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Brighton Festival 2016

Portraits in Motion

Volker Gerling

Genre: Experimental, Experimental Art, Solo Show, Visual Art

Venue: Brighton Dome Studio Theatre


Low Down

An intrepid traveller and passionate creator of photographic flipbooks, Volker Gerling has walked over 3,500km throughout Germany since 2003, creating flipbook portraits of the people he meets along the way.

‘In my flipbooks, I am interested in the gaps between the images and everything that gets lost when you leaf through them quickly, and when I am walking I am interested in the gaps between the cities that you would normally speedily cover by car, train or plane. I am interested in what happens by the wayside; whatever you can never see when you travel quickly. I am interested in the people I meet when I am on my way. What are their lives like? What is important for them? What stories do they tell me, the stranger? How do the people in all the different towns, gardens and villages I pass through react to my art?’

Using a video camera projected onto a large screen, Gerling will bring to life a selection of his favourite subjects, while sharing the heart-warming stories behind each encounter.


Portraits in Motion is less of a theatrical performance and more of a TED talk – although there are of course performative elements to it.


It is a very strange premise for a show, and at first I was definitely not convinced about whether the format could keep my interest for 90 minutes. However, as the show developed and the pace was established, I really began to enjoy it, and the time passed quickly.


The piece is performed by the photographic artist Volker Gerling, who makes flipbook portraits of people. These are unique and beautiful things, in that the subject of the image isn’t aware that instead of one shot being taken, there will in fact be 32 frames shot over 12 seconds. This produces the most magical and intimate portraits, as the truth and honesty of people’s human reactions comes out in the few seconds after they realise the shutter will not stop clicking; moments which are then animated for us by the flipbook.


The performance is essentially the story of Gerling’s journey as a flipbook artist. We are taken from his early failed experiments, to the walking tour of Germany he undertakes each year, with a selection of flipbooks on a hawker tray, making all the money he needs by showing them to the public.


The show is very minimalist. Gerling is softly spoken, undemonstrative, but with flashes of gentle humour. I think one of the reasons this feels so much more like a lecture than a performance is Gerling’s non-theatrical manner, talking to us intimately as if he was telling his story at a dinner party to some friends.


He stands in a spotlight and holds up the flipbooks to a video camera, so that we can see them clearly projected on the back wall of the theatre. There is not a moment of sound or music in the show, which makes it feel incredibly barren and stark, but does of course allow the audience to remain uncorrupted, their emotional responses to the images pure and individual. We are also made hyper-aware of the hypnotic flipping sound as the thick pages of the flipbook are amplified by microphone.


We hear some of the stories behind the portraits he took on his travels. These are generally not very long or detailed, and tend to describe the encounter that led him to take the picture. These were the highlight of the show for me, and I think that Gerling could have made more of these stories – revealing more about the characters behind the intimate mini-animations.


This was a surprising show, unusual and very different to anything I have seen on stage before – which is a rare accolade in our derivative world. It was gentle and unchallenging in many ways, but beautiful and so much more enjoyable than a mere art exhibition.