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Melbourne street artist Rone on what comes after the destruction of Empire

After the sell-out success of his 1930s Art Deco installation Empire, street artist Rone is embracing immersive art

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pool table Inside an abandoned house at Rone Street Art Exhibtio
Photograph: Graham Denholm

Cautiously, you walk into a 1930s mansion in the Dandenong hills. The place is deserted, with leaves piling up in corners and errant branches growing through walls. The dining room is set for a dinner party, with oyster shells thick with dust scattered around the table. A tower of champagne glasses is covered in spider webs, and the pool table, still set up mid-game, is broken and sagging. It feels like you've walked inside Miss Havisham's house, but the lady of the house is conspicuously absent. In her stead, a mural of a beautiful woman's face, wistful and elegant, fills one wall. Every room contains different furniture and a different painting of the same woman, as tall as the ceiling. Some rooms are painted, some have wallpaper, now yellowing, faded and peeling. A haunting, eerie soundtrack accompanies you from room to room as you discover the pink, feminine bedroom, the flooded study, the ivy-covered stairs.

This is Empire, a huge art installation in 1930s Art Deco mansion Burnham Beeches by acclaimed Melbourne street artist Rone (aka Tyrone Wright). Or it was, for the six weeks that Empire was in situ at the mansion and sold out every single session. Now Rone has the daunting task of returning the building to its original, pristine condition. 

Rone Emire

"Now the exhibition has been closed as long as it was open and we’re still here," says Rone. Because the building is heritage listed, he had to agree to remove all the furniture and fittings and paint over his murals and bespoke wallpaper. "I really didn’t think this would ever eventuate," he says. "As soon as someone said Heritage [Victoria], I said nah, they won’t let you touch it."

Rone often works in abandoned or condemned buildings, painting with or without permission in spaces that are derelict or doomed. His previous Melbourne project was 2017's hauntingly beautiful The Omega Project, in which he took over the inside of a condemned home in Alphington. The building has since been demolished.

Rone Emire

Taking everything out, pulling down the wallpaper (which Rone designed) and cleaning the mansion has been time-consuming – and expensive. "It’s a huge expense, which I wouldn’t otherwise have to do with any other project, but I wanted to do this one so much that I signed the deal with the devil and said I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it," he says.

"I don’t even know what to do with the furniture. Even to sell it takes a lot of coordination when I have 500 items, but if I had a garage sale it would feel very gross to have people picking over it." 

The project has taken almost a year and a half, with a lot of that time given over to collecting furniture, glassware, silverware, leaves, vines and other things while Heritage Victoria considered his application. When they began the project Rone's partner was nine months pregnant with their son, who is now 14 months old.

"I think my son is literally going to be walking before we leave here," he says. "He’s a physical representation of how long I’ve been here... This is literally his lifetime. We’ve got some great baby photos of him, though – we’re going to tell him this is the house he grew up in."

Rone Emire

Tearing down and painting over that much work is of course emotionally wrenching for Rone, but he says that's part of his medium. "The nature of street art is it all goes. What I’m doing with this work is transferring this loss onto the public and the viewer. I’m making people aware of the fact that my work is disappearing. A lot of work disappears, most of the installations you see in museums and galleries disappear and get chucked out or go in the skip. My work very much plays on that idea of something so extremely beautiful and so well done and is in its last moments. For me, the loss is shared with the viewer. If I did this whole project and no one got to see it it would emotionally destroy me, but that’s actually spread across thousands of people. It’s nice we have this common grief."

Despite the time, effort and emotional exhaustion of taking down a work like Empire, Rone says he thinks that kind of setting is the direction his art is taking. "I hadn't even heard this term until my show practically opened, but immersive art – I think that’s where I am going as an artist. I think it’s really interesting to see the engagement of the audience, it’s so much deeper than when I’ve had a gallery show with white walls and beautiful canvases. People have an ownership, a connection with the space."

Empire came about because restaurateur Shannon Bennett, who owns Burnham Beeches and plans to turn it into a hotel, offered Rone the space to let his imagination run wild. After the blockbuster success of the installation, there are plenty of people queueing up to offer him more buildings to turn into his canvas. "I’ve had some really amazing offers to come and look at some future spaces," he says, "but I haven’t even read them all yet."

"I’d like to take a holiday."

Rone will speak at the 2019 Creative State Summit on May 30-31, a Victorian government initiative that will explore ‘What’s Next’ for the creative industries.

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