A few weeks back I went with my dad to see the Time exhibition in the Flinders Street Station Ballroom. The artist, Rone, describes it as a "nostalgic love letter to mid-century Melbourne". As we arrive we are told not to touch anything, that every cobweb and piece of dust are part of the exhibition. This is the first inkling of how much painstaking attention to detail has been involved in the installations. It is hard to know where the history ends and the art starts. In creating this ambitious exhibition, Rone employed 120 people on the ambitious 3 year project.
The thrill of being in the fabled Flinders Street ballroom was less intense as I had first been there for the Patricia Piccinini exhibition, but Rone really uses the building as an integral part of the installations. It feels as though we are in abandoned rooms from the past that we have happened across years later; faded, cobwebbed and neglected. The only human presence is the wistful sepia face of Rone's muse, the model Teresa Oman. She hovers over each installation like a ghostly presence from yesteryear. The windows to the present in the corridor are covered in mid century newspapers, lights slowly dim and brighten, and Nick Batterham has created a haunting and melancholy soundtrack of piano and strings. It is such an evocative, immersive experience.
Here are the 12 installations in order that we saw them:
The Art Studio. The easels with sketches reminds me of life drawing in art short courses I have taken. I notice a stool knocked over. These rooms are not perfectly organised. Pictures are crooked, stuff is scattered on the floor or out of place. I loved reading that they even spilled some liquid on one of the rugs to make art imitate life.
The Classroom: it a trades school classroom. Which makes sense because these offices by the ballroom in Flinders Street station were built to provide leisure activities to the railway workers. Why? To make the workers happier so there would be less strikes! A few employers could learn from this today! A gymnasium, a lecture theatre, a magic lantern, a library and clubs. The classroom was evocative of a simpler time. I saw an older woman get nostalgic about a book thata she had as a student.
The Library: my favourite room. I can't resist rows of old books. I can cope with books over the floor because I can't fit all my books in my shelves at home but I did want to straighten the crooked pictures. The library came complete with a wrought iron spiral staircase, old leather chairs and even a secret door. I noticed lots of books had Time written on them and asked a guide who said that all the books had been made for the exhibition. I read elsewhere that the books were hollow because the room could not handle the weight of so many books.
The Pharmacy: a dusty old shop. My dad was amused at a big sign for Aspro claiming that it does not harm heart or stomach. I loved the old scales and old greeting cards. We've been watching Back in Time for the Corner Shop, where the designers often found they had to make new packaging to make the past seem fresh and new. Whereas Rone created a forgotten and abandoned world where everything was faded and rusted around the edges. The pharmaceuticals were way past their use-by dates and covered in dust and cobwebs.
The Clock Room: the first thing that strikes us is the silhouette of the old clock face that is backlit. At first I thought this was an actual clock face on the building. But I am very fond of the Flinders Street Station building and, yes I did a google search on my phone, because I had to confirm that there was no clock outside this part of the building. It was a such an impressive illusion. And an allusion too. Flinders Street Station is famous for its clocks giving train times. It has been a favourite place to meet for so long that when they tried to digitise the clocks, there was an outcry.
The clock drew the eye but when we looked around there was that face looking upon the room, wine bottles, old crates and a piano.
The Glasshouse: is set up in the arched ballroom. It is the only room created as an outdoor space of sorts. Apparently it is inspired by London's Crystal Palace. I used to live near the Crystal Palace tube station but the actual structure had burnt many decades before. For me the glasshouse was reminiscent of the scene in The Sound of Music when Liesl and Rolfe sing 'Sixteen going on Seventeen'. I loved the ivy growing over the seats and up the windows as though it will eventually cover the whole structure.
The Work Room: the exhibition is set in mid century Melbourne when post war migrants came in huge ocean liners to help with our manufacturing industry. One of these industries was the garments industry which employed warehouses of seamstresses at sewing machines like this one created by Rone. It made me nostalgic because my grandmother was a seamstress at the time.
