Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Exposed in Japan

“It’s good exposure,” Barbara says. She is a German woman of a certain age who represents a gallery with branches in Chicago, Berlin, London and Rome. “And it’s affordable,” she adds. “Some of the big art shows cost €10 000. My stand here was £600.” “Enough exposure and you develop pneumonia.” I laugh wanly, thinking of the £1 200 I shelled out for mine, not including the extra for the chairs and the spotlights.

Barbara’s comments haunt me a couple of hours later, when everyone in the Quest Hall in Harajuku is packing up their paintings to go home. It’s quiet, weirdly quiet, except for the rustle of bubble wrap and sotto voce instructions.

There’s a focus to this activity, a grim determination that wasn’t there the previous day when we were all setting up, hammering nails and (in my case) sawing through Velcro with kitchen shears.

It is time to go home, and most of us are packing away exactly what we brought along with us. We have a long way to take it back: New York, Chicago, Cypress, Curaçao, France, Turkey, Hawaii. A few exhibitors have made sales. Two Americans have sold several prints, and about nine copies of the Pure Evil Royal Doulton bunny have found new homes. Giovanni from New York, two stands down from me, has a tell-tale red circle on his big work, a cubist portrait of a homeless guy outside a Starbucks, but there’s still no sign of the buyer who said he wanted it. The Australian artist seems to have done best of all: three of her canvases were sold. “You’re doing well,” I smile at her with my mouth but not my eyes.

There’s been lots of foot traffic (though not quite the 6 000 visitors promised), lots of smiles and photos, and they’ve taken lots of my business cards with the red lipstick bull. It was hard to know whether to hover or give visitors space, so I’ve spent time on my chair (hired for £40) painting live so that visitors can see that I really do paint with lipstick. My most enthusiastic audience is a group of French-speaking children who added to the pink lipstick elephant I sketched for them. They were very excited that I could speak French. “Ne touchez pas!” one of the little girls kept gasping when one of the others picked up one of my sketches, still fresh and glistening.

But when it comes to the actual exchange of money, not so much. I exchange tight smiles with the woman at the small stand across from me. She approached me earlier, after recognising my accent, to tell me that she’d grown up in Durban, but left in 1996 to return to Ireland. Now she lives in Okinawa. There are no “sold” stickers on her stand, which is the case for most of the displays.

So at least it’s not just me. I have that much to hold onto (it would have been unbelievably crappy if I was the only one to fail so dismally). I nearly did sell a print, to a very sweet American couple who had just moved to Tokyo, but after a brief exchange of looks between them after asking about the price, they thanked me and hurried on.

It’s hard to tell whether this is standard of art fairs. For those veterans like the French-Lebanese sculptor whose work reflects on Middle Eastern machismo, is this kind of expensive disappointment par for the course? Is rejection and despair just part of the terms and conditions?

There could be many reasons for the simultaneous interest and complete lack of commercial success. I took way, way too much work with me. The works I painted were more to attract attention than fit onto cramped Tokyo apartment walls. The Japanese, as it turns out, are not quite as interested in wildlife as my Facebook friends who lived there insisted they were. There was no call to action for people to buy, and even if there had been, my friend who was handling sales disappeared for most of the afternoon after falling asleep on the train. Besides which, the fact that most exhibitors sold nothing suggests that this crowd was not in a buying frame of mind, and the gallery owners I was hoping to meet did not materialise.

My friend is dragging two portfolio bags around Tokyo this week, going to see art dealers. I’ve mailed a couple of galleries in Hong Kong, where my husband and I are spending a couple of days on the way back home, though I don’t seriously expect to elicit a response from any of them.

What a very long way to travel with such a lot of stuff that’s so incredibly painful to schlep around on public transport. It’s been a very steep, very expensive learning curve.

To quote another Alphaville track: “Make a make up in a foolish style/ Telling the truth by making a big lie.”

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