Venice in Vantablack: Anish Kapoor’s disappearing act

The artist learned of the technology that absorbs nearly all visible light in the Guardian. As two shows featuring it open, he talks of a ‘stupid’ spat, his new foundation and dismay with England

“This fucking place!” The voice of the artist rang out through the elegant halls of the Accademia, Venice’s most important gallery, home of masterpieces by Titian, Veronese and Giorgione. Frustrated, Anish Kapoor gathered up a bucket and other detritus left over from the technicians’ last-minute adjustments and tidied them away.

He was nervous, he said, as he apologised for his outburst. Kapoor – perhaps best known internationally for his wildly popular reflective sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Cloud Gate – had reason for a little anxiety: he was preparing to open not one but two major exhibitions.

Aside from the show at the Accademia, there is the small matter of an exhibition in the palazzo that he has bought on Venice’s Canale di Cannaregio – the Palazzo Manfrin, a vast space with a particularly grandiose, double-height, frescoed ballroom, currently filled with the red wax-and-steel of his installation Symphony for a Beloved Sun. The palazzo, which is partway through extensive renovation works, is intended to open fully in 2024 as the headquarters of the Anish Kapoor Foundation.

Mount Moriah at the Gate of the Ghetto (2022) by Anish Kapoor, housed in the  Palazzo Manfrin, Venice, Italy.
Mount Moriah at the Gate of the Ghetto (2022) in the Palazzo Manfrin. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

But now, in both venues, Kapoor is debuting a body of sculptural work coated in what has been called “Kapoor black”.

Vantablack, as it is officially known, is a nanotechnology that absorbs 99.96% of visible light – the world’s most intense black, as it has been described. It is produced by a British company, Surrey NanoSystems, with which the artist has working since he read about it and its founder, Ben Jensen, in the Guardian eight years ago. “I wrote to him asking if we could work together. He said Vantablack had been developed for the defence industry.” Nevertheless, Jensen agreed.

The effect of the light-absorbing coating is uncanny. Seen head on, the blacker-than-black sculptures appear two-dimensional. Then, when the angle of view is changed, they reveal themselves to be solid shapes.

“It is a material sprayed on a surface at a nano scale,” explained Kapoor, “then put in a reactor – they won’t tell me precisely what this reactor is – but anyway, it is raised to a very high temperature. The particles are raised upright and the light get trapped between them.”

Aside from the new black works, both exhibitions are currently filled with Kapoor’s instantly recognisable works: enormous heaps of bright pigment; rooms choked with enormous globs of scarlet wax; chambers in which are hung his strange, distorting mirror-sculptures; ceilings appearing to drip or ooze with scarlet, fleshy innards.

Mirror Mirror (2017) by Anish Kapoor in the Palazzo Manfrin, Venice, Italy.
Mirror Mirror (2017) in the Palazzo Manfrin, Venice, Italy. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Asked if the foundation was the means of securing his legacy – as is generally the way with artists’ foundations – Kapoor, who is 68, replied: “Fucking legacy! Who gives a shit? The work will do what it does. Securing a legacy? That’s daft. It’s somewhere for me to play. That’s how I see it.”

The story of Kapoor’s adventures in black has not been without controversy in the art world. the artist Stuart Semple, for example, poked fun at the fact that Kapoor was exclusively licensed to use the Vantablack technology by declaring that he would make available the world’s “pinkest pink” to anyone who could definitively prove they were not Anish Kapoor.

Mother as a Mountain, 1985. Part of the Accademia retrospective of Anish Kapoor’s work.
Mother as a Mountain (1985). Part of the Accademia retrospective of Anish Kapoor’s work. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

In return, Kapoor got hold of some anyway, dunked his middle finger in it, and posted an image online with the caption, “Up yours #pink”.

“It’s too stupid for words,” said Kapoor of the spat. “This is not something that comes out of a tube. It’s incredibly complicated. I’ve been working for seven or eight years on it and made 10 to 12 works.”

Kapoor said that the use of the intense black continues his long-term interest in the idea of being and non-being. Referring to the great collection of the Accademia, he said: “In the Renaissance there were two great discoveries: perspective and the fold.” Both them gave the illusion of depth, and the fold – in depictions of fabric, and as a characteristic of human flesh – gives the illusion of life, or of being. Using “Kapoor black” technology removes the fold, the crease, any hint of 3D, or of “being”.

“Painting is the giving of appearance to objects,” he said. “I’ve been giving objects disappearance.”

Asked why he had decided to set up his foundation in Venice rather than the UK or the US, the artist said that he had always loved the city – in which he represented Great Britain at the 1990 Biennale. He was magnetised by this water-filled place where Stravinsky stipulated he must be buried, with its intimations of death and darkness via Thomas Mann and Luchino Visconti.

“I’m dismayed with England,” said the artist, who was born in Mumbai and moved to London to study at art school. “I’ve lived there for 40-something years, and it’s not just the politics and Brexit, it’s what’s happened to our spirit. We’ve changed from being inclusive to being exclusive. It makes me terribly sad.”

• The exhibitions at the Accademia and Palazzo Manfrin are open to the public until 9 October.


Charlotte Higgins in Venice

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Venice Biennale: women outnumber male artists in main halls for first time
Black women occupy prominent pavilions with some venues showing work from non-binary, disabled and trans artists

Charlotte Higgins in Venice

22, Apr, 2022 @6:44 PM

Article image
British artist Sonia Boyce wins Golden Lion at Venice Biennale
Winning piece, Feeling Her Way, described as ‘perfect selection for this time in UK history’

David Connett

23, Apr, 2022 @8:43 PM

Article image
Sonia Boyce’s Venice Biennale winner to be exhibited in UK next year
Feeling Her Way, featuring videos of five black female musicians, to be shown in Margate and Leeds

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

26, Oct, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Anish Kapoor’s Versailles 'vagina' causes controversy in France
Artist behind Paris’s biggest cultural event of the year has described Dirty Corner as ‘the vagina of the queen’ taking power

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

04, Jun, 2015 @3:32 PM

Article image
Even a snatched wallet couldn't dim the joy of my return to Venice | Joan Bakewell
As the city came to life after the pandemic, gondoliers and tourists alike sat back, laughed and let fun and pleasure prevail, says writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell

26, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Cyborgs, sirens and a singing murderer: the thrilling, oligarch-free Venice Biennale – review
The Russian pavilion is closed and you can’t speak in the Italian one. Thank goodness for the opium-smoking cat and the human turning into a mobile phone. Our writer reports from the groundbreaking arts spectacular

Adrian Searle

25, Apr, 2022 @4:19 PM

Article image
Venice Biennale: Prada on parade

Fashion couple confirm their places as major cultural figures with display from their art collection

Charlotte Higgins in Venice

03, Jun, 2011 @9:00 PM

Article image
Anish Kapoor says addition to artwork was 'foisted' on him by Boris Johnson
Mayor of London insisted on Carsten Höller slide being built around Kapoor’s Olympic Park sculpture to make it more profitable, artist says

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

26, Apr, 2016 @4:16 PM

Article image
Cathy Wilkes to represent Britain at 58th Venice Biennale
Northern Irish artist to take over British Pavilion at world’s biggest contemporary arts exhibition

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

09, Apr, 2018 @11:01 AM

Article image
The 54th Venice Biennale - in pictures

In pictures: Nudity, holy smoke and the usual mob of champion gymnasts cavorting on a war tank ... as this year's art exposition kicks off in Venice we sneak an early peek at some of the boldest bits

01, Jun, 2011 @2:06 PM