Printer proof [detail], City of Trees publication, part of a display of ‘scatter-proof’ prints in the exhibition; all images this article of work by Jyll Bradley; images courtesy the artist
City of Trees: Jyll Bradley SARA-JAYNE PARSONS
Standing on Mount Ainslie looking out over Canberra, it is impossible not to reflect on Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony’s vision for Australia’s capital. From up here, the urban panorama energetically proclaims its past and asserts its future through symmetry, order and sprawling elegance. The garden city was imagined, planned and built from a utopian vision. As the seat of government it’s a place where dreams and policy are entwined, and collective memory enshrined. One hundred years after its birth, the Griffins’ carefully choreographed relationship between architecture and nature has evolved into a performance of textures, shaped by light and colour, supported by a network of wide avenues and shimmering water. Picturesque meets Prairie style in the bush. Somewhat prosaically, a consistent feature of the capital landscape observed from the lookout is trees, and lots of them. In fact, with over 1 million trees, Canberra is one of the world’s largest urban forests and home to a diverse collection of native and exotic species; a remarkable achievement for a city that was built on a largely treeless plain. Over the decades both necessity and aesthetics meant that tree planting has been a significant part of Canberra’s development. Beyond the built environment, the genius loci or spirit of the city is, quite literally, rooted. Developed over a period of three years, City of Trees is a multidisciplinary project by British artist Jyll Bradley, whose practice embraces an investigation of identity and place through photography, sculpture and text. Commissioned as part of the Canberra Centenary celebrations, the project is a reflection on the role that trees have played and continue to play in the evolution of the city’s identity. City of Trees comprises a suite of audio works that can be downloaded and experienced at 30
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different locations across the city or remotely, and an immersive exhibition of sound, drawing and photography. Collectively the creative works offer a timely meditation on the history and future of Canberra. Bradley’s engagement with the capital city comes on the heels of highly successful projects in the UK such as Mr Roscoe’s Garden (2008), reflecting the history and changing fortunes of Liverpool’s Botanic Collection, and Flower Train (2010), concerning the dying traditions in Cornish flower farming. In both cases Bradley’s sensitivity to context framed her approach. As well as completing exhaustive scholarly research, she took time to get to know a variety of people in different situations connected to her subject. For Bradley, the key to understanding and articulating poetics of place comes from firsthand experience and observations of subtlety found through means of language and memory. While her creative process is relational, it is phenomenology that ultimately informs her practice over time. Such are the skills that Bradley eloquently employs in Canberra, where arboreal traditions and storytelling are comfortable bedfellows. For Bradley each tree has a human story to tell and the forest symbolises a crowd. From this notion the main impetus for her work was to listen and then reflect back what she heard; her work is not about making bold statements, but rather identifying nuance in words and emotions. This acknowledgement sits at the heart of the City of Trees project and provides the basis for Bradley’s audio works. During several residency periods in Canberra Bradley met with many people for whom trees are a passion, from historians to developers, musicians to golfers, foresters to poets. From these meetings she Art Mo nt hly Aus t ra l ia
1 + 2/ Printer proofs [details], City of Trees publication, part of a display of ‘scatter-proof’ prints in the exhibition
selected a small cast for each audio work around a particular story that had surfaced through her research. In collaboration with Jonquil Panting, a BBC Radio producer, Bradley then recorded sessions with the casts in key locations. In the final edited work she also included songs by the Canberra duo The Cashews and newly commissioned music by composer Michael Sollis. The collection of audio works presents a diverse range of stories behind Canberra’s urban forest, and it’s possible to download and listen to them in the very spot where they were recorded. Significantly Bradley determined that the works should function as intuitive, psycho-geographical devices as opposed to anthropological documents, preferring that they suggest and reveal traces of spirit rather than define place. This results in excerpts that are populated with exquisite birdsong, the sounds of enthusiastic volunteers at the National Arboretum or low-voiced Ngunnawal elders discussing ancient tree rites. In each case, the sensuous performance of participants walking through and being in the trees, experiencing their shade, smells and sounds, is a vital connecting feature of the audio works. Bradley’s rich and generous approach allows listeners to weave together their own versions of the proffered narratives and envision their own tree-scapes. For example, in the audio work City of Trees there is a magical moment where a listener can be transported back to their own childhood by the sound of a breathless young girl describing with delight how she climbs a tree. You can hear her stretching, grasping, hooking her feet up and holding on until she reaches a favourite spot where she sits and swings her legs. The lyricism of her voice mirrors the imagined swaying of the tree limb beneath her. A r t M o n th l y A u s tral i a
Bradley’s considered and affective method is beautifully articulated in the audio work Tree 20, inspired by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. In his text I and Thou (1923) he considers a tree and contemplates what trees can teach about relationships. Accordingly Bradley invited participants to say three things about a particular tree she had chosen which was located in a new suburb of Canberra. A coppice of voices respond, overlapping and leaning into each other to create a personalised collage of literal descriptions of bark, colour and shape as well as more abstract assertions: ‘This tree is a solution ... an asset ... a survivor ... a habitat ... a column of light.’ Of all the audio works though it is perhaps Amongst the oaks that best epitomises Bradley’s desire to coax out the relationship between poetry and place. It features the voice of ninety-two-year-old Aldo Giurgola, the Italianborn architect who designed Australia’s Parliament House. He shares his thoughts on architecture, landscape and poetry as he meanders through the historic woods of the York Park Oak Plantation; a shady retreat where he used to eat lunch during construction of Parliament House, but which was neglected over many years to become a largely unused, tangled wilderness. With others, Giurgola made determined efforts to reclaim the park and designed new landscaping, with pathways and assembly points, where groups of people can gather to talk, share ideas, make music or read poetry. But it’s not just the story of the rebirth of the park told by architect and other campaigners that captivates listeners. In sympathy with Giurgola’s architectural practice of ‘listening to the land’, Bradley’s audio work reveals collective sounds of aspiration and the synthesis of humans and the urban environment, through an 262 August 2013 3 1
