Melbourne, Australia in summer can get hot. Very hot. As the desert centre of Australia heats up during this season, the weather cycle brings occasionally brings a wind that drags those conditions south east, scorching the city as though you are standing in a hair dryer.
The past summer in Melbourne has been mostly milder than pervious years. The winds never came, so the city hasn’t got so hot – an impact of the prolonged La Niña weather cycle, dragged out by climate change.
It was mid January when we hopped on a tram and headed down to Flinder’s Street train station, where we were booked in to an exhibition, or installation if you’d prefer, called “Time” by Melbourne artist Rone. Rone is more known for his street art – tall, building spanning portraits of mostly women.
Flinder’s Street Station
You can have a look at his instagram to get a bit of a sense of his body of work: https://www.instagram.com/r_o_n_e/?hl=en
On this day, the mild summer had parted and given way to the full Melbourne heatwave experience. By the time we arrived at Flinder’s Street, the 38 degrees c (100 f) air made standing on the city streets uncomfortable.
Rone’s murals on many buildings around Melbourne are a striking contrast to the high colour, often character driven street art that is far more common here. His monochrome faces feel more like pieces of images plucked from the neo-classical period, with renderings of beautiful young women with flowing hair, and occasionally old men with the story of their long lives creased across their faces.
At some point Rone started taking these murals indoors, casting the texture of his medium across walls, bookshelves, the crumbling bricks and plaster of derelict and abandoned buildings. Around these works he would often arrange something of a mise-en-scène, taking this illustrations more into the world of installation, or more so making an installation depicting a world.
“Time” is a much more ambitious installation than previous works. Flinder’s street station is loved but aging relic, with warren like rooms and hallways, and a huge ballroom that in itself is an echo of a bygone era of the forgotten and gone people of Melbourne. Rone’s work here was to recreate the feel of that lost world found, building on what was already in place at the station, filling it with the artefacts and patterns of lives past.
Oh, and of course, portraits of women.
Quite different to much of the audience, I was able to approach this exhibition in two ways: as an observing audience member, or as a collector with a curiosity of history. The latter oddly making parts of this exhibition feel jarring and uncomfortable.
In many ways this installation is a curated piece of nostalgia. Every furnishing, every piece of equipment has been carefully chosen to help depict a world that has passed. Cobwebs and dust have been carefully scattered across all of these surfaces, giving each room that feeling of abandoned dereliction that has been the location and setting of many of Rone’s previous portraits.
Everything displayed here was placed. This entire environment is carefully staged – and sometimes less carefully due to the limitations of space and the want to depict a certain image.
The first room we entered depicted a common scene of manufacturing past – a world that was referred to as ‘the rag trade’. Sewing machines are arranged across the room, with the accoutrements that may, or may not, have supported workers in such a space.
Overhead speakers set the tone with atmospheric music, a soundtrack arranged by Nick Batterham
You can listen to it here, while reading through this blog if you’d like https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIvAY4KQ4rvtYTw1S3VoN2w
The feeling of casual abandonment strikes you the moment you enter the room. The murals are the key pieces of art in these spaces, but the arrangement of these machines, if not the machines themselves are pieces of art that isn’t as easy to appreciate as the soft feminine figures depicted on the walls.
As the heat of the city bore down, the perspiration glancing across my forehead and cheeks and running down my back just added to that sense of ‘the sweatshop’. Each room was attended by staff to keep an eye out and make sure people were not touching the displays. As they were so carefully arranged, having curious hands on them would break that sense of the undisturbed and abandoned look. You’re told before you enter to respect this, that every speck of dust has been carefully placed. The image of a found-world was something they carefully wanted to preserve.
Next we moved to a mail room – sorting bags pinned across a frame seems so foreign, so manual to the world today, an echo of a process that has long been mechanised and better organised, yet aesthetically pleasing.
Then, a phone exchange room – beautifully depicted, but sadly missing some key pieces of equipment – the headsets that interfaced the operators with the desks. It in one sense gives an image of the operators having stood up and stepped away – never to return. But from a historian or collector’s point of view, it’s jarring, as this was an era that you did not carry this kind of work home with you – you left it there at the end of the day when you physically ‘clocked off’.
Next, was a room that spoke to my love of typewriters – the key collection in my life. Typewriters to me have been a big connection to my own past – to my grandfather and mother, both long passed.
In previous rooms tea cups and tools here are the placed hints of life happening at the coalface, but in the typing room, the contribution to the tone of this moves it to being distinctly more personal, with porcelain dog statues, paperweights, briefcases and flowers scattered about. These gave the installation a sense of occurrence, a feel of lived in, with reference points to people’s lives that have moved on.
