Vantablack and the Battle for the Heart of a Colour
Think of the darkest black you can imagine. No, darker than that. Darker. And darker again. Got it? Okay, you’re still nowhere near Vantablack.
Vantablack is a light-absorbing coating developed by the UK-based Surrey NanoSystems, taking it’s name from the method through which it creates it’s specific brand of almost unimaginably-black-blackness: Vertically-Aligned Nanotube Arrays, a process which allows the colour to, instead of reflect light, absorb it. You’ve probably seen a few images of Vantablack in action, the strange substance enough to render even apparently normal objects into 2D voids of darkness – in case you haven’t, here’s an example:
Though it was developed primarily for more practical endeavours, like filtering light from telescopes, there’s something delightfully strange about Vantablack when it comes to art. The way it seems to swallow up everything into this unsettling void led to some instant interest from the art world, but only one person, it turned out, got to choose how it was used.
That person was and remains Anish Kapoor, a British-Indian sculptor (probably best known to British readers as one of the people behind the Tees Valley Giants sculptures in the North of England), whose studio in 2016 became the only place licenced to use Vantablack spray paint (known as Vantablack S-VIS) in the world. Kapoor and his studio, for all intents and purposes, owned the rights to the potential creative and artistic applications of an entire colour. And a cool one, at that.
Kapoor, for his part, defended his right to the exclusive use of the material, insisting that it was no different than his previous collaborations with companies who had used other materials, like stainless steel, in his work. Shortly after his collaboration with the creators of Vantablack was made public, he used it to cover the once-reflective surface of his Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago, taking it from glowing silver lines to ominous black void, and giving his exclusive use of the colour a bigger platform – and a bigger backlash.
People, as you can imagine, were less than impressed. How could one person hold the ropes on something as exciting and innovative as Vantablack? Artist Christian Furr summed up the art world’s dislike for the new set-up in a grumble: “This black is like dynamite in the art world. We should be able to use it. It isn’t right that it belongs to one man“. Kapoor, for his part, suggested that the desire to use Vantablack was more psychological than artistic, adding “Perhaps the darkest black is the black we carry within ourselves”. This did little to stem the displeasure at his newest exclusive claim.
One of the people it rattled was Stuart Semple, a Bournemouth-born (bornmouth?) artist, who responded to the exclusive ownership of Vantablack by Kapoor with the creation of a Kapoor-exclusionary powdered paint pigment. Launched in late 2016, Semple described the product as “the world’s pinkest pink”, available to anyone who wanted it – except, of course, Anish Kapoor. Semple compared Kapoor, in his announcement of the product, to a kid at school who wouldn’t share his coloured pencils, and asked any purchasers of the product to officially declare upon purchase of the pigment that “you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief this paint will not make its way into that hands of Anish Kapoor”. He also encouraged buyers to tag Kapoor on social media with images of the new pigment, along with the hashtag #ShareTheBlack.
Pink swiftly became the new black, as the pigment quickly sold old on Semple’s store, Culture Hustle, allegedly not to anyone who might be even Anish Kapoor-adjacent. But, despite the strenuous encouragement to the contrary, it wasn’t long before Kapoor shared another incendiary post to his social media:
Despite Semple’s best efforts, Kapoor had managed to get his hands both on and in some of the world’s pinkiest pink pigment. The delightfully petty art feud caught the imagination of plenty of people in the industry and outside of it, with Semple declaring Kapoor “some kind of end-of-game super baddie” in an Instagram post in response to his middle-pink-finger post. But Vantablack remained with Kapoor, and that, to both Semple and much of the wider art community, just wouldn’t do.
Cut to February of the next year, and Semple announced a controversial new release: the world’s blackest black pigment. Cherry-scented and available for the price of component parts, this pigment was built around the idea of cooperation. In the announcement video for the very, very black indeed black, Semple implored potential purchasers to work with him on creating an improved version of this black paint, to create something that not only rivalled Vantablack’s curious and compelling light-absorbing properties, but also remained attainable by artists at any stage of their career. It seemed a specific way to distance his work from that of Kapoor, inviting a cooperative, interactive, and more than anything open-invitation relationship with his consumers. As long as those consumers were not Anish Kapoor, who was banned from purchasing or using this pigment once again.
The blackest black developed by Semple swiftly became something of a hit online, featuring in plenty of clickbait thumbnails from art-y YouTubers, particularly as its light-absorbing and matte properties made it a perfect choice for YouTubers shooting under heavy lighting (as Semple’s pigment wouldn’t have any major flashback on camera). The accessibility of the product along with Semple’s invitation to the community to engage with a development of further pigments – not to mention the juicy feud with Kapoor – made for the perfect kind of viral marketing storm. Within a couple of years, Semple had produced Black 2.0 and 3.0 with the help of his community, along with a very cool mirror chrome paint and other forays into metallic pigment.
Vantablack remains exclusive to Kapoor and his studio, but Semple’s work in creating accessible, community-driven colour for everyone has opened up a whole new world of creation for artists who aren’t directly connected to Kapoor. The idea of that exclusivity becoming, at least partly out of pure spit, a cooperative chance for the community to access colours they never have before is the best kind of irony. And yes, I’m sure that Stuart Semple is right now working on a new metallic paint called “the best kind of iron-y”, and I’m just fine with that.
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