1 + 2 + 3/ Installation views, City of Trees, National Library of Australia, 2013, showing the display of printer proofs (on the table) and Bradley’s corrugated cardboard ‘portals’ for listening to the exhibition’s sound-based works
engagement with trees. This could be construed as a metaphor for the daily industry of the capital city. If Canberra is a city where citizens go to talk and debate, where people are heard and policy is made, then it is also, surely, a place for listening. When Bradley takes the sounds of the urban forest indoors the experience of listening shifts. In her exhibition she presents portals for listening; hollow, corrugated cardboard structures with a soft bark-like surface in which visitors can sit and listen together. Significantly, these intimate, darkened sound spaces provide the counterpoint to light, Bradley’s consistent creative protagonist which arrives fully into view in the exhibition. Bradley’s continuing fascination with light is witnessed in a series of photographic works and drawings which capture the life of Canberra’s trees, in harmony with her audio works. Here her rapport with modernist light and form results in serene minimalist renderings. In contemplating the role of light and shade in the evolution of a city, Bradley reflects on the effects of moving through trees and encounters between vertical forms and horizontal planes. A diptych photographic lightbox documents the changing light of a tree-scape across a twelve-hour period. The artist places the viewer ‘in’ the trees, where subtle changes can be discerned as the sun passes overhead. From this perspective, Bradley suggests the possibility of enlightenment through the form and space of the designed city. It is in Bradley’s suite of drawings where the abstraction of trees through light is realised most 32
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intensely. They are made by photographic but camera-less means; a powerful beam of light makes a drawing as it scans a collage of paper materials and photographs assembled by Bradley on the glass plane of a photocopier. The resulting image is a trompe l’oeil pencil drawing on a sheet of soft, antique blotting paper; a symbolic material that was a serendipitous find by the artist at the Yarralumla Nursery. Bradley’s delicately shaded tonal studies suggest the presence of trees through vertical forms which tower over tiny figures. The humans are seen to move through shafts of light, doing everyday things as they go, for example, talking on their mobile phones. They seem oblivious to their cathedral-like surroundings; no-one looks up. The trees are invisible. Instead, their materiality is signified in the faded, fibrous blotting paper which has been inscribed with light. Compositionally there is a modernist provenance in the drawings. The strong vertical lines recall the dynamic zip of Barnett Newman and perhaps quietly nod towards Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park drawings. Bradley acknowledges that a painting she saw in Canberra by Fred Williams, Lightning Storm, Waratah Bay (1971-2), influenced her process of envisioning place through light. Similarly she also concedes the conception of the drawings is inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem The Soul’s Distinct Connection which describes the effects of lightning as rendering a landscape into ‘sheets of place’. Bradley is transparent about what infuses her conceptual approach to the City of Trees. She describes her Art Mo nt hly Aus t ra l ia
City of Trees drawings [detail]; photocopier-based photograph on antique blotting found by the artist at Yarralumla Nursery, Canberra
practice as akin to placing a sheet of blotting paper down on Canberra and soaking up its stories, rather than imposing her own voice or vision on the page. Her desire to ‘conjure’ as opposed to ‘illustrate’ leads to a graceful and imaginative exposition of tree-scapes. Like the Griffins and Giurgola, who mapped and drew the city before her, Bradley imagines and redraws Canberra with sound, light and line. Importantly the artist recognises Canberra is a city in progress, ever-evolving. This observation is elegantly reflected in Bradley’s series of scatter-proof prints which feature significant photographs referencing the ongoing narrative of Canberra’s trees. The prints function as printer’s proofs for a publication and reveal the process of bookmaking, but metaphorically, through consideration of paper, page and leaf, they echo the construction and development of a city. The reforestation of Canberra is also happening on its library shelves. Jyll Bradley’s City of Trees is the culmination of walking, listening and drawing bound together through an inescapable exploration of light. It asks us to reflect on our relationship to trees and provokes quiet activism through spiritual, ecological and political means. Bradley’s path through Canberra’s urban forest reveals a rich and complex landscape. Ultimately everyone can share the pleasure of her shaded walk and poetic documentary, and celebrate the life and generosity of the city’s trees.
City of Trees is on exhibition at the National Library of Australia, 5 July to 7 October 2013: The audio works are available for download at www.canberra100.com.au/programs/ city-of-trees.
Sara-Jayne Parsons is Exhibitions Curator at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, UK.
Impressions of Geelong—
a portrait of the city and its region until 25 August Over 150 years of artistic interpretations of the historic port city of Geelong and its surrounding districts. Geelong Gallery Little Malop Street Geelong VIC 3220 T +61 3 5229 3645
Free entry Open daily 10am – 5pm Guided tours of the permanent collection Saturday from 2pm
Eugene von Guérard View of Geelong (detail)1856 oil on canvas Collection: Geelong Gallery
geelonggallery.org.au A r t M o n th l y A u s tral i a
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