While it waits patiently to move to more expansive premises later this year, Matt’s Gallery still inhabits a diminutive space in Bermondsey, south London. The graphics on the shuttered front window enumerate the shows here since 2018. If you saw Mike Nelson’s magisterial The Asset Strippers in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries before the pandemic, or any other of his epic installations over the years, you might imagine asking him to address the modest 3 x 3 x 3metre gallery is a little like asking John Milton to write a haiku.
The physical proposition of The Book of Spells is deceptively simple. A single-room set up, the labyrinthine structures we associate with Nelson’s work are here conjured in our own minds, as we stand, alone, and navigate the layers of allusion and metaphor.
Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Michelin France, AA Guide, Berlitz, Insight, Dorling Kindersley, Blue Guide. A monastically plain room, bare floorboards and a single bed, is lined on every available wall with bookshelves filled with travel guides. For those of a certain age, the rows of titles are redolent of youthful travels, of budget hotels, adventures, discoveries and new-found freedoms. Printed travel guides have been rendered extinct by the internet as swiftly and decisively as the meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs. Hardly anyone under 30 would even consider buying one.
Sicily, Switzerland, Rome, Rome, Rome: reading the titles becomes incantatory. Indonesia, Borneo, Australia, New Zealand. Sometimes the eye is caught by a stack of tomes on a top shelf, offering the vision of improbable, serendipitous itineraries: Hungary, Singapore, South Africa. Tantalisingly, a guide to Japan is stuffed with notes and clippings poking out of it, reminding us that all these hundreds of guides were carried to the destinations of their namesakes and have returned, bearing the patina of experience.
Antarctica, Lonely Planet; Baltic States and Kaliningrad – a Travel Survival Guide: political geographies have shifted since many of these books were published. A mention of Antarctica is more likely now to prompt heightened anxieties about the effects of climate change than conjure the romance of early polar exploration. The earliest known records of spells are found in cuneiform on clay tablets from 4th century BC Mesopotamia. The ancient Egyptians also wrote down spells, and books of spells, or grimoires as they came to be known, have been found in cultures across the world. A grimoire is defined as a guide to spells, charms and divination – used to summon or invoke supernatural entities – spirits or demons. The books themselves came to be thought of as being imbued with magical powers.
A guide to the Hidden places of Somerset, Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Google Earth has made so many locations accessible to tourism, the concept of a hidden place seems more impossibly romantic than ever – especially during the pandemic when, en masse we sought out solace and adventure in the natural world and trampled it to mud. Like so many of his works, The Book of Spells simultaneously evokes a sense “of entrapment and of escape”. The window of this installation looks out onto a solid wall, builders’ detritus litters the floor, along with a VHS tape and a dusty, children’s football. Even at this reduced scale, Mike Nelson manages to assemble whole worlds of detail that send the imagination skittering in all directions. High up on the wall, beside the door, is a tin medicine cabinet, its door hanging slightly ajar. Peering into its shadowy recesses, there is a single, unlabelled glass jar: remains of a remedy perhaps, for some unknown travellers’ malady suffered in a far-off city.
In place of a mattress, the absent inhabitant of this room has a Turkish rug slung on their Victorian iron bedstead. Two walking sticks, handles smooth with use, are laid across the frame at the head of it. Within reach of the bed, a little heap of small denomination notes, Egyptian pounds, is stilled under some pebbles. Easy to see, in the mind’s eye, the hand that reached into dusty trouser pockets to empty them before lying down to rest. Bedtime reading will be a guide to Turkey – invoking memorable earlier works of Nelson’s, including his extraordinary British Pavilion in Venice in 2011.
The Book of Spells transports the viewer back and forth in time as well as geographies: like spirits circling the earth, it is impossible not to conjure up memories of places we have visited, all the while revisiting the ghosts of our earlier selves. As we tentatively emerge into the world once again, altered by isolation, this work is infinitely potent. However, to understand The Book of Spells as defined by the pandemic would be simplistic and limiting: the Speculative Fictions the work proposes are as multifaceted as anything Nelson has ever made.
Matt’s Gallery, 92 Webster Road, London, SE16 4DF. Open Friday to Sunday, 12.00–18.00. Exhibition continues until 5 March 2022. www.mattsgallery.org