Science / Technology / The Arts

Anish Kapoor and Vantablack: the blackest black ever

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THE BLACKEST SHADE OF BLACK EVER is known as Vantablack, and British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor has been given the exclusive artistic licence to use it.

“It’s so black you almost can’t see it,” Kapoor told BBC Radio 4.

“Imagine a space that’s so dark that as you walk in you lose all sense of where you are, what you are, and especially all sense of time.”

Surrey Nanosystems, the developers of Vantablack, sold their first batches in 2014 to buyers in aerospace and defence. But in the field of arts, Kapoor owns exclusive licence.

“It has a kind of unreal quality and I’ve always been drawn to rather exotic materials because of what they make you feel.”

Vantablack absorbs 99.965% of the light that hits it, rendering the perception of a black so dark it could be a hole sliced out of reality.

When coated on a three-dimensional object, Vantablack reflects so little light that it becomes nearly impossible for the human eye to discern surface features. The object is stripped of its three-dimensionality, taking on instead the form of a black two-dimensional plane.

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Vantablack coated to wrinkly aluminium foil: the surface texture becomes imperceptible. Image: Surrey Nanosystems

“Vantablack is not a black paint, pigment or fabric, but is instead a functionalised ‘forest’ of millions upon millions of incredibly small tubes made of carbon, or carbon nanotubes,” explains Surrey Nanosystems.

This forest of carbon nanotubes must be chemically “grown” under an array of lamps in specialised high-heat chambers.

“Try to visualise walking through a forest in which the trees are around 3km tall instead of the usual 10 to 20 metres. It’s easy to imagine just how little light, if any, would reach you,” says Surrey Nanosystems.

Light shone on the Vantablack surface slips into the spaces between nanotubes and loses itself, endlessly bouncing from tube to tube. With a near total lack of reflectance, the result is a black whose darkness is hungrier than any black you’ve ever seen.

It also comes in a spray can.

Lapsus tried to get in touch with Mr Kapoor, but on Vantablack he is no longer available for comment or interview.

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Anish Kapoor’s Unititled (2006-07). Commissioned for and on display at the Queensland Art Gallery. Image: Anish Kapoor

Kapoor is known for his large, geometric sculptures that often play with perception and the space around them. Think mirrors, blood vessels and globular distortions in spacetime.

The artist is yet to show any work with Vantablack, but does seem pleased to have procured it.

“It’s the blackest material in the universe after black holes. I’ve worked with an idea of non-material objects since my void works from the mid-’80s, and Vantablack seems to me to be a proper non-material. The nanostructure of Vantablack is so small that it virtually has no materiality. It’s thinner than a coat of paint and rests on the liminal edge between an imagined thing and an actual one. It’s a physical thing that you cannot see, giving it a transcendent or even transcendental dimension, which I think is very compelling,” writes Kapoor in his short essay on Artforum.

A post shared by Anish Kapoor (@dirty_corner) on

Above: artist Anish Kapoor teases the victory on Instagram.

But other artists aren’t so pleased.

“I’ve never heard of an artist monopolizing a material,” said English painter Christian Furr. “We should be able to use it. It isn’t right that it belongs to one man.”

Shanti Panchal, an Indian artist, told India’s Telegraph, “I have not known of anything so absurd—in the creative world, artists, nobody should have a monopoly.”

Indeed, Surrey Nanosystem’s website does state that Vantablack has been licensed exclusively to Kapoor Studios UK. The reasons for this are not explicitly detailed. It is known, however, that Kapoor had been in contact with Surrey Nanosystems since 2014.

For now Vantablack is tethered to just one artist, but this exclusivity does not extend to other sectors. Vantablack has a diverse range of potential applications in science.

Essentially, the substance is designed to reduce unwanted stray light. Coats of Vantablack could be applied to the insides of powerful telescopes, honing their ability to detect faint light from faraway stars. It could also be used to improve the sensitivity of infrared cameras, as well as other scientific instruments both on Earth and in space.

Vantablack’s voracious ability to absorb light energy and convert it to heat also makes it relevant to solar power.

There’s even been talk of its use in high-end, luxury products. The appeal is an absolute black aesthetic.

A Vantablack jacket, cuffs and collar all pitch black nothing like they were torn out of space — when it arrives, you’ll hear it first from us.

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