The car's the star

IT may look like a car made of concrete, but there's much more to Dalziel + Scullion's new sculpture, which is due to be unveiled in Dundee today. Susan Mansfield reports

IF YOU happened to look out of your window in Dundee on Monday at just the right time, you might have seen a concrete car being hoisted into place on a triangle of ground near the Science Centre. Louise Scullion did.

Even though she has been working on the project for several years, the sight of the sculpture suspended in mid-air still took her breath away. "We can't be objective about it any more," says the Dundee-based artist, who works in partnership with her husband, Matthew Dalziel. "But it is a really interesting form. It was amazing to see it hovering, suspended from a crane."

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Dalziel + Scullion are one of Scotland's most dynamic art partnerships. Catalyst, Dundee's latest public sculpture, which will have its unveiling today, is their latest work. It is no ordinary car and, most especially, no ordinary material.

Although it looks and behaves like ordinary concrete, the material contains a catalyst that reacts with light to break down the molecules of airborne pollutants, thus undoing some of the environmental damage done by other cars. This sculpture is the first time it has ever been used in the UK.

Made in France by Italian company Italcementi, it was formulated to be used in paving in heavily polluted urban areas. Tests over larger areas in Italy and Japan have shown a significant improvement to air quality.

Hidden within its make-up is a nano-crystalline grade of titanium dioxide, which reacts with daylight to trigger molecules of substances such as nitric oxides, carbon monoxide and sulphur monoxide to break apart. Harmful nitrogen oxides are converted into harmless nitrates which, in turn, react with the calcium hydroxide of the concrete surface and drain off with rainfall into the soil where they are then used by plants.

As soon as they heard about the material, Dalziel + Scullion, whose work frequently explores ecological issues, knew it would be an interesting material to work with. They received a Creative Scotland Award to support the project in 2005, and found the ideal partner in Dundee City Council.

The choice of subject matter for the sculpture was quite straightforward. "The concrete reacts to airborne pollution caused by cars, so we wanted to address that in the work," says Scullion. "At first we planned to cast a car, but we felt that it would become dated quickly. We draped the car to give a classic silhouette, and to make the work more ambiguous. It could be something that is mothballed or put away, or a whole new type of vehicle, engineered differently and designed differently."

Since it is not a specific model, the car also explores the changing way we see motor vehicles, from a part of utopian modernism and the dreams of Henry Ford to a freedom, an entitlement and now to something which might be more complex, and more costly, than we imagined.

The location of the artwork was also crucial, on a triangle of ground close to Dundee Contemporary Arts, the Sensation Science Centre and the Greenmarket multistorey car park. "When the car park was built there was the usual dialogue," says Scullion. "People weren't sure about a car park of that height being put in that place. It's all about the conundrum of getting cars into cities."

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Dalziel + Scullion have been working together as artists since 1993, and much of their work explores environmental issues, from alternative energy to biodiversity, from wind-farms to the life cycles of plants. "We're quite scattergun," says Scullion. "Typical artists, we graze on lots of different things with our work.

"We feel our generation is quite a pivotal one, lots of different things are coming to a head, oil and other substances abundant to us for generations are going to become much more expensive. There is a feeling of needing to rethink, redesign future strategies.

"It's an exciting time to exist as artists because we are part of the team to think about the future, imagining things differently and valuing things differently. The value of having clean air – what's that worth to society? Or the abundance of water, even though we may not have oil?"

They are careful never to be tub-thumping environmentalists, often leaving a degree of ambiguity in their work, or exploring contradictions: why pour money into sustainable energy, while at the same time extending airports? Even air-purifying concrete is treating an effect rather than a cause.

"It flags up the oddness of human behaviour, that we design these quite complex things," says Scullion. "We know it's not a magic pill. Concrete is quite a noxious substance to make, but concrete companies are also starting to think about designing things with a view to improving air quality."

It is indicative of a shift in thinking. In the same way that more and more of us are thinking about how to make changes to live more sustainably – or are having changes forced upon us – renewable energy and environmentally friendly materials have been transformed from fringe concerns to multimillion pound industries.

In order to make Catalyst, Dalziel + Scullion had to import 13.6 tonnes of the special concrete from France before it was available in the UK (it is now, although it has not yet been used in any finished projects). Then, drawing on expertise at Powderhall Fine Art Foundry in Edinburgh and Border Concrete, they devised a way to cast the draped form of the car, which was supplied by local dealers Barnetts Motor Group.

"A lot of our projects are things we've never made before, so this was a steep learning curve with a biggish team," says Scullion. "We were very reliant on people who could bring expertise to it. It was an interesting thing to observe and be part of."

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The plinth for the concrete car shows the scientific formula for the special material, and the artists are confident that word will get around that it is more than just a sculpture. "In time people will get to know that this substance is doing something physical to the air. It will enter people's psyche that there is this aura about it."

It's a little pocket of cleaner air in a city centre, which seems typical of Dalziel + Scullion's approach to ecological issues: they are not merchants of doom, but of a careful kind of hope. Even in the credit crunch, they see small signs that our attitude to the world is changing.

"People are beginning to appreciate that things are finite and understand the true cost of things, whereas in recent years the true cost of things has been somewhat obscured to those of us in the West. It's dawning on people now in the credit crunch. It's quite exciting to hear consumerism being more examined when it hasn't been examined for a long time.

"Changes are being made. While previous generations were used to being able to travel and not look at the cost, many people now don't just book flights in a willy-nilly way, they are seriously thinking about part they could play. Transport isn't just there to indulge us in the way we've been used to.

"It does feel like a big time of change, and it's up to us to be imaginative in how we think about that change."

HUSBAND and wife partnership Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion met at Glasgow School of Art, and got to know each other when both were chosen to be part of the British Art Show in 1990. They work in photography, video, sound and sculpture around the subject of ecology. Key works include:

The Horn (1997)

A 24m steel sculpture, situated beside the M8, exactly halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Sporadically, it beams out music and poetry to the passing cars.

The Pressure of Spring (1999)

This film, commissioned by Channel 4, is a portrait of young people in transition. Although their aspirations are urban and their world global, it shows them in the context of the natural world. The film was shortlisted for a Bafta New Talent Award.

Breath Taking (2005)

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A billboard-style "advertisement" showing a wind farm under construction, but without slogan, brand or message. Commissioned by Huntly-based Deveron Arts and shown in cities across the UK as well as in Clashindarroch, an area of the North-east earmarked for wind farm development.

The Earth Turned to Bring Us Closer (2006)

Video portrait of Glasgow and its people, filmed by a camera powered by a telescope motor, matching the speed of the earth's rotation. A commission for the Kelvingrove Museum, accompanied by specially commissioned music by Craig Armstrong.