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"ARE YOU real?" startled passers-by asked Agnes Wintersberger, as she sat motionless on a chair hovering above the street, her eyes fixed on the distant spires of Cologne's majestic cathedral. By way of reply, she would slowly raise her right hand and take a bite out of the bunch of leeks in her grasp. Then she would resume her sphinx-like poise, her nostrils secretly feasting on the aroma of fresh coffee and cakes that wafted up from the cafe below.

Ms Wintersberger and 18 other pensioners, who for seven successive Saturdays this autumn took to the air above the city's narrow streets, were real enough, in an absurd sort of way. They were part of an "action" entitled X-times Human-Chair, designed by local artist Angie Hiesl to "put old people into focus". To reach their vantage points - chairs bolted with four thick screws to walls up to 16ft above ground- the participants clambered up ladders, except for one senior citizen who had to be lowered by ropes from a second-floor window.

"The first time I went up it was strange," says Ms Wintersberger, who is 66 and suffers from vertigo. "But then I got used to it. Only once was I afraid, when I thought someone might have sabotaged the chair." Her fear was not entirely groundless. Some outraged spectators, likening the human exhibition to medieval punishment, had threatened to tamper with the fittings.

In the end, the only loose screws appeared to be in the participants' heads, as they enacted aspects of their daily lives in painfully slow motion. A sprightly 86-year-old man sat there cutting out articles from newspapers, and then discussed their contents with a non-existent person on the next wall. A woman shuffled invisible items from one bag to another, making meticulous notes of the proceedings in a book. Another woman, who plucked an all-too-real chicken, caused consternation when the feathers found their way into a chic fashion boutique below.

Doesn't this merely show that old people are potty, the 40-year-old artist was asked. "Not at all. It had a great deal to do with dignity. The audience could really see that they were individuals. My aim was to put old people into towns - to make people realise that there is life and fun and humour above a certain age."

There is, she says, method to the apparent madness. The participants, who were recruited from an advertisement, were asked to put their own humdrum routines on show, as if they were at home - thus, the old man clipping out newspaper articles does just that as a hobby. The leeks consumed by Ms Wintersberger are an allegoric representation of grass from pastures green, of her yearning to own a plot of land. The origins of the chicken are more obscure, but it presumably has something to do with the last of Ms Hiesl's three stated leitmotifs for the event: "Tranquillity, Daily Life, Absurdity".

Although the audience often applauded, not all the critics did. "A chair is a chair is a chair," wrote one, alluding to Gertrude Stein. "Through her action," the critic went on, "Hiesl turns the profane into the banal, detaining shoppers in the middle of the hectic street for a moment and trapping them in their own profanity." Another was more effusive: "The border between art, reality and the reality of the spectator melts away. Hiesl chooses public spaces as the battlefield between the familiar and the bizarre."

Besides chairs, Ms Hiesl's favoured milieu is water; she has performed dance on dry land while the audience sat in water; once she descended into the waves, dancing to music produced by an orchestra beneath the surface. Another stunt involved musicians who were hauled on ropes across the Rhine, trumpets blaring, as she leapt along the arch of the bridge above.

But Ms Hiesl has no plans to get wet in the near future. Her next big project, in the nearby city of Dortmund, will also figure levitating chairs. But in this event the participants will be choreographed, performing modern ballet in the air. Next spring, they will be dancing above the streets of Dortmund. !