'One apartment we looked at was a cube and had no windows' - Irish artists living in Paris
In any guide to Paris, the Sacre-Coeur, the massive white-domed basilica that looms over the city, makes it into the top 10 highlights. There's hardly a visitor to Paris who leaves without trekking up to Montmartre and climbing the 300-plus steps to the dome.
There are, of course, the exceptions. Artists Denis Connolly and Anne Cleary have been living in Paris for over 20 years, yet they admit, unapologetically, that they haven't been to the top. And this despite the fact that they live a 10-minute walk from the iconic monument. They're not even sure that their teenage twin girls, Bo and Lottie, who were born in Paris, have been up.
They all do get to see it every day however - its dome is just visible from the balcony of their cool apartment in Boulevard Barbes. However, it's not that the couple don't explore their adopted city. They know every inch of its boulevards and back lanes, because they travel everywhere on their scooters - or trottinettes as they're called in French - so much so that they've become synonymous with them. "People in the area call us la famille trottinette," Anne explains.
The scooters are not just a mode of transport. Anne says they've done some of their best work while negotiating the busy streets. "I used to say all our ideas came on our trottinettes," she says. "We'd bring the girls to school, and on the way back we chat and have a coffee, and that's how the ideas came about."
Denis and Anne are known worldwide for their art: they specialise in what's called motion-capture art, and they've exhibited in many international galleries including the Pompidou Centre. Their work can currently be seen in London's Barbican - they've done an installation based on the movements of the conductor Sir Simon Rattle; and they are working on a project with David Byrne of Talking Heads in New York; a project called the Theatre of the Mind - "a travelling show to explore different aspects of perception".
Their work involves video, computers, movement, human psychology and, more importantly, ideas. They work together on every project.
They're together 24 hours of every day, and it's been like this virtually since they met - on their first day at college, when they both started studying architecture. "We both wanted to do art, but both our families were practical and said, 'architecture is close to art, so study architecture'," Anne says.
Interestingly, they first began to notice each other in an art gallery. "We really met in the Hugh Lane on the first day of college. We were told to meet up there as a group. I was sitting in the entrance hall looking at a Warhol painting and waiting for people to turn up, and next thing I turned around and there was this big, sweaty bloke with a shaved head and bicycle chain," Anne recalls.
Denis adds, "I wasn't sure if I had the right gallery, so before locking my bike, I thought, 'You know what, I'll dash in and see if I'm in the right place'. I was wearing combats and pouring sweat after the cycle. Then I realised I wouldn't recognise anyone from the class, but Anne had made herself noticeable by buying a T-square that you use for drawing off the year master that morning for five pounds, so I said, 'I'm in the right place: there's the five-pound girl'."
They became firm friends, then a few months later they got together, and have been together ever since.
After finishing their studies, they headed off to Paris and worked in their field for the first decade. "Paris was going through a mini-boom, whereas there was no work in London or Dublin. We initially worked for French architecture firms, but eventually we did perspectives for other architects - these were people who wanted to enter competitions, but didn't have time to do their own entries.
"We were really well trained in drawing from architecture school in Ireland. The work was well paid, and that was how we earned our living," Denis says."We did that for 10 years, while doing our art as well. In fact, our daughters point out that, insanely, we stopped the year they were born - when any other parents would have been taking on a sensible day job to pay for the arrival of twins."
Fortunately, by this stage, their art was taking off; they had worked together in college, then they did the perspectives together, so it seemed right to collaborate on their artwork too.
"We got involved with a group doing performance art. They were interested in ideas like flux and Dada; ideas basically exploring sense and non-sense. As part of that, Denis and I developed performance-art ideas and we also needed to film them, so we invested in a video camera and did video art," Anne explains.
"By the mid-1990s, we would have been focussing a lot on video, and then we started to introduce computers into the work. The moment we started to have identity as artists was when we started to work with computers. Round about then, a lot of people were interested in new technology, so we got invitations to show in Prague and Japan. It was interactive, and interactive art was very happening, and we were to the forefront of that movement," Denis says.
Their projects are wide-ranging. In the mid-2000s, they spent two years looking at how people move about Dublin. It was commissioned by South Dublin County Council and involved several films and a book. "It was called Moving Dublin. A lot of local people, they make choices by the way they move. We were quite at the forefront of being critics of ghost estates," Denis says.
Denis and Anne themselves are firm fans of city dwelling and bought their apartment in 1999, just before the arrival of their twins. "We always said, didn't we Denny," Anne says, "that we'd have children when we were 35. So in 1999, we were 34. I said, 'If we're going to have them at 35, we better start now, and we need an apartment big enough'. And we had the twins exactly a year later."
Luckily, by the time of the twins' arrival, they had the two-bedroomed apartment in a Haussmann building dating from the late 1800s. "It's very hard to buy in Paris, and we were looking for some time," Anne says. "One apartment we looked at was a cube and had no windows. Anyway, we saw this - the people selling it put the plans online. We could see it was south-facing, had two bedrooms, and a good living room. It was very nice. We came to look at it, went for a quick coffee, then came back and signed it there and then."
At the time, according to Denis, there were disadvantages: it was on a main traffic artery, and was so noisy that they rarely opened their windows. However, that has changed drastically - the traffic lanes have been reduced, a cycle path has been added and the amount of trees has doubled.
It hasn't become a trendy area yet, but who knows? "It's surrounded by up-and-coming areas, but Boulevard Barbes itself is stubbornly refusing to change," Denis says with a laugh.
There's a strong sense that they love their area; that it's very much home. "Paris is a very easy city to live in," Denis says. "It's very upbeat creatively, and socially it's very easy to get to know people, particularly when we were younger."
Anne adds: "The only time we thought of going back was during the Celtic Tiger, but we couldn't afford to." Denis's dreams say it all: "I had dreams we'd moved back to Ireland and then I'd wake up and be so relieved that we hadn't."
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine