Visitors strolling down the Champs Elysees this summer found it transformed into a giant sculpture park, with works by Duchamp, Miro and Dali erupting from the pavement. But the public passed them by with barely a glance, to stand transfixed before the figure of a Roman emperor whose chest appeared to rise and fall as if he were breathing and a Statue of Liberty which winked at startled bystanders.

"Living statues" have been mysteriously, surreally, appearing in Paris for two or three years. They have installed themselves on makeshift pedestals along the cafe-lined boulevards in Saint Germain-des-Pres, on the Champs Elysees, at Palais Royal and in parks, particularly the Tuileries gardens. The city now boasts two Virgin Marys, several Roman emperors, a handful of Pharaohs and a Rodin's Thinker.

Some claim the trend was started by some art students who sprayed themselves in white paint and recreated the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory in the courtyard of the Louvre. Others say the statues evolved from the automates, a kind of street theatre popular in Paris in the 1980s, in which performers would stand on a pedestal and slice their limbs through the air in robotic movements.

There is, however, nothing particularly new about the idea of living statues; Gilbert and George, grandperes terribles of British art, coined the term in 1969 when they performed one of their first happenings at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In white shirts and old-fashioned suits, their heads and hands sprayed with metallic bronze paint, Gilbert sat on the gallery stairs while George leant on the banisters, neither moving for a full five hours. What is new is that an art gallery performance has filtered down to the streets and become an innovative form of busking.

For street performers such as Bulgarian-born law student Stephane Bontchev, being a living statue is a crucial source of income. Stephane, who leads a secret double life as Julius Caesar, claimed that at the height of the tourist season he was making up to 1,500 francs a day (about pounds 187) in Montmartre. Posing on his usual pedestal in an alcove of Sacre Coeur, Stephane admits that few of his college friends know about his weekend impersonations of a Roman statue. "The law's a pretty serious profession, and I was initially a bit embarrassed. The first time I did it I was trembling so much I could hardly hold a pose. But my make-up and spray-painted toga act as a barrier between me and the public and protect my anonymity."

Montmartre has the biggest concentration of living statues. There are rich pickings from tourists here; and, according to Farid, a 21-year-old architecture student who performs with a group of black statues (echoing bronze rather than marble), the area also makes the ideal backdrop. "Mont- martre has always been the home of French street theatre," he explains. "When people climb up here they know they'll find stilt-walkers, jugglers, fire-eaters. For us statues vivantes are just the latest development in a very long tradition."

Raquel, a 27-year-old actress who works with Farid, points out that the fascination with living statues goes back a long way: "Look at all our myths about people being turned into statues by angry gods, or statues coming to life after years of immobility."

Guillaume, another member of the group, says it's not as easy as it looks. "It's incredibly tiring standing doing nothing for hours on end - you often get cramp in your legs. We've developed our act so that when someone drops money into our tin we move into a different pose. I can't tell you how nice the sound of a coin dropping is!"

The living statue may turn out to be just a passing fad, but in the meantime people like Stephane Bontchev are making the most of it. "My only really bad experience was when some guy set fire to my toga to try and make me move. Apart from that it's a pretty good way to make a living." !

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