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Is Kapoor’s monopoly over Vantablack actually a wonderful thing?

This is a good story. Or at least we think so, and it all focuses round something called Vantablack – apparently the world’s blackest black.

Let us explain…

Whilst purchasing some diamond dust from artist Stuart Semple’s website Culture Hustle, we noticed an intriguing bit of text regarding 1991 Turner prize winner Anish Kapoor (shown above).

The text read…

Culture Hustle's small print regarding any purchases
Culture Hustle’s small print regarding any purchases

To be honest we smirked, wondered briefly what it was all about, continued with our purchase, and thought nothing more about it.

Kapoor announces his first Vantablack sculptures

Then 2 days ago we came across an article on artnet.com with the title “Anish Kapoor Will Unveil His First Vantablack Sculptures During the Venice Biennale, Dazzling Visitors With the ‘Blackest’ Black Ever Made”.

Due to the side notes on Semple’s website regarding Kapoor, this article tweaked our interest and we began reading.

The story is quite a fascinating one (you can read the full article in the link above), but in a nutshell, it goes as follows…

 – In July 2014 an aerospace company, called Surrey Nano Systems, declared they had created a ‘super black’ known as Vantablack.

 – 18 months later, Anish Kapoor secured exclusive rights to this new development stopping any other artists from using this new material.

As you can imagine, many artists felt this was highly unfair, citing Kapoor as a wealthy elitist for monopolising this new technology.

So what is Vantablack, and why is it so special?

If you assumed Vantablack was a new type of paint (as we did), it isn’t.

It is in fact a dense field of micro nanotubes created in a reactor. These are then adhered to whatever surface you want it adding to.

The reason Vantablack’s so special is because of just how black it actually is. The nanotubes essentially trap light, 99.96% of light to be precise. The result is anything coated in Vantablack looks completely flat. All shape and contours are gone… which is pretty impressive.

Vantablack - the world's blackest black
Vantablack – the world’s blackest black

Apparently, as always with these things, it was originally designed for the military.

As we continued reading the article, a familiar name cropped up- Stuart Semple.

Stuart Semple decided to produce something that unlike Vantablack, is available for everyone
Stuart Semple decided to produce something that unlike Vantablack, is available for everyone

The reason for this? Well Stuart and his team, disgruntled by Kapoor’s selfish decision, have been on a quest to produce a paint that rivals Vantablack, but unlike Vantablack, is available for everyone.

It all began with Black 1.0, then 2.0 and now he has launched Black 3.0. We got in touch with Stuart to ask about his issues with Anish Kapoor and his quest for the world’s blackest black.

Firstly, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. I guess we should start at the beginning and ask the question, “how did this feud between you and Kapoor start”?

I suppose the start of it was when I heard that Kapoor has done a deal with the creators of the world’s blackest substance, so that he would be the only artist they would work with. A lot of artists were really upset by that.  

Why did it annoy you so much?

It annoyed me for lots of reasons.

 I suppose the biggest was just how privileged the deal was, that here was someone with huge wealth and power and a company with a potentially game changing process to make aesthetic stuff, and only one voice or creator was going to be using it.

It felt very prejudicial of the company that created it to exclude artists when they were open to collaborate with everyone else, fashion designers, car makers, jewellers, marketing companies even deodorant makers. There would have been so many nicer, cooler ways to go about it.

I really believe in accessibility, and one of the things that annoys me most about art is the elitism that exists. I think art is so powerful and important and everyone should be welcome, I don’t think we should be putting up walls – we need to be tearing them down.

I honestly believe that we are stronger as a community, together, so I hate anything that looks like it’s about excluding people. 

Were other artists up in arms regarding Kapoor’s monopoly over Vantablack?

Yeah yeah so many.

I spoke to Ron Arad the other day, we are helping him with a piece he wants to do and he’d been turned away. Tom Sachs has been in touch and playing with 3.0… Idris Khan uses our black. There are actually loads of well-known ones but really that’s not the point, the point is all artists are equal and it’s as much about people in their bedroom expressing themselves, or students, or just anyone.

