Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On Vantablack, the Pinkest Pink, and the Pettiest Fight the Art World Has Ever Seen

If you've been poking through social media (especially if you've been poking through my social media), you've probably seen reference to a bit of stink taking place in the art world over what seems to be a very specific shade of black paint. For those unaware of what's going on, here's what the Internet at large is saying:

An artist named Anish Kapoor struck up a deal to become the only artist allowed to use Vantablack, a.k.a. 'the world's blackest black,' in his art. Other artists got a bit cross about this, until one -- Stuart Semple -- created a hue he dubbed 'the world's pinkest pink' and put on his website that anyone except Kapoor (or anyone who might give said hue to him) could buy it. Some narc got the Pinkest Pink to Kapoor, and now work has begun on the World's Glitteriest Glitter, which he's also not allowed to have.

Anish Kapoor (L) and Stuart Semple (R), currently caught up in a hellish paint feud.

So there's probably a lot of questions bubbling up in your head, mainly: are grown-up professional artists really being this petty, and how can one artist keep all other artists in the world from using one specific black paint?

The answer to the first question is yes, and it's beautiful. As for the second, we have to examine what exactly the World's Blackest Black -- or Vantablack -- is.

First off, Vantablack isn't a colour. And I don't just mean in the scientific 'black isn't a colour, it's the absence of light' sense -- although that will have bearing on this. We are, after all, talking about the art world. Just as tomatoes are treated as vegetables in the culinary world even though they're fruits, black is treated as a colour in the art world even though it's technically an absence of light. You can have black paint. You can have 'shades' of black.

However, when I say Vantablack isn't a colour, I mean that literally. Despite having a name that would look lovely on a tube of paint, it is not a pigment: it is a substance that performs a job. And that job is absorbing and burning off light.

The 'vanta' of 'Vantablack' stands for 'vertical aligned nano tube arrays,' referring to the grouping of vertical carbon nanotubes that make up the substance. When light hits this substance, it is deflected among those tubes over and over until it's absorbed and burned off into heat. This near-complete absence of light (99.965%, to be specific) registers to the human eye as an inky blackness.

Originally, this was created for scientific purposes, such as coating the inside of telescopes -- and as it's a patented process, it has to be licensed and paid for. Enter Anish Kapoor... or, more specifically, Sir Anish Kapoor, widely lauded sculptor and creator of this bean.

Kapoor did the deals to become the only person legally allowed to acquire and use Vantablack for artistic purposes. Now, there are a few provisos with this. For one thing, the creators admit that Vantablack is not ideal for artistic use, largely because it has to be 'grown' at 400 degrees Celsius to be functional. (Vantablack spray does exist, but use of it still requires some serious heat -- it's not something you can just slap on.) Also, there have been heavy export regulations placed on it, so even if another artist did have permission to use it, they'd probably have to be in the UK to have reliable access to it.

Nonetheless, this didn't stop angry artists from demanding that Kapoor #sharetheblack, insisting that no artist should be able to monopolize a colour (while failing to realise that it's not a colour so much as a patented super-heated technological marvel that Kapoor himself will probably be hard-pressed to use properly). And this is where our second player -- Stuart Semple -- enters.

Semple's art installation Dancing on My Own (feat. Carlton Banks)
Semple is a Dorset-based artist and curator whose art uses largely found imagery. And he didn't take kindly to being banned from Vantablack. But instead of complaining, he struck back -- with what he called The World's Pinkest Pink.

Incidentally, you can buy 50g of this for just under 4 quid from Semple's website... provided you're not Kapoor and have no plans to give it to Kapoor.

There is, of course, a major difference here -- whereas 'black' in the scientific sense can be quantified and thus a 'blackest black' can exist, pink is a colour. And while I'll attest to it being the pinkest pink I've ever seen (and I've watched a lot of magical girl anime), there is no way to scientifically discern the pinkness of pink in the same way. This is, quite obviously, petty clapback.

And then Kapoor posted this on his Instagram.

A photo posted by Anish Kapoor (@dirty_corner) on

Semple demanded that the 'narc' be found, and then made good on promises to also ban Kapoor from his latest invention, the World's Glitteriest Glitter:

Again, provided you aren't Kapoor, you can buy this off his website -- 75g for 8 pounds. But there's something important to note about 'Diamond Dust': it's literally just tiny shards of glass. In other words, this particular escalation was a direct response to Kapoor's Instagram post.

Then, Semple released this on his Instagram:

A video posted by Stuart Semple (@stuartsemple) on

Sadly, from what we know about Vantablack -- that it grows on the surface of whatever it's covering and turns light into heat -- this is almost certainly a hoax. And that's just taking into account how difficult it would be for Semple to get his hands on it. Because unless he runs really hot, I doubt his body is operating at the 400+ degrees Celsius needed to grow the nano tubes that make this possible.

Nonetheless, it's a cute trick -- and for all we know, Kapoor and Semple could be partners in the whole 'fight' to bring them both a little extra press. And if not... this feud is some of the best performance art I've ever seen.