Sublime Void

Blogpost by Barbara Nordhjem about the work of Frederik de Wilde at DEAF2012.

Sublime Void

Hostage, Frederik de Wilde

The darkest painting in the word is a small square made of carbon nano tubes. Hostage pt. 1 by Frederik de Wilde absorbs nearly all surrounding light while reflecting almost nothing back. I had a talk over morning coffee with Frederik de Wilde about the search for total darkness.

Nanotechnology triggers images of researchers in space suits and pristine dust-free environments. I was wondering how someone who started out as a painter ended up in a laboratory in Texas. Frederik de Wilde explains: “In painting you’re confronted with pigments, but I also like to make my own materials. The next step is how can we go beyond pigments, and then you can look at for instance nanotechnology. Using this approach, you make things so small that novel properties appear with unprecedented qualities.”

Seeing nothing

The little square made of a super black material has really made me curious. As a researcher who studies visual perception, I find the artwork intriguing because it questions how we see and experience the world. I asked De Wilde how he thinks about the work on a psychological level. “I see it as a space of refusal, but also as a space of imagination. In a time where we are over saturated with media and information, it pulls you back to something that is private and personal.”

It seems like De Wilde's black can better be described as a void space then as a surface. We are able to see objects around us because they reflect light which is detected by the eyes. Different frequencies of light are experienced as different colors. When an object looks green, it is because it reflects green light and absorbs other frequencies of light. In this sense, Hostage pt. 1 is like seeing nothing: the nano super black absorbs around 99.7% light and reflects only 0.3%. In comparison, a ‘normal black’ surface reflects about 5-10 % light. “What happens if I put this super black material in a black space, do I see a hole in the space? ”, De Wilde wonders.


With nanotechnology, you can build materials on a scale that is so small it is hard to comprehend. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; a hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair. Considering this scale, the artwork be De Wilde is actually huge. Frederik de Wilde reflects on the possibilities when working on a nano scale: “I think after the information revolution we go into a kind of nano revolution. We are scavenging energy where we can, resources are coming to an end, and the only clean resource we have is solar energy. So how can we anticipate on this as artists? Not only in a metaphysical way, but also in a practical way.” De Wilde continues to explain that the extreme version of black has wider applications. The carbon-nanotubes used in the artwork absorbs light and keeps it ‘hostage’ which is useful for solar panels.

A new Beauty

Finally I was curious how an artist who collaborates with NASA and makes art at an atomic resolution deals with classic art concepts like beauty. “Is there is something blacker than black? There is a kind of beauty in trying to realize this concept, not just claiming it, but also trying to make it by trial and error. There is also a beauty in doubt, to be able to doubt and question perception. That is an interesting point where art and science at the same moment clash and reinforce each other.”

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