Beauty and decay in the mansion time forgot

Views of The Sun Room of the Norris building situated on the Burnham Beeches Estate, Sherbrook

RONE (Tyrone Wright) is one of Australia’s most commercially successful street artists, and his ethereal large-scale portraits of women, who have become collectively known as “Jane Does”, are recognisable world-wide. These conventionally attractive, feminine faces emerged in the mid-2000’s out of a street aesthetic that was masculine and aggressive in tone. RONE noticed immediately how their soft, delicate appearance allowed them to stand out on any wall, like gentle contradictions to the severe, macho imagery that permeated the urban landscape.

RONE began moving out of the alleys, off the streets and into abandoned buildings destined for demolition or reconstruction some years ago. The ideas of beauty and decay became central to his work, as did the unknown narratives belonging to these empty, rotting places that were once filled with life and activity.

However, Empire is more than just a collection of paintings in a condemned space; it is a multi-sensory, immersive experience involving sound, scent and meticulous styling that embeds RONE’s artworks in an opulent world that time abruptly forgot.

The front and rear views of the Norris building on the estate

Twelve months in the making, and the work of several creative collaborators, Empire invites visitors into the Norris building, located on the picturesque Burnham Beeches estate in Sherbrook. The manor is an Art Moderne mansion built between 1931 and 1933 for Alfred Nicholas, a wealthy industrialist, and his family. From the exterior, it simply looks like a slightly decrepit example of the ultra-chic, opulent standards in high living and entertaining during the 1930’s in Australia.  However, inside, it is much more.

Above the entrance to the manor

Slipping through the decadent red velvet curtain and into the reception area of the mansion, visitors are greeted with the musty, slightly sweet scent of age. Smokey, powdery particles cloud the air indicating the space has been disturbed. The floor is covered with dust and littered with crackling autumn leaves blown inside by many a chilly wind. Dotted around the entrance is evidence that people were once here. A wine stained glass rests on a shelf. A vintage telephone, receiver estranged from the hook, lies strewn across a day bed. It’s a strange arrangement of things, planted carefully to beg the questions, “Who was here? Did they leave in a hurry? Where did they go?”

Context appropriate arrangements of practical and sentimental objects make it easy to believe that this place was once occupied by real and lively inhabitants and guests

The curious move onward and into the manor, exploring rooms, halls and corridors outfitted with the finest of furniture, lighting and décor from a world not dissimilar to that of Mr Gatsby. Each room is cluttered with an authentic assortment of room-appropriate objects in arrangements that suggest those once using them abandoned their positions hurriedly; perhaps mid-meal, mid-cocktail, mid-song or mid-game.

Examples of the exquisite attention to detail evident throughout the entire property

The work of interior stylist Carly Spooner, the attention to detail is nothing short of stunning. The scrupulous placement of thousands of practical but ornamental objects reminds visitors that life here was active and indulgent. The considerate placement of sentimental objects – such as photos, handwritten notes and heirlooms – reminds visitors that the people who inhabited this world were very human. Floral matter, dried and decayed, pokes and creeps through cracks in the floor, tears in furniture and fractures in the walls – nature’s long-term attempt to reclaim the abandoned space for herself. Atmospheric music and sound recordings fill the air with an echo of nostalgia. Thick layers of dust (ash from the nearby bakery) and networks of web-like strings suggest the entire mansion has remained untouched for decades, lonely and forgotten. It’s impossible to not be drawn into this mystery, and the imagination runs wild. With each step, the manor feels less and less like the home of a staged production and more like reality – reality for someone, at some point.

The Dining Room

Muted in both colour and emotional expression, RONE’s portraits of actress Lily Sullivan adorn the walls of the manor’s many rooms. In each instance, we see evidence of RONE’s trademark technique in which he renders the beautiful and haunting faces of his subjects in translucent washes of subdued colour, revealing the degrading, putrefying surface underneath. Amazingly, all of the walls in the manor were white prior to the project commencing. A nice feature in The Sun Room is the chance to view the room as it was, utterly empty, in augmented reality. By viewing the room this way, we learn that the many of the surfaces on which RONE painted were covered with wall paper (which was then ripped away) or texturised deliberately to mimic and intensity the look of decay. What’s particularly interesting about the application of this process in this context is that it blurs the lines between staged and actual decay – where does the art end, and the crumbling of this manor begin?

The Study

This “crumbling” of the estate is both tangible and poetic. As an 85-year-old structure, it has succumbed to years’ of natural deterioration, both structural and superficial. And, as the name of this installation suggests, empires rise and fall, opulence glitters and dims, wealth accumulates and trickles away. RONE’s poignant portraits of a woman whose timeless sense of beauty has been frozen, along with every deliberately placed element in this situation, will also be lost once renovations to convert the manor into a luxury hotel commence in a matter of weeks. Immortalised only in carefully crafted photographs, Empire – the immersive experience – will soon be gone forever. Ultimately, the thought to take home is that nothing lasts forever, and it is in this fragile, treasured transience that we seek to appreciate beauty, both in the moment, and in moments past.

If you were fortunate enough to acquire a ticket to experience Empire, what did you think? What amazed, stunned and moved you about this project? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “Empire

  1. I found the view through the huge windows – vibrant and moving greens and reds – such a contrast. It was semi-distracting but also charming. The autumn colours of the grounds were an artwork in themselves:-)


    1. Autumn really is the most appropriate season for the staging of this project. No season sums up the transient, cyclical nature of life and death quite so well. The foliage on the grounds outside did look very beautiful from within the manor, and the gentle dropping of leaves complimented the beauty and the decay accentuated inside, too.

      Liked by 1 person

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