So my dad and I were the misty eyed people in the room viewing the dressmaker's dummy that took us back to the sunroom in the house where my grandparents lived. My grandfather would write to us every week and often would talk of Nan having ladies over for a fitting. I think of her with a dress on the dummy, a mouthful of pins and the fancy cheval mirror for the ladies to view their new clothes when they tried them on.
The Mail Room: definitely seems like a place in the past. These days I can work in an office for months without even printing out a page of paper. Back then the mail routine was crucial for keeping in touch with people in other towns, buildings and even offices. In the bottom half of the photo are lots of mail bags to be filled with letters. I remember folding letters in offices so the address appeared in the window of the envelope. My early days in the office of sticky labels and mail merge might seem old fashioned today but the computers would have seemed fancy to those before me who used a lot of longhnad writing.
This collage is of some of the parts of the exhibition that made me feel nostalgic.
- At the top right is an old telephone - I have very vague memories of these old black phones in my early childhood. So solid!
- Next to the phone is a pile of old keys. We don't get keys like this very often these days. In fact I work in a building where I have never seen keys because everything is entered by swiping cards. I am not sure what happens in a power blackout.
- The rubber stamps made me nostalgic for days when I had rubber stamps to enter dates or "faxed" or other useful words. They are needed less and less now as our files and correspondence are more and more online.
- A typewriter was exciting to us as kids to push those clunky keys up and down to write. Computers have never had anything to replace the satisfaction of pushing the carriage return lever at the end of a line.
- Bottom right is the electric jug. My parents have always drunk a lot of tea and used to have similar ceramic electric jugs that got dangerously hot when they boiled.
- And finally the National Bank calendar. I grew up always having one of these hanging on the back of the toiler door!
The Switchboard Room: this is so evocative of another time when phone calls were far more central in our lives. In the present day of smart phones, email and internet, phone calls don't feature so much in our lives. I no longer have a landline at work or home and even finding a phone number can be challenging. My dad was telling me he met someone who worked may years ago on the telephone exchange in the town where I grew up. Apparently she did not stay there long as she did not like the people. Goodness knows what she heard on those calls!
The Typing Pool: made me quite nostalgic for the days as a child when my dad took me to his office when he went in on a weekend. It was quite exciting when we went there. People in offices seemed very glamourous. We'd bash at the keys on the typewriters and pretend to take phone calls. I wouldn't be surprised if we were also pretending to smoke cigarettes while we did it. I was still a university student when I bought my first computer. Before that most of my work was longhand but I did write some essays on a borrowed electric typewriter. Rone's team sourced 14 vintage typewriters for this room but had to give a vintage feel to new desks. It was great to walk about and read what was being typed on different typewriters.
The Waiting Room: the place to wait to speak with the boss. The desk is for the secretary to manage who went in. My dad almost sat down on the couch and then remembered it was part of the exhibition and not to be touched.
Head Office: is where the boss sits. I wish I had an office like this. So much space. Big windows. Beautiful wooden filing cabinets. Pressed metal wall. I could just do without the layers of dust. And I don't like people looking over my shoulder when I work. I think Don Draper would have been at home here.
I am sad to leave this place. Although it feels like it has always been there, it has been so neglected, it would not surprise me to return and find it had crumbled to nothing more than dust. The same beauty in the well crafted is also present in the decay. Rone started out as a street artist so he knows a bit about transience. Nothing lasts.
But wait, there's more!
The Newsagency: amazingly once we are step outside the Flinders Street Station and walk towards the clocks, we come across one final installation. Newsagency would have thrived in these shop in mid Century with all the comuters passing by on their way to and from the trains. They would take newspapers from the stacks and perhaps peruse the magazines on the racks along the wall.
- Rone takes over Flinders Street Station's Hidden Ballroom:it's my biggest project yet, in The Guardian, 27 October 2022
- The iconoclass critiques Female Faces by Male Artists on TikTok, 31 October 2022
- Time travelling with artist Rone in a fabled Melbourne ballroom, in Life and Leisure, 1 November 2022
- The Fascinating Meaning Behind the Signature Female Face Splashed Throughout Rone’s Exhibitions in Thrillist, 25 November 2022
- Time.Rone by Giles Fielke in Memo, 4 February 2023