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Visual poet Volker Gerling captures moments in time in ‘Portraits in Motion’

By Yasmine Shemesh

Photo: Franz Ritschel

VANCOUVER — A couple years ago, after Volker Gerling finished one of his flipbook cinema performances — a show, titled Portraits in Motion, where he flicks through series of his rapidly-shot portraits and projects them onto a big screen — the artist met a woman. She was moved by the performance and wanted to be a protagonist in a flipbook. After exchanging a few emails, they lost touch. Upon finally regaining contact, the woman told Gerling that she’d recently been through trauma — losing her father, her brother, and her brother’s partner in a short time span — and had decided to crop her once long hair short.

“She put her braid in a box, and put it away, and she said to herself, ‘I’m not allowed to long for my hair, I’m not allowed to cry about my hair, I have to be strong,’” Gerling explains. “Because she wanted to prove that she is able to live on without her father, without her brother, without [his] partner.” When they met to photograph for the flipbook, the woman pulled out her hair and held it close to her face. “When she touches her hair, you can feel all her sadness about the loss of these three men and you can feel all her longing.”

This kind of intimacy — the type that provides a rare glimpse into one’s soul — is something that is characteristic of Gerling’s flipbooks. It’s a result of shooting images at a hasty pace, where the gaps left between the frames create room for spontaneity and storytelling — a genuine break into a smile, sadness welling up in the eyes, poetry.

Photo: Susanne Schüle

“Right from the beginning, I was more interested in really pure emotions and honest moments,” Gerling says, speaking from his home in Berlin. In the late ’90s, Gerling attended Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, first studying film direction and later changing focus to photography direction. A documentary showing an elderly woman thumbing through a flipbook of herself as a young lady inspired the photographer, planting a seed in his mind to create his own version of the portraits. Then, in 2002, equipped with a hawker’s tray, he began walking the streets of Berlin and showing his flipbooks. He took no money with him, relying only on contributions he collected in an empty honey jar and sleeping, mostly, in his tent. Since then, Gerling has walked more than 3,500 kilometers throughout Germany and into Switzerland, sharing his work and searching for new moments to capture.

“For me, when I’m asked, ‘what are you doing? What is your profession?’ I normally answer that I am a storyteller, because that’s what I feel I do,” Gerling explains. “That’s a way, a very special way, of storytelling.”

Gerling’s walking project is not just about person-to-person interactions, though. The process of traversing the land and, especially, sleeping outside also allows the artist to take in the narratives of everything around him — and within himself.

“I found out that I’m not interested at all to read books when I’m walking, because I want to be in the here and in the now,” he says. “I want to hear everything that’s around me. I want to hear the birds and the animals and the wind and the trees and so on. I even don’t want to switch on any lights in my tent, because I realize that I like to feel when it’s becoming dark. It’s sometimes almost as if you can feel the earth is moving with you, when you are on the ground in the wood, and this is a really great feeling.”

Portraits In Motion runs at the York Theatre from January 24 – 26 as part of PuSh Festival.

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