Sundial Blues

Sundial blues

My window on the first floor overlooked the yard between the coatings plant and the office block; in the morning I would watch the senior managers arrive, and as their cars lined up against the wall I was reminded of a phrase from Dali: ‘Three hippies and a guitar take their place on the sofa; the day is ready to begin.’ Throughout the day forklift trucks would amble across the yard, clattering as they shifted barrels of resin or pallets of cement from place to place.

From my window I could also see Trafford Park, where the Kellogg’s factory would emit vast clouds of steam from three grand chimneys. In winter, the sun would go down behind the factory and occasionally the steam would catch the dying rays so that it looked as if the entire world was ablaze. My enjoyment of this dramatic scene was cut short when a miserable grey warehouse was built, blocking the view.

In 2004 I was called upon to carry out some testing on sections of rail-axle steel. We arranged for them to be cut into quarter segments, each of which weighed about two kilograms. The idea was that we could determine the durability of the items by placing them in a cabinet filled with warm salt fog, which would cause the normal journey of corruption to rush more quickly by.

We coated the curved chunks of metal with two-pack epoxy, enhanced with micaceous haematite and zinc phosphate and some elegant zirconium compounds vaguely related to lecithin. The inner, flat surfaces were painted instead with four layers of bright red chlorinated rubber paint.

When fully coated, the items looked like dissected limbs from some crashed alien life-form. We transferred them into the salt-spray cabinet and set it running at 35 degrees, as requested by the client. I had not received any written instructions about how to perform the test, or how to record the results, or even what to look for; so I just removed the pieces at intervals of two or three days and made vague notes about the appearance of the metal blocks.

Gradually, a series of black lines and flecks began to appear on the surface of the blocks, both on the grey-coated areas and the inner red-painted regions. There were no signs of flaking, cracking or blistering on any of the specimens, so I simply returned them to the test-chamber for continued exposure. Eventually I went to the boss and asked him whether he wanted to check the progress on these axle sections.

He sighed. ‘Didn’t anybody tell you we decided not to go ahead with that three weeks ago?’

So I turned the machine off and removed the metal chunks, placing them in a corner of the warehouse in case they were needed for future inspection. The lines of rust had begun to form trails which curved like some mysterious oriental script, and I wondered if these were some kind of message that we were all too dull to understand.

A few months later, one of the shop-floor workers asked if he could take these pieces home, since they appeared to be just scrap metal. I told him to ask the boss, which he did, and the pieces disappeared from their resting place a few days later.

Then, a year or so later, I was preparing to leave the company to start a new job in Stockport, when I found a magazine in my works pigeonhole. At first I thought it was another of those boring technical catalogues, listing the latest secondhand bits of lab equipment; but it turned out to be a review of arts and cultural events in a town on the south coast. One of the articles featured an installation called ‘Sundial Blues’, consisting of a rifle jutting from the gallery floor, surrounded at some distance by a ring of metal chunks. After a few minutes I realised that these were the axle sections I had coated the previous year. In her magazine interview, the artist said that the metal blocks were chunks of depleted uranium taken from a stolen warhead in Iraq; and that the average weight of the blocks was the typical weight deficiency shown by malnourished adult males in the Middle East. The installation was due to be put on display in two major exhibitions in Frankfurt and Milan, before being auctioned to raise money for the relief efforts being carried out by MSF in the damaged regions of Basra and Tikrit.


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