Anish Kapoor, one of the world’s most renowned living artists, is in the news for securing the exclusive rights to use a high-tech material called Vantablack in his sculptures. Vantablack absorbs over 99.96 % of incident light, and is the darkest material ever created. The "vanta" in Vantablack is short for vertically aligned nano-tube arrays, created by growing super-thin filaments of closely packed carbon. Any light hitting a Vantablack-coated surface bounces around within the threads and cannot emerge again. In other words, the surface reflects almost no light at all. If a crumpled piece of aluminium is coated with the substance, it will look flat.

Early development was carried out by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, before a company called Surrey Nanosystems took over the project. Kapoor has been experimenting with Vantablack since a breakthrough in its application was announced in 2014. However, he has yet to exhibit any work that uses the material.

Those familiar with Kapoor’s work will immediately see why he is attracted to Vantablack’s potential for fooling the eye and mind. The artist, who was born in Mumbai and moved to London as a teenager, first came to attention in the late ‘80s for his unusual use of powdery pigments in sculpture.

His most fascinating works from this period were hemispherical objects containing cavities whose insides were painted deep blue. One didn’t look at the sculptures so much as into them. And looking into them was to stare into a void or abyss which evoked a disconcerting mixture of contrasting emotions, ranging from delight to fear.

Past and present

To understand why Kapoor’s handling of colour was innovative, it is helpful to glance briefly at what came before him. From the 15th century onwards, European painting was dominated by illusionism. The idea was to create a sense of three dimensions by applying pigment to a two-dimensional surface.

Sculpture required no such trickery because it was already three-dimensional. At the time painting became illusionistic, European sculpture began looking back to Greek and Roman sources for inspiration. Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greatest sculptor to emerge in this period, began his career by faking an ancient Roman bust. However, Michelangelo and every European sculptor who followed in his footsteps for centuries after misunderstood the forms they imitated. They created unadorned figures from marble because that’s what the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures looked like that were dug out of the ground, or were seen on buildings dating from classical antiquity that remained standing in lands around the Mediterranean.

What artists and scholars failed to appreciate was that those figures as well as the facades that held them had originally been brightly painted, just as the classical sculptures of Egypt, China, India had originally been coated with pigment. Over the centuries, the colour had come off Egyptian tombs, Hindu temples, and Greek shrines, leading to the false impression that classical architecture and sculpture were divorced from paint.

More than a gimmick

Pigment returned to European sculpture in the 20th century, although most artists retained a preference for a material’s original colour. Meanwhile, the entire tradition of illusionism in painting was overturned. Instead of trying to create a sense of three dimensions, painters increasingly drew attention to the flatness of the painted surface. Anish Kapoor’s contribution to this tradition was to bring illusionism to sculpture through the use of paint. From some perspectives, his voids looked flat. Even when viewers discerned they were hollow, it wasn’t clear how deep they actually were. Here was sculpture that confused the eye through a judicious application of pigment, the way painting had attempted to do for centuries.

Kapoor’s illusionistic sculptures weren’t mere gimmicks. They connected philosophically with Buddhist explorations of shunyata, which means a void, emptiness or hollowness – a state where the ego has been erased. They also tapped into our innate fear of darkness, and in doing so related to Edmund Burke’s influential concept of the sublime.

Burke, who is best known in India for seeking to impeach the former Governor-General of Bengal Warren Hastings on charges of corruption, completed a treatise titled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful at the age of 20, and published it in 1757, the year of the Battle of Plassey. It was to have a profound effect on the way Indian art, especially Hindu sculpture, was perceived in Europe.

Burke proposed that humans were driven by two fundamental instincts – self-preservation and self-propagation. Art that was well-formed and pleasing could be termed beautiful, and concerned our instinct towards self-propagation, for self-propagation depends on our being attracted to something outside ourselves. There could also be art that created a sense of fear, awe, and terror. These emotions related to our instinct for self-preservation. When they were evoked even as our rational selves told us we were not actually in danger, it created a kind of aesthetic delight, which Burke termed the sublime.

Encountering the sublime

In colloquial language, something that is extraordinarily beautiful is often called sublime, but in art historical discourse, and especially in Edmund Burke’s interpretation, the sublime and the beautiful are very distinct qualities.

Early European visitors to India were befuddled by Hindu art, because they could not fit it into any received set of aesthetic categories. In extreme cases, this led them to vandalise icons they considered monstrous, and to condemn the Hindu religion as beastly. Burke’s ideas gave Europeans a way of appreciating icons of Hindu gods and goddesses. They were not easily accommodated into the category of the beautiful, but they fit the idea of the sublime. Kapoor’s explorations of the void were sublime in the Burkean sense.

In the 1990s, Kapoor began experimenting with shiny, convex surfaces rather than dark, concave ones, turning his art inside out, as it were. His best known creation in this mode is Chicago’s Cloud Gate, perhaps the most loved monumental public sculpture created anywhere in the world in recent years, and one perfectly suited to the era of the selfie.

Cloud Gate and Kapoor’s other mirror sculptures are made from polished stainless steel and demand an exceptional exactitude in fabrication. Apart from expert fabrication, his work increasingly relies on cutting-edge technology. But he was drawn to technical innovation even in his early days. Kapoor has often expressed his indebtedness to the artist Yves Klein, who developed a pigment called International Klein Blue, though he stopped short of patenting it.

Bad press

The outrage over Kapoor’s agreement with Surrey Nanosystems over the use of Vantablack is based partly on a misunderstanding. Vantablack is a material and a process, not a shade of black. The company does not have any exclusive rights to a colour nor does Kapoor. At some point of time, we will manage to create a substance that absorbs 99.97% or 99.98 % of incident light and eventually it will become available cheaply. Anything created today that depends only on the technology will be a mere novelty item with little lasting value. Technology opens up new possibilities in art, enables new forms of art, but never by itself causes interesting art to be made.

I suspect Surrey Nanosystems is as interested in an exclusive arrangement as Anish Kapoor. The company is not aiming to profit from his art. The material’s main commercial applications currently lie in defence, aerospace, and allied industries. So having an artist as well-known and respected as Kapoor using the product provides great publicity.

While exclusivity works for the company, I’m not sure why Anish Kapoor has brought such bad press upon himself. Perhaps the substance is prohibitively expensive, but he should have known that the art world would react viscerally to the shutting down of any creative avenue in this fashion. Kapoor should allow everybody with an interest in Vantablack the option to buy the product, with the confidence that none will match the quality of what he does with the material.