The Matter of the Black Bean

The Bean absorb 99.965% of all radiation that hits it. It’s an aesthetic black hole. In this age we are the Vantablack, splattered in logo-shaped splotches all over the internet. That’s all definitely a bit vulgar, but I can’t help but think the whole mess is devastatingly pretty in a fucked up kind of way.

In 2006, The London-based artist Anish Kapoor unveiled a new public art installation he dubbed “Cloud Gate” – which everyone else calls The Bean. Initially, Cloud Gate was a highly reflective aluminium structure that quickly became a hotspot for selfie takers visiting Chicago. A decade later, The Bean wasn’t showing up in selfies any more. Making use of his exclusive rights to use the material Vantablack for artistic purposes, Kapoor made The Bean absorb 99.965% of all radiation that hits it. Which means in photos, The Bean shows up as an aggressive … lack of everything. It’s an aesthetic black hole.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Kapoor said his newest addition (subtraction?) to (from?) the beloved Bean has placed it “on the liminal edge between an imagined thing and an actual one. It’s a physical thing which you cannot see.” It should be noted that after reading a fair few interviews with Kapoor, he is hardly ever more specific than this. When asked to comment on his work he prefers to stir the pot with a grandiose, vague statement, rather than answer with concise details. Remind you of anyone?

The alteration to Cloud Gate in 2016 seems to represent a philosophical shift from an experiment in surface appearance to a meditation on introspection. But before we plunge in, some background on the material in question is in order.

Development of super-black materials has been ongoing for several years in various labs throughout the world. NASA Goddard teams have been working on using carbon nanotubes to make these materials since 2007, publishing their results in 2010. Carbon nanotubes are not made so much as “grown” in a lab.  A team led by John Hagopian made the nanotubes by covering a silicon base-layer with a catalyst (like iron).  This is then bathed in carbon-rich gases at 750 C in an oven.  Unfortunately that is WAY TOO HOT for industrial purposes.  The forest of nanotubes works by trapping incoming photons, which prevents them from bouncing back and hitting the rods and cones in our eyes.  There are many practical applications for sensitive optical equipment, like telescopes, which must eliminate as much excess light as possible to make the clearest pictures.

Over in the UK, Surrey NanoSystems was working on a more manufacturer-friendly process that was officially announced in 2014.  Their exact process has remained a mystery as the fine people over at SNS keep their process, presently, opaque.

So although Vantablack is touted as “the blackest” material yet discovered that may be considered a misnomer, depending on whether you’re talking to a physicist or a painter. Regardless, Vantablack is not a color at all, it’s the almost total lack of color. Which then begs the question; why does that void appear black and not white? In an odd twist to the Vantablack story, Anish Kapoor secured exclusive rights to use it in art. This act has created quite an outrage in the international artistic community and even sparked a ludicrously petty feud on Instagram.

It’s worth keeping in mind that these are, for the most part, grown men arguing about who gets to use what shade of vermillion. Moving right along.

When questioned about why he reinvented his artwork, Kapoor told Hyperallergic that, essentially, the Bean was still reflecting what’s around it: “[The] world has become a much darker place (and) I want my work to reflect that.” Truly awful pun aside, Kapoor has created an artwork that is political and apolitical at once; political in that the darkness he references are “world” events but apolitical in that he didn’t elaborate on what those events might be. Kapoor left it up to his audience to interpret the darkness. One conclusion: Kapoor was playing provocateur. In draining the bean of visual substance, Kapoor hardly drained it of meaning. If anything, he made it a puzzle.

Hordes of people still visited the Black Bean every day, smartphone in hand, determined to snap selfies with it – despite its complete inability to be photographed. And what an odd background it made. A Nietzschean abyss looming behind your smile and your Ray-Bans.

Another conclusion: Kapoor is just playing the spoilsport – frustrating the selfie-takers. In effect, ‘the darker world’ he sees all around includes vexation, the sabotaging of our digital self-projections. The new Black Bean is a testament to the futility and narcissism of the selfie itself, this compulsion to document our every move, to augment our social brand by proxy. But is that act truly frustrated by its (now missing) subject? Does the Black Bean really trigger a narcissistic epiphany, a subsequent moment of transcendent self-realization? Or is it just another Starbucks cup with your name on it?


Photo by @iannahlouisehimel via Instagram

Although Cloud Gate has since been reverted to its ostentatiously shiny self, its brief period as the Black Bean was an interesting moment for art and science, and for that matter, the infinite depth of human pettiness. Instead of introspection and mindfulness the Bean generated an online squabble about color palettes and a few million more attempts to garner ever more insta-likes.

But is that really a failure? Is that not a fairly accurate reflection of popular culture? A bunch of thin skinned narcissists bumping into each other in the dark. It might not even matter that we can’t see the damn bean, we still act like morons in its shadow, and perhaps more so because of its presence. We are the Vantablack, splattered in logo-shaped splotches all over the internet. That’s all definitely a bit vulgar, but I can’t help but think the whole mess is  devastatingly pretty in a fucked up kind of way.

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