As a collector, as with many collectors, we view life through that item we hold and wonder about the context it lived and was used in. What were the people behind these machines like, and how was life lived? Here, a bold attempt has been made to depict this – and it works as a fly back of nostalgic exploration, as though you are digging through your grandparents storage shed.
As a collector however, while it was wonderful to see these machines on display, so much of what was positioned were felt jarringly wrong – like drinking up a glass of sugar loaded soft drink, only to find the unexpected and unmistakable taste of artificial sweetener. Everything is here that I want as a collector, but it just feels so… untruthful.
We left this end of the building and headed back down the hallway where its windows were covered by aging newspapers. In themselves these papers were a fascinating view of life of another era.
Back past the lifts we came up in, we found a room depicting school life in the form of a classroom, with an adjacent room built as a moody indulgence of an art class.
It is here, as we pass though the art room that the image of a found-world started to fall away and everything was far more intentionally theatrical. The lighting here was dim and felt more in tune to making an instagrammable image of a woman’s face overlooking the room. Everything felt scattered and thrown in much more carelessly than the curated rooms of working life depicted up the hallway.
No where was this theatricality more prevelent than the library next door. This was entirely constructed in this space to give that feeling of a cavernous world of shelves, ladders and stairs – echoing in its depiction some of the former Melbourne State Library’s rooms. However, it is compressed, with the upper level comically small and stairs that are so narrow they were unclimbable. Here light is controlled and merely drifts or is carefully beamed into the room, slowly changing over time to help reveal or conceal more of the set-piece to make it feel as though it was breathing. Again, this area feels more like an instagrammable scene. Beautiful though it may be, walking through it felt more like passing through a room in a Disney ride, than an exhibition.
Out of the library you can peer into a workshop through a door wedged ajar. From here the illusion of a found-world space returns. Next room over the space you can explore is what feels like a store room that’s been filled with thrown in wooden crates and packing material and glassware and other fodder. A depiction of the back of a giant clock makes you almost feel as though you have stumbled into the rear of the Flinder’s Street clock tower. You haven’t… everything here is immobile with no further interaction with the world to be had. A piano lays dormant to bring this reality home – silent and unused, much like the typewriters and sewing machines from earlier rooms, while overhead another piece of the soundtrack fills the air from speakers moved out of view.
There’s a store. A magnificent representation of a counter-top dispensary store from another era, when you still bought fruit and vegetables from the market, but modern products could be found in small corner-shops that were scattered along suburban streets. Many of these were pharmacies and dispensaries. This room felt particularly well done with a great balance of artefact over theatricality that gave a wonderful feeling of daily life.
Or maybe again it was my interest in medical history that gave me such enjoyment. It certainly went some way to not making the inaccuracy of the scene feel less ‘wrong’.
After passing a lost property room – a quite literal depiction of the found-world aesthetic of the installation, we finally came to the Flinders Street Station ballroom. I had heard about this ballroom over the years, but never been in it. Here a glasshouse had been reconstructed to create a wonderful scene surrounding another mural, with a very different feel to the rest of installation.
This doesn’t so much depict a found-world as much as it creates a fascinating and beautifully contemplative space.
In a lot of ways, this installation or exhibition – what you will, felt like an urban explorer theme park. A safe way to enjoy digging through the dead and dying spaces in our world, with most the dust and none of the cockroaches, dirty air and pigeon poo. Rone’s depictions are as always, beautiful but only stand out due to the context of where he often renders them. Here the highly controlled found-world environment was still just as interesting to explore and look at.
As a collector, it was quite enjoyable to circle through this constructed world. Yet only looking at the typewriters however, and not touching them, felt so alien. At home I can put my hands on machines, these pieces of history, whenever I want. In a lot of ways this is what is most sad about this exhibition – the tactile experiences that so many of these things here can provide – but don’t, as you are left to enjoy the beauty of these things, with the experience entering around the portraits. This feeling is heightened in some of these spaces with some of the props set to look as though someone else has explored here already, having picked things up and cast them away on the floor – a key aesthetic to the mood of these spaces, but a reminder that you simply cannot touch and you are here only to experience. We walked out of the sweltering Flinders Street Station building, sweat beaded across us yet no dust sticking to our skin.
The great irony of this is, is that Rone himself has benefited by being the one who went in, who touched, who painted on the walls of derelict buildings. So be it. I went home and looked at some of my own collection pieces, placed my fingers on my own typewriters. History under my hands in a found-world exhibition surrounding own life.
2 thoughts on “Time – Rone”
An excellent review! You described what was good about the installation very well, and I tend to agree with you about its weak points, while perhaps going further. Thank you for sharing this.
These scenes are quite eerie. Thanks for the tour!