At the heart of all imaginary realms is a delusional fantasy. The desire to create another world is built on a foundation of idealism, escapism and on the suspension of disbelief. In the child’s fancy-dress exploits; in the obsessive pursuits of the model railway fanatic; in the blueprint proposals on the tabletops of city developers; and in the plans of the most hopeful utopian, there inevitably exists the desire for a world beyond the present reality, a better world; a brave new world. Any imaginary or virtual realm allows the visionary the possibility of rewriting or re-conceptualising reality as something other, something different. However, in dreams of utopia lurk the ghosts of present dissatisfaction, frustration and discontent. Secret fiefdoms invert realities where the individual is impotent, powerless or repressed. Utopian states promise a perfect society of equality and community, where the pains of poverty, misery and disease are displaced or somehow wished away.

Combining the Greek words ‘not’ (ou) and ‘place’ (topos) the original term utopia means ‘nowhere’ or literally ‘not-place’, and was created to suggest the two neologisms ‘outopia’ (no place) and ‘eutopia’ (good place). The idea of utopia finds form in numerous economic, political, historical and cultural examples from Marxism to The Matrix, offering both the possibilities and tensions of eutopia (positive utopia) and dystopia (negative utopia) alike. The book Extinction by Thomas Bernhard (whose German version is referred to fleetingly within Jorn Ebner’s installation), muses on the difference between comedy and tragedy. The resolution reached is that they cannot be distinguished for this would require an impossible decision or differentiation, and that instead they offer an interconnectedness that cannot be pulled apart. The condition of utopia is equally ambivalent and promises an experience that oscillates between the eutopian dream and the horror of its dystopian actuality, in which the drives of optimism and pessimism are perpetually pitched in tension.

In the exhibition ‘Ordinary monuments’ the artists Jorn Ebner and Alison Unsworth create imaginary realms which seem to hover somewhere between a vision of eutopia and dystopia. Each create a form of ‘nowhere’ or ‘no-place’, in which to present absurd acts of construction and performance. Both works perhaps reflect on the absurdity of the desire for formalism and for rational interventions in the landscape. In each the attempt to create formal spaces or gestures is subverted, overturned or compromised by the limitations and inconsistencies of the land, which seems to resist any attempt to structure or control it. Acts of construction and the attempt to place order upon the landscape seem exaggerated or excessive; ridiculous or ritualistic; functionless or futile. Both works offer a meditation on the nature of construction and intervention, creating worlds that are both bleak and yet somehow resolutely playful.

Alison Unsworth’s Gold Standard (2005-06) inhabits a space that is simultaneously familiar and unknown, traceable and yet strange. Though it presents an unnamed nowhere or ‘placeless-ness’, its geography still evokes memories of places encountered and of existing locations both real and imagined. The black and gold districts of Unsworth’s urban map share the generic corporate identity of thousands of civic spaces that are in the process of both development and ruin; spaces that virally emerge with each new wave of regeneration and which inevitably collapse back into formlessness or lose their sheen once the funding has dried up or moved on. Located on a tabletop in the gallery space this fictitious realm hovers ambiguously, offering an unlikely conflation of possible frames of reference. In this hybrid landscape the standardised form and language of the town-planning model with its civic colours and uniform structures, collides with other potentialities allowing absurd visual connections to emerge in the miniature constructions. The work visually recalls Guy Debord’s The Naked City, with its different character zones and directional flows of activity rendering territories experientially rather than by physical spatiality. Looming in mid-air the amorphous and inky pools and forms appear like Jonathan Swift’s floating island of Laputa with its utopian (though here absent) inhabitants, whose knowledge of mathematics and technology failed to translate into well-designed construction, for their fondness for reason and rationality outweighed any practical application. The proportionally gigantic, monumental lamppost at the centre of Unsworth’s world is both reassuring and sinister, and again reflects upon the rational desire for order and control taken to its limits. Like Foucault’s panopticon it is a product of a world where security and crime prevention are attained through a condition of perpetual visibility. Here the artificial light is eerily warming, yet brings with it an all-seeing surveillance culture and the acute individual loss of privacy therein.

As with Unsworth’s landscape, Jorn Ebner’s Portable Garden (2001) appears as a site under construction or in development. In both works a sense of motion or action appears to have been momentarily paused. Tools and materials have been abandoned and the site evacuated leaving only a residue of past activities and events. Scattered across the gallery floor a range of objects appear as though primed for some military or medical endeavour, their haphazard formations creating a make-shift bunker, a temporary base camp or some other intermediary zone of encounter. The nature of the objects is ambiguous; they appear to have been used or transformed and yet their function remains undeclared. In the stutter of a slide-projected narrative a fragmentary sense of performance emerges, in which the artist is seen to ritualistically explore the objects as spatial markers or as temporary boundaries through which to negotiate or navigate some other, unknown space. Like an act of alchemy or shamanism the performance modifies an unidentified and neglected urban location into a site of poetic, private significance. Unlike the corporate activities within Unsworth’s sites of construction, here the actions of marking and mapping are an individual response to place: small gestures of trespass or disruption, exploring and testing out a logic of formalism in the most unlikely of spaces. Ebner’s performance and its system of referents collide in slide-projected sequence with images of variegated species of plants, flowers and trees in garden centres or domestic front gardens. Using the inter-titles ‘The Natural State’ and ‘The Artificial State’, Ebner puts into doubt or challenges the idea of fixed meanings and categorisation. The unfolding of images contests basic assumptions around notions of naturalness and artificiality. What initially appears as an absurd performative gesture belies a subtler though more insidious potential for ideological disruption and interference.

Both Ebner and Unsworth reveal ordinary spaces and locations to be punctured through by inconsistencies, tensions and contradictions, using personal ritual and excessive gesture in order to defamiliarise the everyday. Abandoned or under-developed peripheral spaces reveal capitalist progress to be uneven and discontinuous, creating pockets of surplus and excess; deficiency and dereliction; temporal gaps, pauses and spatial zones in which acts of resistance and play might occur. For theorist Henri Lefebvre the everyday is a site of dialectic possibility, a space of both transformation and the most vivid of alienations. Secreted within the fabric of the everyday, however bleak, is the possibility of an alternative experience whose utopian potential might be rescued and resuscitated. As such, the construction of imaginary realms – though a product of fantasy, idealism, or escapism – holds the promise of disrupting the homogenised logic or illusion of city space, creating fissures and breaks in which to imagine something other. Both artists inhabit an undisclosed yet somehow recognisable landscape in order to offer their own visions of transformation. Unlike civic statues and corporate sculpture, ‘Ordinary monuments’ celebrates such small acts of resistance or imagination, offering a commemoration to all those unnamed visionaries who persist in imagining alternatives within the everyday.