An ongoing goal of scientific research is to find a material that reflects absolutely no light, that absorbs every photon that hits it. A recent attempt, reported by Wired, resulted in Vantablack, a substance that was subsequently exclusively licensed by artist Anish Kapoor, who used it to coat a very expensive watch.
Since the exclusive license prevents other artists from using Vantablack, rival super-non-reflective materials have emerged. The items painted with these materials look a very deep black, and very strange.
Take a look at this unicorn head sculpture by Stuart Semple, for example. I say it’s a unicorn head, but you might not be able to recognise it as such if you were looking from a different angle. Head-on, there wouldn’t be much to give away its shape. So what are you actually seeing?
If you look at a painting by Monet, you might see a cluster of waterlilies floating on a lake that reflects the willows planted at its borders. Or rather, you see representations of those real things in virtue of seeing the various materials that make up the work: the coloured pigments covering the canvas in various shapes and sizes. You see anything at all in virtue of those coloured pigments having different reflective properties and thus different wavelengths of light making their way back to your retinas. You only see anything at all because the object reflects something back to you.
Anish Kapoor, the sole licensee of Vantablack, is most famous for having created the Chicago ‘Bean’, or, to give it its official name, Cloud Gate. This is, obviously, highly reflective:
What you see when you look at it is yourself and your neighbours – somewhat slimmed or fattened, depending on where you’re standing. You see that the sculpture is bean-shaped and reflective, and it’s in virtue of those qualities that you see a rounded version of yourself depicted there. As you approach the ‘Bean’, it crowds out your visual field and you start focusing more on your reflection and less on its shape, whereas the opposite is true of a painting: zooming in increasingly reveals how it was made, the brushstrokes and texture of the canvas.
What about that deep black unicorn head? Seeing is about reflection and vision depends on capturing light waves, but this piece reflects nothing at all. So in some sense, you actually see nothing when you look at it. The unicorn head is quite literally your blind spot. Black holes, too, have a gravitational pull so intense that any light in the vicinity is sucked in and can’t escape. So it, too, reflects nothing. Now there is certainly something there (rather a lot, actually!), and there is certainly something there behind the black paint, but whatever is there is in some sense invisible.
We’re used to thinking of art works as physical objects on display at eye-level, and the art viewer as a sort of passive consumer making remarks like ‘oh, I don’t much like that’ and shuffling from picture to picture as quickly as possible to get out of that tour group’s way. But where the artistic experience relies so much less heavily on the physical properties of the thing we’re looking at, such as with these deep black objects, or deeply reflective ones, or artworks where we seem to see something that isn’t really there, we should be reminded that art really does ‘happen’ in the mind. That’s why we don’t just restore old statues and paintings for their own sake: it’s not all about the objects. There is nothing special about art pieces except in their relations to us and the valuable experiences they help generate in us. The waterlilies, the ‘Bean’ and the unicorn head are nothing but dead museum pieces otherwise.