Some lockdown art is inspiring. Mike Nelson’s The Book of Spells, (A Speculative Fiction) is not. Only one person at a time can experience this tiny installation. As the gallerist shuts the door from the outside – was that a key turning? – you are left all alone in a monument to loneliness. The protagonist of this fabulist installation lives in a single room with barely enough space for the iron bed frame on which they apparently spent month after month. A window opens on to a sealed space full of rubble. A child’s forgotten ball sums up the apocalyptic wasteland out there. And in here, the only signs of physical sustenance are a dried squash, an animal bone and a jar of matter that might be seeds or poison. Otherwise the small cupboard is bare.
What has the occupant of the room been living on? Dreams of travel. The prison-like bed is surrounded by roughly knocked together wooden bookcases loaded with copies of Rough Guides and Lonely Planets – hundreds of them – plus maps and the occasional Dorling Kindersley volume, the ones that have nice colour pictures of beaches, artworks and local dishes. These are all practical guidebooks, the kind that so many of us stuffed in our hand luggage on the budget flights that made globetrotting so popular up to early 2020.
Nelson’s poor, locked-down wretch can’t let go of those days. So obsessed with weekend breaks in European cities is this person, that he or she whiles away the confined days and nights reading about good cheap hotels in Paris and the best pizzas in Budapest. There are, I counted, 22 guides on Prague alone. Portugal is shelved next to Africa, and there’s a bookcase just for Indonesia and Australasia. Israel gets two volumes and there are plenty on Turkey and Istanbul, whose imaginary subterranean souks Nelson fabricated in a delirious installation at the Venice Biennale in 2011.
For this world in a bottle is also a microcosm of Nelson’s ambitious early works. It takes him back to Matt’s Gallery in London, where he first staged his sprawling labyrinth The Coral Reef back at the start of the millennium. That installation led you through room after room of a sinister urban underworld that seemed on the eve of some kind of catastrophe. Maybe in returning to Matt’s to construct a similarly doom-laden inscape he feels vindicated. After all, the 21st century has turned out to be even worse than The Coral Reef made it look. Nelson may once have seemed to be overdoing his heavy metal prophecies. Now he’s just telling it like it is. Who would have thought we would live in a time when travel guides, instead of acting as cheery holiday accessories, would summon stress and dread? The books arrayed here don’t open up possibilities but remind us of experiences closed off by lockdown: the flights not taken.
Yet as you stare at the four walls that surround you, the satire metamorphoses into a story of paralysis and delusion. Nelson’s ideal city appears to be Prague. Maybe those 22 books about it are a clue to what he’s doing here. In the great Prague author Franz Kafka’s story The Burrow, a mole delights in its cosy little subterranean home but then hears something trying to get in. The inhabitant of Nelson’s room would apparently love to get out – or would he/she? There’s a door, after all. There could be experiences available beyond it, even if they are local. Instead, this obsessive reader of travel books stays in a mouldering coffin, studying the same places, making the same plans. Perhaps they never did go anywhere, even before the pandemic – maybe this is the room of someone always consumed by fantasies of the trips that never were.
So The Book of Spells could be a self-critique of Nelson’s own art, a rejection of his magic realism. Art too is like a travel book, offering us escape from the physical facts of reality. We go to the theatre, read a novel, see a film. Perhaps these are all just evasions, a few hours of holiday. In this closed room the holiday is getting threadbare. Classify those guidebooks as much as you like, you ain’t going nowhere. And when it’s all over, when we’re on the plane again increasing our carbon footprint, will it just be another evasion?
If Nelson’s theatrical art used to be epic and entertaining, this is a Samuel Beckett one-acter, a grumpy howl from the heart of the pandemic. Perhaps it won’t be easy to understand in future, when it doesn’t hurt your head to look at guidebooks. But right now it slams the way we’ve been living in your face.