We visited a stately home in the county of Norfolk during the early Autumn. We didn’t go indoors, we just waltzed around the gardens. The lawns were immaculate although most of the flowerbeds were past their best. We picnicked by a pond and laughed at the “haha”. The primary reason for the visit aside from spending as much time as possible outdoors, which is one of my life goals and even more so in times of airborne pandemics, was to enjoy the sculptural artworks in the gardens.

There is plenty to see, some of rock and marble, others of onyx and sandstone, some of bronze, another of rubble from the eroding east coast cliffs a little further north. Materials is all when it comes to sculpting after all. That said, there was also a water fountain with a propane flame burning through it, which is more plasma than material, you might say.

There were also sculptures of glass and steel, some were subtle and in subdued places but the centerpiece to be seen from the lawns that stretch from the front of the fine house to the horizon was a large polished, concave mirror. It reflects the sky above the house. On sunny days, you can catch a glimpse of small fluffy clouds floating by. From the balcony, at the front of the house, you can just see reflected the top of the house itself. It’s a simple piece to be frank with an obvious name, Sky Mirror, created by British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor.

Now, materials scientists may recognize that name even if they are not followers of fashionable art. He infamously took out an exclusive license back in 2014 of a super-black material – Vantablack. This substance is a sprayable paint that is among the least reflective substances known. The license thus precluded its use by any other artist, although as I understand it other artists have used similar super-black materials created in other laboratories since to creative good effect.

The exhibition at the Norfolk stately home featured several pieces by Kapoor that utilized Vantablack to create voids in walls and marble blocks and such. We had seen or two similar pieces by the artist previously, but they are still shockingly disconcerting. Of course, we had to don our Covid-19 facemasks (homemade, double-ply tight-weave cotton, with an additional silk layer to add an electrostatic trap) before briefly entering the room where these were on display.

As I said, they are disturbing in some ways, beautiful in others. Of the low-level ambient light, very, very few photons are reflected by the nanotube structure of the painted surfaces. So few, in fact, that as anyone who has stared into a barrel of carbon black powder will attest, it feels like you are staring at nothingness. It’s almost beyond nothingness, it’s not just dark for that implies the existence of its opposite, light. There is simply nothing to see here.

We quickly departed the room once we had had our fill of (un)visual existential angst attempting to stare into the soul of Anish Kapoor. We waltzed a little longer around the gardens and admired nature’s materials on the flowerheads that still remained in the walled garden and the photonic marvel of an occasional butterfly fluttering by. Then we made a dash for the coast, not to see the rubble whence at least one stony sculpture at the house had been derived but to watch the Wader Wonder, the Snettisham Spectacular of tens of thousands of coastal birds, Knot, Calidris canutus, sandpipers named for King Canute of holding-back-the-tide legend, sweeping in and out with the rising waters in great flocks. Speaking of which…feathers...there’s a metamaterial to mimic, but perhaps that story will be for another column.

The Anish Kapoor at Houghton Hall exhibition runs until 1 November 2020 and advance booking is essential.