I think overall a lot of humans were upset even beyond art. Really, it’s awesome big named artists use the things I make and I’m grateful but I get as much kick out of seeing the work that the art community are making with the paints. It’s really about art for everyone, not just an elite few.  

How did you feel when you saw the image of Kapoor giving you the finger coated in your pinkest pink? (Just to explain, aside from Black 3.0, Stuart’s site offers lots of other amazing colours… including pink. An Instagram image emerged of Kapoor giving the finger, coated in Stuart’s pinkest pink – a blatant pop at him)

At first, I didn’t realise it was actually him I thought it was just some random person on Instagram. Then I realised it was him and I was a bit shocked because it seemed so out of character. And then I realised that it really was coming from a place of complete lack of empathy for the art community. It hurt – it was a proper ouch moment.  

Kapoor gives Stuart the 'finger' on Instagram
Kapoor gives Stuart the ‘finger’ on Instagram

Do you feel it has got personal now?

Well not really, it’s not really got to that point. He’s made 10 luxury watches with the black that are $100k each, so it’s obvious he’s in the game of making expensive trinkets for rich people.

I’m glad that I’ve been able to share materials with artists around the world that didn’t exist before and we are seeing art that wasn’t possible to make before. I’m so in awe of the stuff that’s being made, I’m way more focused on the positive.

If anything, I feel sorry for the guy. He’s stuck with a material that’s way more expensive and harder to use than the black we’ve made as a community.  

Vantablack seems to be incredibly delicate and fragile, would most artists even be able to use it if they could have got their hands on it, or even afford it?

Well it’s certainly something that needs to be done by a fabricator. It’s not like you could use it at home – although the spray version is easier to use. You’d have to ask the company to coat your art for you, but that’s not weird a lot of artists use outside fabricators to make big sculptures, frame things, cast stuff etc… so it’s more of an off-site type process.  But yes, you are totally right it’s really fragile and expensive – it’s got a lot of limitations as to what you can grow it on as well. 

Have you ever got your hands on any Vantablack?

Sadly not 🙁 

How does it compare to Black 3.0?

Well 3.0 is actually a paint, not some stupidly expensive lab process that needs a vacuum chamber and a load of protective clothing. 

The big difference I suppose is that Vanta is blacker – it’s absorbing 99.6% of light, whereas 3.0 is absorbing between 98 and 99 % depending on how you apply it. But really that’s not so significant  in real life.

I think the main difference is that 3.0 is available to anyone affordably and ships all over the world, you can just apply it with a paintbrush like normal acrylic paint. It is very matte, very black paint.

Semple's affordable answer to Vantablack - Black 3.0
Semple’s affordable answer to Vantablack – Black 3.0

You state Black 3.0 has almost 99% light absorption, that’s pretty close to Vantablack’s claims. You must be pretty pleased? Do you think you will be able to get even closer? Is there a Black 4.0 in the pipeline?  

No, I don’t think we can go above this, I think this is where a paint ends, and a technology starts.

3.0 is a paint, after that we start having to make a structural material and at that point it’s expensive and hard for artists to use. I’m not planning on making a 4.0, although we do tweak 3.0 slightly every so often and improve it, but those improvements haven’t really been blackness, they’ve been things like how well it copes in hot countries, or how it feels on the brush etc… blackness isn’t really on my radar.  

Will you be going to see the Vantablack sculptures? 

Yeah I’ll pop in, I’d actually really love to see a big Vantablack piece and I really do want to see amazing art made with the stuff. I’m hoping that the work is so good that it justifies him being the only guy to have access to it and it’s a big contribution to the story of art. I’m hopeful for that. 

A version for the masses

We can understand the frustration many artists felt when Kapoor monopolised Vantablack, but out of this frustration came something better. It might not be the black Vantablack is but it’s pretty damn close, and far cheaper.

The likelihood is if Kapoor hadn’t been so greedy, most of us would still have never been able to use or afford Vantablack.

Stuart Semple’s annoyance at Kapoor’s stunt resulted in an incredibly close version that’s available for the masses… and that’s a wonderful thing.

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