It was once one of Melbourne’s best urban legends, like the tunnels under La Trobe University or the Crown casino having a secret morgue: was there really a preserved ballroom above Flinders Street Station, that barely anyone had seen for decades? Until members of the public were allowed in two years ago, for a Patricia Piccinini show, many didn’t believe it was real; even after that, some still didn’t quite know whether to believe it or not.
Street artist Tyrone Wright, better known as Rone, was one of them. “Just being in Melbourne, you hear rumours that there’s a ballroom but you don’t really know if it is there until you see pictures,” he says. “I asked around if anything was planned up here and was told nothing – which wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no. I basically didn’t stop hassling people until I could be up here.”
We stand in the middle of his new exhibition, Time, in the fabled top level of the station. It is yet another of his immersive installations exploring beauty and decay, pairing his paintings of delicate, female faces (all of his regular collaborator and friend Teresa Oman) with furniture, sound, lights and music. It all comes together to create an unworldly, eerie space that you’re never really sure is real or not – much like the ballroom itself.
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As we walk, there is a heavy whoosh of sound and the lights go dark in a rapid rush of movement up the hallway, making me freeze in terror. “That’s just the train,” Rone says mildly.
Everything in Time – from an entire library complete with spiral staircases, down to the envelopes in the mailroom, stamped with details of a fictional stationary company – is fake. He has used the space to lay the breadcrumbs of a story, that visitors can fill in as they walk from room to room: a typing pool, a mailroom, an office complete with an era-specific carpet reprinted just for the show.
“We deliberately spilt a drink on it,” Rone, says gesturing at a dark stain. “Because that’s a story in itself – it is about finding the soul in an environment.”
Time is the biggest installation he has ever done – which is something for an artist who has submerged parts of an art deco mansion, and turned a condemned house into an art show that drew thousands. Rone and his team of 120 people, including his longtime interior stylist Carly Spooner, have been working on Time for the past 18 months; building an entire library from scratch, scouring Facebook Marketplace for trinkets and oddities, learning the ins-and-outs of fire safety regulations. They’ve been in the station’s upper levels since July.
The sheer level of detail means that you often can’t tell where the exhibition ends and the building starts. Take one room: the typing pool. Search hard enough online, Rone says, and you can find 14 vintage typewriters of the same make. The lamps and chairs were from Ikea, but have been made to look old. The team couldn’t find enough desks that looked the same, so they were all designed and built using wood. Scenic artists then painted them to look like metal. Speakers were installed in each desk to play the score, while each lamp was wired individually to light up in time with piano notes.
“The amount of people involved just to make one desk is quite ridiculous,” Rone says.
Sometimes, the blurring between reality and storytelling comes down to rules. “See that bit of blue tarp?” he says pointing to a tatty scrap on the wall. “I can’t remove that without writing to Heritage [Victoria].” A seemingly random red sticker on a window frame? “I can’t remove that either.”
Rone’s trademark murals are painted across walls, shelves, chalkboards. The biggest illusion, he thinks, is that some people believe he’s only a painter: “That’s the easy bit – the painting is the something shiny that gets people in. So many people come to my shows and won’t realise until years later that everything they saw in every room was placed there by me.”
Rone specifically paints women’s faces as an answer to the “aggressive masculinity” he saw while painting on the streets two decades ago: “I decided to do the opposite and I felt this defiant strength in something so fragile.”
These days, there are plenty of Rone copycats on the streets, which is a reason why he wanted to go big on the rest of the details in Time. “It’s very safe, it’s very consumable, to paint a portrait on the street,” he says. “I was getting a lot of offers from communities to come and paint a mural of a local, stuff like that. And it was great fun, but I realised that I was just doing the same thing in every town. It didn’t feel like my art any more.”
Much of what is in Time was too big to fit in the narrow halls of the station’s upper levels. Instead, Rone and his team worked offsite in a warehouse, building and deconstructing furniture, pianos, staircases, even an entire library, before carting it all in pieces through the station. “The library got shot down many times,” Rone says. “You can only have 300 kilos of weight per square metre in here and books just weigh too much. So –” he pulls a book of the shelf – “we made hollow books.”
The show opens on to the public on Friday; it is a testament to the public’s love for Rone that tickets for Time have already sold out for the year. Today, it has been announced that Time will be extended to April 2023.
“It is the biggest thing I have done, by far. The red tape was killing me – we had a plan B because it was getting so bad,” he says. “But I would have been upset if I couldn’t be here, it is absolutely on my bucketlist. And the number of things I have had to say no [to] for the last couple of years because I was waiting for this! I am very excited.”
The floor rumbles and the windows rattle; a train is leaving the station. But for one moment, I genuinely can’t tell if it was something he had done.
Time will run at Flinders Street station’s ballroom until 23 April 2023