Up close and personal

Isn't an exhibition of intimacy a contradiction in terms? Helen Laville discovers that the public co

The exhibition "Intimacy" at the Lowry Centre in Salford has set itself two challenges. First, it opened in January, when "intimacy" is about as welcome as leftover turkey and stale mince pies. In November, even early December, everyone cherishes romantic notions of gathering around an open fire with parents who have miraculously become facsimiles of James Stewart and Donna Reed, playing charades, singing carols, exchanging thoughtful gifts and basking in the warm glow of family intimacy. Or there is the vision of snuggling up on the sofa with the beloved, smugly revelling in special festive "togetherness".

Come New Year, however, and normally stable thirty-somethings have stormed upstairs to the comfort of rooms still haunted by their teenage selves, muttering: "This is so typical, no one here understands me. I'm just not going down to play Scrabble with them. I'd rather sit up here, by myself, rereading Five On Kirrin Island." They lurk petulantly in the kitchen, deliberately burning food, brooding over what it really, really says about your relationship when your husband buys you a Dyson for Christmas. Intimacy has, by January, undergone an ordeal by (open) fire. Exhibitions opening during the first month of the year should perhaps opt to reflect this, and choose themes such as "Sulking", "Acting Up" and "Why men spend potentially valuable couple-time watching The Great Escape when they've already seen it about a thousand times".

Still, ignoring these seasonal trends, the Lowry pressed ahead with "Intimacy", whereupon it confronted its second challenge. A public exhibition of intimacy contains the same inherent contradictions as a private exhibition of the Mexican wave. Exploring in public what people hold most private, the theme of "Intimacy" engages with fundamental issues about both representing and viewing.

At first, the clunky organisation of the exhibition does not encourage a thoughtful approach to these questions. The show has been divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into three parts: Two by Two in Gallery A; Family Affairs in Gallery B; and The Deck, showing "power-packed images of contemporary interpretations of intimacy" - whatever that might be.

The Two by Two collection demonstrates that a head-count of the protagonists within a picture does not in itself constitute an organising principle for a themed exhibition. Pictures of breastfeeding mothers are shoved together with Walter Sickert's sketch of a helpless hospital patient tended by a Red Cross nurse. There are potential common themes here - for example, the extent to which intimacy depends on some degree of vulnerability and helplessness, and therefore inevitably entails some kind of power relationship. But the nature of intimacy as a strictly one-to-one relationship - perhaps the most common understanding of the term - remains illustrated, rather than explored.

The section of the exhibition devoted to family affairs, however, does begin to examine the central contradiction of publicly displaying, recording and exploring intimacy. The quality of intimacy, and the difficulty in capturing and representing it, is vividly demonstrated by the Lowry's perky idea to take publicity photographs of Margaret and Michael Kirk, parents of the artist Joanna Kirk, posed carefully under the vast portraits painted by their daughter. Both sweetly and rather painfully, Margaret and Michael are dressed in the exact same clothes as they are wearing in their painted portrait. I had dismissed this as a bit of a publicity stunt, until I watched the photographs being taken. In the portraits by their daughter, the Kirks are smiling and look relaxed. As the photographer arranged them beneath their respective pictures, they looked tense, their smiles a little forced, not quite sure what to do with their hands. In the space between their daughter's very loving depiction and the photographer's command of "Just turn this way now. Lovely" lie oceans, years, a lifetime of intimacy.

This theme is captured more deliberately in other photographs in this section. Richard Billingham's images of his family are clearly the product of an intimacy so deep that the camera becomes invisible. The upward smile of Billingham's mother, curled up on the sofa bottle-feeding some helpless rodent, is clearly directed at her son, not the camera in his hands. Lea Andrews's photograph of his parents looking sternly into the camera from either side of an ugly 1950s fireplace could be an overdetermined scene in a bad Hollywood movie. His parents look forbidding and unapproachable. The title of the picture, Hidden, hints at some dark and painful secret. Andrews undermines this reading by appearing in the next picture, cheerfully naked, between his now relaxed parents. The intimacy here is oddly basic and comforting.

The flip side of this family intimacy is the traumatic effects of its breakdown. This is painfully depicted in Gerard Hemsworth's Table Manners. Given that this picture contains only two people, in numerical terms it clearly belongs in the Two by Two section, unless someone has decided that the table counts as a third player - which, in fact, it does, dividing and separating the man from his partner. She is slumped naked over the chair; he, clothed, lies head down across the table. This is a reminder that the people with whom you are most intimate are the ones who know how to hurt you. The kitchen table, the altar of everyday family contact, serves in this instance to divide, an impassive reminder of the barriers to intimacy.

The wounding, knowing quality of family intimacy is beautifully explored by Victoria Hall in Family Tree. Ostensibly a formal family tree, Hall has replaced the meaningless names of strangers with the type of definitive, unreasonable but inexorable judgements on individuals that constitute family intimacy when it moves beyond the nuclear rela- tionship. Hall has peopled her family tree with character summations such as "Not at all like her sister", "Bubbly" and "Always wanted a fur coat". "Pity she's so large" is married to "Plays golf in the rain". Hall's work manages to benefit from the post-Christmas familiarity of being stuck in conversations with aged relatives, drunk on sherry and intent on recounting the family annals using just these sorts of phrases. Family intimacy dwindles to a mere familiarity with secrets or embarrassments that serve as markers of identity. You have to feel intensely for the son-in-law whose name is for ever damned with the family assessment "He won't set the Thames on fire".

Looking at intimacy can be disturbing and difficult, but it can also be a secret, rewarding experience, something for which there was no intended viewer, but which you feel privileged to have been able to see. The best pictures at the Lowry capture this uneasy relationship between intimacy and an audience. The pictures of the Kirks are like a graduation photograph; you feel happy in the glow of the parents' pride in their daughter. The depiction of privacy in Hemsworth's painting is such that you feel vaguely guilty and voyeuristic for having seen it, and you have to fight the urge to mutter an apology and back away.

Intimacy is less about showing than knowing. Ian Breakwell's Ghost Dance narrates a set of discovered photographs of strangers: "Lost souvenirs of private parties, of having existed, public proof of having a good time. Animated by flashlight, each face remains a mask fixed in time. Dancing strangers. A silent movie behind closed doors, a cast of unknown characters. The plot we can only imagine." The accompanying photographs were undoubtedly intimate to someone, some time. But without that someone, without the context of knowledge, the intimacy is strangely distant. These photographs look exactly like the thousands of photographs of your own family at weddings, parties and picnics on the beach. And that's because they are the same, intimate photographs. Just with different people.

"Intimacy" is at the Lowry Centre, Salford (0161 876 2000), until 28 April

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Time to bite back?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide