From Alia Bilgrami

22 Dec 2019 - 31 Jan 2020 

Getting down to work, using egg tempera

Quiet. So quiet, that you can hear your own thoughts churning. The sprawling Jura Mountains engulf you and their beauty seeps into your skin, into your soul and you can just be. Part of the quietude means that you are confronted head-on by your own thoughts. It’s difficult to describe in words what the time in Trélex meant to me personally. There were a lot of discoveries – psychological, physical and conceptual. I finally made a breakthrough in my art practise and thought of a new idea/concept for my work. It seems to have all lead to this point after I worked through all of these feelings I didn’t quite realise needed to be put to rest. Part of being in a quiet place where you are able to just be, means that you have a lot of time to think. And thinking on this scale and depth leads to many fruitful discussions, research and art making. At Trélex, you are at no point pressurised into doing any of those things. You could do all of it, or none of it at all. Taking the pressure off perhaps works in the same way as keeping the pressure active. Everyone has a different way of working but somehow I’ve always worked better under pressure. To be left entirely to my own devices, with no deadline to meet and no particular goal in mind is always a little dangerous, nevertheless, I was finally able to find a way of setting my own deadlines – none! And somehow, I still managed to be productive despite the lack of boundaries and the elusiveness, with all the space we were given to just take a breather. The best part about this residency is the space that you are allowed to have: physically, mentally and metaphorically – the gunjaish that it lets you have. Almost unheard of in the fast paced life of an adult and much needed respite. 

Cyanotype landscape

The first week went by with no productivity whatsoever, which I was later told is totally natural. Not knowing this initially, I felt a little listless and unproductive. But it takes a little time to get a sense of the place, and to get used to being somewhat isolated after traversing a big city and having anything and everything available at your fingertips. More planning had to be done here, more effort had to be made. You can’t just go to a corner store and grab something if you run out. Doing groceries can be a bit of trek and so planning things out seemed to force me into being more mindful of what I was eating, how much I could carry and this coupled with the super complicated recycling system in Switzerland really made us or me think long and hard about what I was consuming and how I was disposing of it. Even though this is a very mundane aspect of the residency to write about, I feel that it is worth mentioning because it is very much part of the experience. It’s generally good to be more aware of one’s consumption and it’s consequences but since sustainability and our choices are so much in the forefront of most critical discourse these days, it seemed like an apt topic to mull over a little during my six week’s stay at Trélex. I tried to limit my trips to Nyon for supplies via the little red train to once a week.

Sharing our work

Having absolutely no idea who the other person is at the residency and what it will be like to share a space with them is an interesting learning experience. You will go from being complete strangers to interacting 24/7. I really lucked out because both of the practitioners I overlapped with were wonderful people, warm, engaging and generous. I spent the festive season and New Year’s Eve with Aleksandra. We really bonded – there were many shared meals and treats, life stories and pictures were exchanged and resolutions and wishes for one another were made. Not being with family and friends during the holidays would have been very difficult if it hadn’t been for the fact that we had each other’s company and we got along really well. I was sorry to see her go but got along equally well with Adrian, whom I also shared many meals with, each of us sharing, Pakistani and Austrian dishes with great enthusiasm! We had in depth conversations about life and our art and critiqued each other’s work and websites. We also did an interesting word exchange with Urdu and German that formed an important part of our discourse, with a particular emphasis on words that just cannot be translated properly in English no matter how hard we tried, starting off with gunjaish. We rounded this off with a show and tell session with tea and cake on our last evening with Nina, her adorable youngest, Alexander who I became rather attached to and an artist guest who came to visit the studio. I was hoping to have more time with Nina in the studio and learn the art of making artist’s books but she was very busy flitting between Trélex and Berlin where she had a solo show to set up. Nevertheless, I was happy to be able to spend snatches of quality time with her here and there. 

Season's greetings
Happy new year!

I must also mention Lulu, a turquoise little birdie who kept me company over many weekends when I was on my own at the residency. If you are used to having your partner around, sometimes you miss them a lot in such a beautiful and surreal setting but you also look forward to sharing how you have evolved and grown from such an experience on your own and it’s really important to do that from time to time if you are able to. Returning to them and your relationship with a fresh perspective can be very fulfilling. 

Rothko inspired cyanotype painting
Stream of consciousness painting

Coming to the work itself, after the initial rustiness, I worked on several cyanotypes that I had brought along to rework and ended up only using white gouache to create patterns that echo water in miniature paintings – a rhythmic pattern used extensively in Persian and South Asian miniatures as well as traditional Japanese and Chinese painting. The pattern keeps coming back in my work and the setting perhaps accentuated my craving for minimalism. I wrote a lot about what I was feeling. For me, writing has always been the way I sketch or work through ideas. I write notes or essays and don’t really keep a sketchbook for drawing, whenever I have; it just ends up being full of text! I did lots of photography and an exercise I conducted everyday religiously was to photograph the view from the window in the room I was staying in and then compare the different times of day, weather and cloud cover. I am sharing some of my photographs here but of course will not bombard readers of this blog with my photos from every single day! Before coming to Trélex, I had taken a basic course on egg tempera painting at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts, London and during the residency I had the chance to work on the practise painting I had brought along to complete. I wasn’t able to finish the whole thing but certainly made some progress and also gained more confidence in the medium that has proven to be as time consuming as miniature painting, a genre that I am well versed in. I was pleased to be able to hone this new skill a little more by making two new works that I made using the premise of stream of consciousness but in painting. This was my break-through – to paint without planning and just make whatever forms develop naturally in my mind and put them down on paper or plywood supports without thinking. For a perfectionist miniature painter, this is much easier said than done! 

The last view from my window

I feel like I achieved a fair bit during the residency and cannot express in words how grateful I am to Nina and her family for their generosity. I was able to get a time-slot just in the nick of time when I was running out of options and in a nomadic state trying to figure out my residency status (immigration, not art!). So, for me, this residency was not only an amazing opportunity work-wise but in a way it was nothing short of a miracle! So, thank you once again, to the Rodin family, from the bottom of my heart for this much needed home away from home. I was not only able to contemplate my art practise and make new work, but it was also a time where many life-management logistics magically came together, some of which I attribute to the rainbows from my first couple of days at the residency as I am truly convinced that they brought me good luck. And on that positive note, I shall end this rather long blog post and wish all future Trélex residents much luck and pass on the torch.

To see more work and projects:

One of my tulips stayed in Trélex!

Gunjaish is an Urdu word that is very difficult to translate into English! In a literal sense it means vastness, space or roominess – physical or abstract that leaves room for something else to exist, take over or inhabit that space in the future. It could be the space between places, objects or thoughts. It is often used in a more poetic or metaphorical sense to describe abstract spaces or emotions in literature and poetry. In a colloquial sense it is used literally to describe space, flexibility, room for something that is to come later and it can also refer to a certain amount of flexibility in thought or tangible space. This is one of the first words Adrian and I discussed that simply could not be translated with a single word equivalent in English, thus making it complicated to articulate and explain.