British Artist Jyll Bradley was commissioned by the Centenary to create an installation City of Trees at the National Library, Canberra. Photo: Melissa Adams
Jyll Bradley is momentarily stumped when I ask her to name her favourite treescape in Canberra.
Over the past three years, she has been back and forth between England and Canberra four times, and has spent, all up, almost six months here in the capital. Her preoccupation during her visits here has been, primarily, the trees - Canberra's tree layout, the people who planted them, the residents who love them, and the atmosphere they create. It's all part of a major art project commissioned as part of the city's Centenary celebrations; three years in the making, the multi-disciplinary display opens at the National Library this week.
Its content has been kept under wraps until now, but its premise is simple: every tree has a human story to tell, and this is particularly the case in Canberra. The city grew up out of one million trees planted in what was once compared to a sheep paddock, and which now, 100 years later, is more like a forest with a city emerging through it.
And whether they know it or not, every resident of Canberra has a favourite treescape, even if they associate it more with the quality of the light that shines through the naked boughs of an inner-northern suburb in winter, the shade cast by an apple tree in the garden, or a strand of pines glimpsed on the parkway between Tuggeranong and Civic.
Think hard, and you'll work out which it is. After a moment or two, Bradley, who, after all, has made it her business to learn as much as she can about Canberra's trees, realises that she, too, has a favourite.
''I think mine are the York oaks just up by the Parliament,'' she says, referring to York Park oak plantation in Barton.
''I think that's a really profound space, where you see those lines of oaks and then when you look into it and research it, you talk to people and see how interesting it is in terms of the British trying to put the roots of democracy into Australia through the roots of the oak.''
Bradley - a soft-spoken Englishwoman - is not just betraying her allegiances; the York oaks do have a good story attached. The first in the park was planted, symbolically, by the then Duke of York in 1927, to mark the opening of Old Parliament House. More oaks were added during the Great Depression to create jobs for the many unemployed.
The historic plantation was neglected over the years and fell into disrepair; in 2004, Parliament House architect Romaldo Giurgola was invited to design a new landscape for them, which opened in 2011.
''And then the whole change of how life moves on and politics moves on, and people are still fighting. The staunch republicans I met were fighting for those oaks, even though they represent these indelible ties to the UK,'' she says.
''And also the fact that they're English oaks but with an Australian accent - they don't look like English oaks, they don't behave like English oaks at all.''
And she should know, of course. The London-based artist is the daughter of a forester and has long had an affinity with trees. When she met Robyn Archer several years ago in Britain, the creative director of the Centenary invited her to visit Canberra and respond to what she saw. Having never visited Australia before, and knowing next to nothing about Canberra, the first thing she noticed as she flew into the city was the landscape created by the trees.
Now, three years down the track, City of Trees, her multifaceted installation, is set to open. Giurgola is featured in there, reading poetry at the inauguration of the revitalised oaks, along with numerous other Canberra voices to add to the trees' presence.
She says one of the most satisfying aspects of the project has been the different people she has met along the way.
''This is my fourth trip, and in total I've probably spent about five or six months in Canberra. I know the trees, and more importantly, I know why the trees are here,'' she says.
''I think what's great about the whole project is that I've been able to meet people from so many different walks of life, for whom trees mean very different things. Aldo Giurgola will talk about how architecture makes form and trees make space, so he's really interested in how trees create space within a city. Then you'll talk to someone like a forester and they'll be talking about whether it's deciduous or whether it's evergreen and who planted it and why and the history of it. And then other people will talk about the spiritual side of it, so I've tried to capture all that, as well as the founding part of it.''
Showing the installation in the National Library is also a play on the theme.
''It's such amazing honour to show in a national library of a country, it's probably the highest honour for me, especially because I'm also a writer,'' she says.
''What I've really thought about as well is the space of the book, because books are made from many leaves which in turn is made from wood, from paper, and so you'll find in the exhibition lots of references to printing, to paper, to books. In a way you could say that you could read the exhibition … it's like entering the imaginative space of a book.''
All in all, visitors can expect ''a very kind of immersive and contemplative exhibition''.
''It's not your usual exhibition where there's stuff on display and it's sort of in a space. What I've tried to do is construct and create a space that will show the work and create a particular kind of atmosphere of contemplation, emotion, intrigue.''
It's the first time she's created an entire body of work clustered around a central theme. But the theme itself is multifaceted.
''It's not about trees - it's to do with the space that trees create,'' she says.
''I think trees create different spaces in life. They create a practical space in terms of architecture and how we move around the city. They also create an emotional space, they create a spiritual space … and imaginative spaces as well, and in that regard I'm trying to echo that sentiment, if you like, within the exhibition.''
The show runs until October, and Bradley hopes visitors will spend more than a few minutes in the space.
''I say take time, book a couple of hours out of your busy life, come and spend time in the space, and it will be very, very rewarding.''
City of Trees is at the National Library until October 7.