meIt was once one of Melbourne’s greatest urban legends, like the tunnels under La Trobe University or the Crown Casino with a secret morgue – was it there Really A preserved ballroom above Flinders Street Station that hardly anyone had seen for decades? Until members of the public were allowed in two years ago at a Patricia Piccinini show, many didn’t believe it was real; even after that, some still didn’t 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 rumors that there’s a ballroom, but you don’t really know if it’s there until you see the photos,” he says. “I asked if there was anything planned here and they didn’t tell me, which wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no either. Basically, I didn’t stop bothering people until I was able to be here.”
We’re standing in the middle of his new exhibit, Time, on the station’s legendary upper level. It is another one of her immersive installations that explores beauty and decadence, combining her paintings of delicate female faces (all regular collaborators and friends of hers Teresa Oman) with furniture, sound, light and music. It all comes together to create a spooky otherworldly space that you’re never sure if it’s real or not, just like the ballroom itself.
As we walk, there’s a loud hissing sound and the lights dim in a quick motion down the hall, freezing me with fear. “It’s just the train,” Rone says softly.
Everything in the period, from a library complete with spiral staircases, to the envelopes in the mail room, stamped with details from a fictional stationery company, is fake. He used the space to lay out the breadcrumbs for a story that visitors can fill in as they move from room to room: a desk, a mail room, an office complete with a period-specific rug reprinted just for the show.
“We deliberately spilled a drink on him,” says Rone, pointing to a dark spot. “Because it’s a story in itself, it’s about finding the soul of an environment.”
Time is the largest installation he has ever done, which is quite a lot for an artist who has submerged parts of an Art Deco mansion and turned a condemned house into an art exhibit that has drawn thousands. Rone and his 120-person team, including his interior stylist Carly Spooner, have been working at Time for the past 18 months; building an entire library from scratch, browsing Facebook Marketplace for knickknacks and oddities, learning the ins and outs of fire safety rules. They have been in the upper levels of the station since July.
The degree of detail alone means that you often cannot see where the exhibition ends and the building begins. Take a room: the writing pool. Look hard enough online, Rone says, and you can find 14 vintage typewriters of the same brand. 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 from wood. Then the performing artists painted them to look like metal. Speakers were installed at each desk to play the sheet music, while each lamp was individually wired to light up in time with the piano notes.
“The number of people involved just to make a desk is pretty ridiculous,” says Rone.
Sometimes the confusion between reality and narrative comes down to rules. “See that piece of blue tarp?” she says, pointing to a tattered patch on the wall. “I can’t delete that without writing to Heritage [Victoria].” A seemingly random red sticker on a window frame? “I can’t delete that either.”
Rone’s signature murals are painted on walls, bookshelves, and blackboards. He believes the biggest illusion is that some people think he’s just a painter: “That’s the easy part: painting is a shiny thing that draws people in. A lot of people come to my shows and don’t want to find out until years later.” that everything they saw in each room was placed there by me.”
Rone specifically paints women’s faces as a response to the “aggressive masculinity” he saw while painting in 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 one reason why he would go into great detail about the rest of Time. “It’s very safe, it’s very consumable, to paint a portrait on the street,” he says. “I got a lot of offers from communities to come and paint a mural of a local, something like that. And it was great fun, but I realized I was just doing the same thing in every town. It didn’t feel like my art anymore. “
Much of what is in Time was too large to fit in the narrow halls of the station’s upper floors. Instead, Rone and his team worked offsite in a warehouse, building and deconstructing furniture, pianos, stairs, even an entire library, before driving it all to pieces through the station. “The library was shot down many times,” says Rone. “You are only allowed to weigh 300 kilos per square meters in here, and books just weigh too much. So—” he pulls a book from the shelf—“we made hollow books.”
The show opens to the public on Friday; it’s a testament to the public’s love for Rone that tickets to Time are already sold out for the year. Today it has been announced that Time will be extended until April 2023.
“It’s by far the biggest thing I’ve done. The bureaucracy was killing me – we had a plan B because it got so bad,” he says. “But I would have been sad if I couldn’t be here, it’s definitely on my bucket list. And the number of things I’ve had to say no to [to] for the past few years because I was looking forward to this! I am very excited.”
The floor rumbles and the windows rattle; a train leaves the station. But for a moment I really can’t see if it was something he had done.