown quilt tuned down as if someone has just quit the room, but the pall of dust indicates how long ago that was. There's a grand piano, billiard table and a champagne glass stack that could have come straight out of The Great Gatsby. Everything is covered by the organic and transformative encroachment of dust, leaves, mould and cobwebs.
Looming above the details of each room is the face of the same beautiful, wistful-looking young woman, whose monochrome features are writ large on the walls. Who is she? What happened here? Her eyes never engage the viewer. She is preoccupied, lost in thought, captured for a moment as she turns her head. In the waiting room she looks down at the telephone that sits on the chaise longue. It's been left off the hook. Was this an abruptly ended conversation? But with who? What was said? How did it end? There's an air of the unfinished. The image that gazes down resembles a film cut to a close-up of her expression, fleeting and ephemeral. These are the narratives that are only gestured to; that leave the visitor space to ponder, to imagine for themselves.
The visitor moves through the corridors and rooms like a tracking shot in a film. Turn a corner and another scene unfolds. Fine details of texture are brought into focus in the peeling wallpaper, the ragged-edged sheer curtains which hang limp, walls and ceilings that exhibit mould marks which have spread throughout the building and all the while the soundtrack, composed by Nick Batterham, plays the background score. Filtered sunlight, muted by the tree canopy outside washes across the rooms.
But look closely and you will discover that the already dilapidated, cavernous interior has been subjected to artistic breaking down and distressing. It's a visual conceit. The wallpaper has been added, distressed and peeled back in places. The discolouration created by mould on the walls and across the ceilings is painted. This is set decorating on an extensive scale and it acts as a metaphor for the narrative of beauty, loss and decay.
Rone worked with interior stylist, Carly Spooner, who has sourced Art Deco furniture and props that fit with the era of the house. The organic installations of leaves and branches, grasses and soil were created by Wana Bae and Charlie Lawler of Loose Leaf, a Melbourne-based design studio who describe themselves as specialising in experiential art installations using natural materials. In the upstairs hallway there's a thicket of branches that has been shaped into a tunnel. Is this Alice going down the rabbit hole to her own Wonderland? Downstairs, the long dining room is decked out with two large dining tables. The cobwebbed detritus of the table settings, where empty oyster shells spill over the edges of abandoned plates, lend a tragic Miss Havisham air to the room.
The pièce de résistance is the study. Viewed through the windows on the upstairs balcony, one slowly realises that the chairs, desk, lamp and bookshelves are partially submerged in an inky black water which acts as a perfect mirror. The woman's face, created from the painted spines of hundreds of books, looks down, as if contemplating her own reflection.
Many years ago I worked as a costumier in the film industry. Often my call out would be to sets created within the shells of disused buildings - abandoned mental asylums, military barracks and old convents. Corridors and empty rooms contained the flotsam of oddly placed furniture, a chair in a corner, an empty cabinet with a door left open and papers strewn across the floor. These were the echoes of past inhabitants. Empire plays on this abandoned atmosphere, of the sense of past lives, rooms inhabited by people now long gone. Memory, nostalgia and longing haunt the spaces.
Ultimately, the concepts of beauty, ephemerality, loss, the passing of time and inevitable decay are played out in Empire's end game. The work itself will be demolished to make way for the planned refashioning of the house into a luxury retreat.