Something You Can’t See

By Charlene Briggs
November 16, 2020
This photograph shows a piece of aluminum foil with a black square on it. The foil is inside a block of glass with a pedestal.
Photo: Elizabeth La Duc

When the museum was open, the first thing many visitors noticed as they arrived on the fourth floor was the beautiful and historic Forbes Pigment Collection. The installation’s spectrum of colors is so visually alluring at a distance that people usually ask if they can see it up close.

My desk sits in front of this display, and I often have the unpleasant task of having to say no to these requests. The pigment collection is actively used by staff in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and is off-limits to the general public. But I love surprising visitors by telling them that I can show them something else, something that the public cannot see. Actually, it’s something that even I can’t see.

I walk a visitor over to a display case nearby, which contains a small selection of pigments. I first point out an object that has a flat, black surface. Then I ask them to walk around the display and peek at it from the back, where they discover the object is a crinkled piece of simple aluminum foil. The look of wonder, confusion, and amazement on their face makes my day every time! Our eyes cannot perceive the wrinkly surface on the front of the foil because it is covered with an amazing material: Vantablack.

This sample of Vertically Aligned Nanotube Arrays, or Vantablack, is an original version from 2014. It was created in the United Kingdom by Surrey NanoSystems, which designed it for military uses, such as in thermal camouflage, infrared cameras, and telescopes. It is made by growing tall, thin, hollow carbon nanotubes on a surface under intense heat. These nanotubes are perfectly aligned vertically and are minuscule: there are more than a million nanotubes per square inch. Each tube is 300 times as tall as it is wide and is the width of a single atom.

It is easy to imagine light waves getting trapped inside these tall, thin, tightly packed hollow tubes and bouncing around inside. In fact, 99.965% of light waves are absorbed in these tubes, and without light waves bouncing back at our eyes, we are not able to see any color or depth on the surface. It simply looks black and flat, like a void. I like to tell younger visitors that, to me, it looks like a black hole from outer space.

Vantablack has become the center of a rather amusing story that I like to call the Battle of the Pigments. It began in 2016 when British artist Anish Kapoor acquired the exclusive rights to use Vantablack for artistic purposes. Much of Kapoor’s work revolves around the notion of the void, so it makes sense that this material would appeal to him. However, the fact that Kapoor was not sharing it infuriated artists all over the world. Soon a social media campaign called #sharetheblack formed.

One of the campaign’s leaders, Stuart Semple, a British artist who had been creating new pigments throughout his career, developed a similar ultra-dark black paint to rival Vantablack, as well as another pigment, the world’s pinkest pink. As a direct challenge to Kapoor’s exclusive rights to Vantablack, and to make a statement about elitism in the art world, Semple released his new pigments to anyone in the world except, of course, Kapoor. If you want to buy his pigments, you will need to sign a form promising that “by adding this product to your cart you confirm 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 the hands of Anish Kapoor.” As expected, however, Kapoor soon responded by posting a photo of a prominent finger dipped in the pinkest pink. 

But the battle did not end there, nor did the story of Vantablack. In 2019, Semple opened a pigment shop in London, called ArtShop, which employs a security guard who stands by the door holding a picture of Kapoor with a circle backslash sign. To my knowledge, Kapoor has not yet been successful in sneaking into the shop. In the meantime, Surrey NanoSystems, as well as other companies, have been making newer versions of Vantablack. So, in essence, Kapoor’s version—as well as our version—is now outdated. The quest for the blackest black has intensified as newer versions have become even more light absorbent and easier to apply. In 2019, a team from MIT achieved 99.995% light absorption when they made a 16.78-carat natural yellow diamond appear to disappear. Vantablack can now be found on watches, in fabrics, and even on a BMW X6.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this blackest of blacks. But if you want to see the original, come visit us when the museums reopen to take a close look at our Vantablack sample. What you (can’t) see will astound you.

 

Charlene Briggs is the Art Study Center receptionist at the Harvard Art Museums.

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