Thursday, March 25, 2010

WE NEEDED A GORILLA ...

... big bloke, extra long arms, because the picture rail was way up there out of the reach of regular sized people. Couldn't find one, so a friend stepped in, and onto household steps he had thoughtfully brought for the purpose. He was wonderfully patient, juggling each picture and obediently moving two inches to the right or half a brick left as instructed from the floor, while the rest of us attached hooks and threaded nearly invisible, recalcitrant, mind-of-its-own fishing line. A charming American tourist watched proceedings and became involved, offering comments and suggestions.

The helpers went home, leaving two of us to attach labels to each painting and mind the store. We agonised over prices. It had been an on-going discussion, starting weeks earlier with everyone chipping in, from those who favoured the Mercedes principle (big price tag equals quality merchandise) to those, including me, who leaned towards boot-sale prices. I compromised and put ones in front of the prices I first thought of instead of noughts after - I was wrong.

Minding the store was generally tedious. There was a trickle of visitors but mostly we gossiped, kept a tally of numbers, nibbled at sandwiches and slurped coffee from a thermos. We watched seagulls squabbling by the pond in the quad outside, and sometimes the pond filters became blocked with autumn leaves and spluttered and sucked crossly until the man with the vacuum pump came to help out. Overhead, after school, baby ballet dancers thundered to a tinkly piano. Outside, pretty Japanese brides posed in their wedding finery, and once we watched a troupe of Bollywood dancers rehearsing on the grass. We realised that we needed books and puzzles and newspapers to keep us occupied.

Visitors included a middle-aged couple who spoke in Yorkshire accents but lived in Cyprus, and a deeply tanned Austrian couple who had parked their catamaran in the Bay of Islands and were doing New Zealand by road and rail. A couple in a campervan bought "Canterbury Plains" - it was flat and thin and easy to slip into the bottom of a suitcase. Talks with people who were members of book discussion groups were always interesting because note-writers like me don't often get the chance to meet the end users of the essays we write about the books they read and discuss. Four cheerful, generous women who were all painters swept in and enthused about the show. They were old hands and were booked into the gallery later in the year. They scolded me for not charging enough, and suggested that I have cards of the paintings made and sell them as well. So I went home that night and printed off as many as possible before the printer ran out of ink.

One afternoon I was alone except for a dozy, late summer bee that drifted sleepily overhead until it found its way back out into the sunshine. I had time to sort out my thoughts on the venue and the visitors it attracted. They were mostly tourists - Japanese, American, Australian and a few Europeans. Too many walked in, glanced about, strolled clock-wise around and walked out again. The Japanese always bowed politely as they left. Someone told me that they are given little time to linger anywhere and were so rushed that as soon as they climbed into their buses they fell asleep until they were chivvied out at their next stop. I was tempted to say "Kobe kara" (from Kobe, meaning me) but thought I might be overwhelmed by a torrent of rapid Japanese which I would not have understood, so long is it since I spoke the language.

As for the venue, attractive as it was, it probably wasn't the right environment for selling pictures in short-term exhibitions. Permanent shops and galleries are set up for credit card sales, for packing and shipping, advertising and so on, unlike someone exhibiting for a week. The foot traffic consists mainly of tourists who travel light; they have no space for paintings in their luggage and they can't lug pictures and cameras around town while they sight-see. On the other hand, locals looking for Art go to galleries for the Mercedes end of the market. The rest probably don't normally set out to buy pictures at all, but might see something that catches the eye in craft shops or weekend markets, something that might go nicely over the fireplace (absolutely the wrong place for pictures, by the way, at least if they are valuable).

Not all visitors came to see my pictures that week. A woman asked where the cinemas were. A man from Melbourne enquired about New Zealand's home of ballet and opera. Another man wanted to buy fudge. A woman wanted a scarf from an exhibitor from three weeks back. Another asked whether the Arts Centre had once been a monastery (it hadn't). And where was the Museum? We collected a wad of pamphlets from the information centre and boned up on the facts and figures in the spirit of friendly tourism.

At the weekend I was on my own but there was plenty to do: Saturday newspaper, Killer sudoku, a book of Keith Waterhouse columns. Friends popped in. I sold "Harbour 2". An American woman asked me a convoluted question which I couldn't decipher easily as her accent was unusual and she was referring obliquely to the title of the exhibition "Now and Then". She was asking whether the abstracts were "now" or "then" (recent or early) - yes, I was a bit slow there. She asked "do you ship?" Then she went out, saying that the pictures were rather good "for a hobby". Why didn't this trouble me?

On the last day we sat outside on a bench in the sun with one eye on the gallery when two men from Bangkok wandered past. They stopped, smiled and nodded, and one asked if he could sit down. The other snapped a picture, which included us. They swapped places and the other snapped more pictures before they thanked us and moved off, looking for more local colour. We now know how the natives in Mandalay, Mogadishu, Uttar Pradesh must feel when tourists appear flashing cameras, and we imagined those Thai men showing off their holiday snaps when they get home: "this one is Choy Bok with two native women in the beautiful Arts Centre in Christchurch!"
Why did I have an exhibition? Mainly to have a go and see what happened. And a more trivial reason? There were 34 paintings in that show, counting the triptych as one. Frankly, I was running out of wall space at home.

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