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?