It is the tension between imaginative escape and the curtailment of physical freedom that the artist Mike Nelson explores in The Book of Spells, (a speculative fiction), his most recent exhibition at Matt’s Gallery. Only one viewer is allowed into the exhibition room at any one time. Stepping into the small exhibition space, a minuscule bedroom with no direct sunlight, I can feel damp in the back of my throat – a novel hostility. It is a simple show, one that invites the viewer into an austere space of contemplation, perhaps one not too unfamiliar to anyone who has ever dealt with the horrors of the London rental market.
Lonely Planets for a Lonely Planet
During the first lockdown of 2020, I exclusively read diaries and biography. Unable to concentrate on anything with a plot, the descriptions of the lives of others gave my imagination the freedom to move through an expanse that my body lacked. Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, Robin Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk, and Billy Whitelaw’s autobiography were particular stand outs in my attempts to read myself into another space. Now, I traipse across Bermondsey. The sun is shining. I walk past three people wearing sunglasses. I am charmed. I get a coffee and a very dry cannoli. It’s nice to get used to just moving around again, after so much time spent stuck inside my flat.
"I can feel damp in the back of my throat – a novel hostility"
Nelson is no stranger to constructing restricted and claustrophobic spaces. In his 2005 work Spanning Fort Road and Mansion Street – Between a Formula and a Code, he converted an abandoned building in Margate into a hydroponic cannabis farm, with new shoots of cannabis plants sprouting out of plastic guttering in a dank basement. For his breakthrough show of 2000, The Coral Reef, he built a labyrinth of small decrepit rooms that turned from taxi offices, to security offices, and a car garage. In his 2010 show for the New York-based 303 gallery, he welded together four metallic caravans, the interiors of which replicated a spartan mustiness – adorned with seventies bedspreads and hideously dated furnishings.
In contrast to much of his previous work, The Book of Spells is scaled down. Nelson has filled the space with a rusted green metallic bed frame with a carpet for a mattress and some gross bedding spread across it. Next to the bed frame is a small stool. On all four walls bookcases are mounted, twelve in total. Each of these wall-length bookcases is filled with travel guides, organised meticulously by parts of the world. My first impulse, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to get out of the airless and dusty room as quickly as possible. I am reminded of a Stuart Brisley performance I saw in 2017 in Raven Row where he sat completely still in a mock-prison cell with a single turd in it.
Unlike the austere witness of self-punishment of Brisley’s performance, The Book of Spells invites the viewer to a task, one that I initially refused, spending the first few minutes idling on my phone. Instead of reading from the twelve bookcases of travel guides that line the four walls of the small room, I message friends and make my evening plans. As I sit there, I notice the lack of natural light. A slither comes through a side window adjacent to the room visible through a window, but such that it would never land in the room itself. On the back of the entrance door, there’s a horseshoe. I’m not sure if it’s part of the show or not. After a while, I give up my resistance and pick up a travel guide, Trekking in the Pyrenees by Douglas Streatfield-James. I imagine how the room would feel if I could not leave.
"Nelson plays with the most commodified fantasy of escape: the travel and tourism industry"
One thing that surprised me in my lockdown reading of biography and memoir was the moments of sudden catastrophe that puncture everyone’s lives: pandemics, severe illness, civil war – the discovery of such a moment would shatter my imaginative escapes from the state mandate against leaving my house. One particularly arresting moment was in Rousseau’s Confessions where he describes three torturous weeks of quarantine on a ship of the coast of Italy, during a nasty plague outbreak. On imagining Rousseau locked up aboard a ship, I was thrown back into the terminal boredom of my own circumstances.
Similarly, in this latest exhibition, Nelson plays with the most commodified fantasy of escape: the travel and tourism industry. As I pick up various travel guides, I am thrown into a pre-internet world, one where photography is primarily the domain of print books. I can switch quickly between glorious multicolour photographs of nineties children screaming on rollercoasters in Orlando, Florida – ice cream smeared over their faces – to an illustrated guide through the Kathmandu Valley with images of beautifully hairy goats, and then on to a handbook for travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway, with tips about the best stretches of the journey to sleep without getting mugged.
"It is not uncommon for these guidebooks to let slip the odd massacre next to advice about how to hire a local guide to trek through the nearest mountain range"
Yet, flicking through various travel guides, I start to recognise their uniformity. While they promise to help you explore every known facet of the earth’s surface, they have to navigate more practical concerns, too, such as how much to tip, the best hotels, and recent changes in the political administration (although very little is said about Assad in a 1998 guidebook to Syria). Fenced off from advice about how to best exploit the service economy, there are often boxes of potted local histories: “only 13 temples in the whole of Tibet have survived severe Chinese vandalism,” reads the Tibet guide. It is not uncommon for these guidebooks to let slip the odd massacre next to advice about how to hire a local guide to trek through the nearest mountain range.
By titling the exhibition The Book of Spells, Nelson intimates that a book might be magic, but at the same time asks us where we're left when the spell wears off. As such, his exhibition reveals the limits of imaginative freedom. It allows us to indulge our fantasies alongside our critical faculties, while demonstrating that both of these components of ourselves won’t necessarily get us closer to freedom. When I put the guides down, I am in the damp wooden box. It feels like it gets darker while I’m there. I exit the space, walking under the shelf of London A-Z street maps towering over the door frame, pull out my phone and type in my next destination. I step into the light and get on with my day.
By Ed Luker