Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack advantage

This week, Microsoft joined Google and Oracle as members of the Eclipse Foundation, a not-for-profit open-source group. Last week, BrewDog released a back catalogue of their recipes for public use. The week before that, Art UK launched, with the intention of providing digital images of every publicly owned drawing, sculpture, print, and painting in Britain – for free. Each announcement was made for a different reason, whether business strategy or generosity, but all three instances stem from a common belief: that there is something to gain from sharing.

Anish Kapoor, the artist best known for his Olympic sculpture, Orbit, has taken a step in the other direction, and has received a great deal of flak for it. His studio has been given the exclusive rights – for artistic use, at least – to Vantablack, a material created by Surrey NanoSystems. Vantablack is a “functionalised forest” of carbon nanotubes that reflects only 0.036% of the light that strikes it. The other 99.964% is left to bounce about in the space between the tubes. This ratio makes Vantablack the world’s darkest man-made substance, with possible applications ranging from improving the sensitivity of telescopes to undisclosed military technologies. More specifically, Kapoor acquired the rights to Vantablack S-VIS, a spray-based variant that functions as a paint, and is better suited to artistic use.

Kapoor has drawn criticism before. His sculpture Dirty Corner, installed in the Versailles Palace gardens in June 2015, was marred by a series of high-profile incidents. After the artist dubbed the work “the vagina of the queen who took power”, it was splashed with paint. It was dutifully cleaned, only to be appended with anti-Semitic graffiti. When Kapoor decided to leave the racist slurs untouched to highlight intolerance, he was sued for “inciting racial hatred”. The scrawl has since been covered up with gold leaf. While Kapoor is no stranger to controversy, he has rarely been on the receiving end of ire from fellow artists. Following the Vantablack news, portraitist Christian Furr claimed that the monopoly isnt right”, while others branded the move “absurd and “immoral”.

A cynic would suggest that these comments are nothing but the complaints of a jealous child, who wants a toy only once someone else picks it up. To some extent, perhaps this is true — Kapoor has been linked to Vantablack since 2014 without much interest from other artists. There are also other reasons for the restriction. For one, its coating means that it is subject to UK Export Control. Health concerns have been raised: its producers insist that it is safe if applied appropriately, but questions have been asked about the damage it could cause upon human contact. Considered alongside Surrey NanoSystems’ assertion that Vantablack S-VIS requires specialist treatment, a solid argument is made for limiting use to a small group of people – for now, at least.

But other artists’ objections are not made purely for practical reasons — principles are at play. Whether he sees them as such or not, Kapoor’s actions are an affront to the inclusive ideals of open-source culture. With the free movement of ideas and materials comes dialogue, transparency, and invention through collaboration. By holding exclusive rights to Vantablack, Kapoor replaces ‘us’ with ‘me’. His decision was made not to facilitate the art world’s evolution, but to elevate his own standing within it. This is not a case of copyrighting work that he has produced, of protecting his livelihood or existing output. It is being perceived primarily as an act of aggression that serves to edge others out of an already narrow marketplace.

For those who lack the wealth, reputation, and opportunities at Kapoor’s disposal (although it’s unclear how much it cost Kapoor to acquire these rights), such behaviour adds salt to the wounds. To be prohibited from using a single, obscure substance in one’s artworks may seem inconsequential, but lack of access to new mediums – whether physical materials, software or tools – confines the ease with which one can innovate. This is not a new issue by any means, but rarely is it so unnecessarily exacerbated.

If a room coated with Vantablack, as Kapoor has enthused, creates “a space thats so dark that as you walk in you lose all sense of where you are, what you are”, this is quite a powerful phenomenon for one man to have the authority to activate. In the same interview, Kapoor referred to the substance as being so black that “you almost cant see it”. It is a cruel irony, then, that the mainstream media seems able to glimpse the art world’s obstructive barriers only within the reflections of this lightless void.

John Wadsworth

Earlier versions of this article are available at The Draft Man’s Contract.

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