A sample of Vantablack. Image courtesy of Surrey Nanosystems
Imagine a colour so dark that, not unlike a black hole, it absorbs 99.96% of the light that hits it. So dark, that when applied to an undulating surface, its curves become nearly imperceptible. While this certainly sounds like a superhero villain straight out of science fiction, Vantablack is actually real. According to the manufacturer, it was “originally developed for satellite-borne blackbody calibration systems.” Given the paint’s complex technology, one can’t well take a tube of it with traditional artist’s palette and set out to paint en plein air. It is applied to surfaces using “vacuum deposition technology, or alternately by spraying and then “post-processing.”
A sample of Vantablack
This makes Vantablack somewhat inadaptable to the masses. Which actually doesn’t pose a problem—given that only one artist has been granted the exclusive rights to its use: British-Indian sculptor and Anish Kapoor.
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1954, Kapoor was raised in a blended Hindu-Jewish family, and lived on an Israeli kibbutz for a time during his youth, before moving to England. After studying mathematics and electrical engineering, he decided to pursue an art career fulltime, focusing on abstract, geometric sculpture in a wide array of media. His most recent works have been fashioned out of highly polished stainless steel, or rust-susceptible Core-Ten steel.
Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, measuring 66 x 333 feet. Image courtesy of the City of Chicago
Probably best-known for monumental works like Chicago’s Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate (also known as “The Bean”), Kapoor’s considerable body of work masterfully melds colour, form and shape, often considering the viewer’s physical experience relative to an artwork as a central theme.
He is, then, perhaps the ideal artist to utilize Vantablack’s exceedingly unique properties. The “exclusive” status, however, has raised more than a few eyebrows, and voices, in protest. The move has provoked critics into labelling the artist narcissistic, immoral even.
The question of whether an artist can, or should, “own” a colour is a fraught one, though not new. In the 1960 painter Yves Klein famously registered the richly hued ultramarine he called IKB—or International Klein Blue—as a trademark colour. He initially created monochrome paintings, before branching out into sculpture that included busts of Venus, Winged Victories of Samothrace, and plexiglas tables filled with IKB pigment.
Yves Klein’s Table Bleue, designed in 1961
While taking proprietary control of a colour might seem grinchlike, the more functional truth is that Vantablack’s manufacturers have scored a marketing victory in granting Kapoor sole rights to use it. His “ownership” of the hue is more like an ambassadorship, and I think those who invented it do have the right to do with it as they wish.
Artist Anish Kapoor. Image courtesy of AFP Photo/Stephane de Sakutin
No stranger to controversy, Kapoor made international headlines in late 2015 by refusing to cover up anti-Semitic graffiti that was scrawled across his sculpture Dirty Corner, which is installed in the gardens at Versailles. To regional cultural authorities’ horror, Kapoor insisted the graffiti remain, as “a lament to the state of intolerance,” as he told the BBC.
Dirty Corner at Versailles, image courtesy of Jewishbusinessnews.com
Facing difficult questions head-on is the role of an artist, and I applaud Kapoor for taking a stand, even if it is unpopular. One can’t always whitewash an ugly state of affairs, or black it out—even if armed with the darkest material on earth.