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Icy intimacy: the artist who performs on a bed of frozen thoughts

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Chronic fatigue has left Amy Rosa ‘watching life through glass’. Her new show urges viewers to make vulnerability a radical act

Mon 20 May 2019

‘We’re not taught how to process difficult emotions,” says performance artist Amy Rosa, “so we just hold on to them.” Every day for the past year, Rosa sat at her desk with a two-litre bottle of spring water. In an act of meditation, she concentrated on her thoughts from that day and imagined transferring them to the liquid. She then froze the feelings in the bottles, which she has been storing all over Scotland with friends. Rosa kept some of them in her bedroom: “I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep without the hum of two freezers now.”

In a three-hour performance entitled There Is a Silence, under the enormous stained-glass windows of Glasgow University’s Chapel, Rosa piles together her frozen thoughts, extracted from the plastic, and invites an audience to join her in letting the feelings go.

She lies where the altar might be, the crystal-like cylinders encased in a Perspex glass box beneath her. An airbed separates her from the melting ice. We sit at the other end of the chapel, under the organ’s silent lungs. A piece of paper placed near the doors invites us to join her one by one: “Hold one of my hands. Warm them if you can.” You can choose to be with her in silence, or you can think of a story to share. “Maybe a day you want to remember. Maybe one you would like to forget.” To start with, everyone is hesitant. But as soon as the first person has gone up, a queue starts to snake out of the chapel’s doors.

Everyone behaves differently when they reach her. One visitor lies down. One bursts into laughter. Someone rubs her feet and another strokes her hair. At one point I think someone is praying to her, but they’re just kneeling to take a photo.

Rosa and each audience member talk quietly. We can’t hear what’s said and she vows to keep each confession a secret. “I want it to be a gentle way to think about difficult things,” she says. When we talk the day after the performance, which is part of Glasgow’s Take Me Somewhere festival, she speaks about vulnerability as a radical act “because the world sees it as weak, but it takes an enormous amount of strength to be soft”.

Having struggled with depression and physical disabilities, she wants to draw awareness to the connection of mind and body through her focus on care and openness, aiming to destigmatise issues that are often invisible.

Rosa lives with fibromyalgia, a condition that causes her chronic pain and fatigue. (“I wake up on a good day with about 15% of the energy of an able-bodied person, and then I have to ration that.”) Occasionally during our conversation, she’ll fall off a thought mid-sentence, and loop back round to it a while later. “It’s like trying to hold water in my hands.” After last night’s performance, she is more worn out than usual. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus.”

Her constant state of fatigue leaves her “almost like I’m watching my life from behind glass”. She has used this blurred line between sleep and wake to inform the aesthetics of her work. The only illuminations are the fading sun through the stained-glass window, a strip of LEDs and candles lining the walkway, and a backlight on her box, making the ice orbs into little moons. When people go up to talk to her, they are ringed with an intense, angelic glow.

Though she was not brought up religious, Rosa has always liked churches for being one of the few quiet spaces in a city; during her performance, people come running up the steps laughing, reach the door of the church and immediately fall quiet. This particular chapel has a strong resonance for her. She looks down at her hands. “A lot of people said it was the first time they’d been back to the space since Adrian’s memorial.”

Adrian Howells was a legendary performance artist and teacher, renowned for the intimacy in his performances, which were often one-on-one. He made a significant impact on the British live art scene as a prominent member of Glasgow’s experimental arts venue The Arches. After he took his own life in 2014, an award was created in his name, the Adrian Howells Award for Intimate Performance, which Rosa won last year. Howells had been a guest lecturer on her contemporary performance course at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow. “He recognised the softness that is often beaten out of us,” she says, “and the importance of trying to carve these little spaces for gentleness.” Rosa was unable to attend his memorial service. Putting this performance on in a space he had loved is, in a way, a chance for her to say goodbye.

When I walk up the aisle and hold Rosa’s hand, it’s warmer than I expect. The dripping ice below hasn’t yet chilled her – or maybe people’s hands have just warmed her back up. I whisper a story to her and she grins from her slippery plinth. We laugh. I let go of her hand, walk back to my seat and watch the light fade away. “I wanted a hold that felt secure and gentle at the same time,” she explains later, “a reminder of how the simple act of holding someone’s hand shows you are there. No words needed, just the knowledge of the intent of support and care.”

Take Me Somewhere festival continues in various locations in Glasgow, until 2 June

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found


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