There are a few different kinds of technologies that are considered E-ink displays, but the common one is a monochromatic electrophoretic display. These work by suspending charged particles in a fluid. A top and bottom layer with embedded electrodes sandwiches this fluid layer, and when the charge changes on a layer, the ink particles are pushed to the top, or pulled to the bottom. When the black ink particles are on top, they absorb light and appear black, and when they are pulled to the bottom layer, that pixel appears white because it is reflecting more light.
This display mechanism means that they do not transmit their own light (except in a few consumer models where a backlight has been added for night reading). Since they are only visible via light from the environment, this means that bright environments aren’t nearly as much of a negative — and that makes them one of the only displays in this list that are viewable in direct sunlight. These displays are also incredibly low energy since they only use energy when changing the screen contents — without power, the screen would potentially hold its image indefinitely.
However, because of the way the technology works, the refresh rate of the screen is very low which makes it unsuitable for a lot of motion graphics. When the screen refreshes, there are also some ghosting artifacts that appear on parts as the ink particles reposition. Some screens will momentarily make all pixels black in an effort to normalize everything and prevent artifacts. Some screens can indeed refresh faster, at the expense of contrast and clarity artifacts. For more on the refresh rates of e-paper displays, check out this resource. They are also typically able to only display monochrome images or a certain level of grayscale — displaying color with these is still an application that is in development but much closer to a consumer reality. Other methods of creating e-paper displays with graphene are also being researched, with the added bonus that they have the potential to be flexible as well.
Making use of E-ink displays in artworks is unfortunately impeded by the fact that purchasing a standalone screen of a significant size is very difficult. A lot of e-paper screens are also made fairly small — usually less than 12in, so even if you could modify an existing e-reader display, it wouldn’t be very large. The consumer demand for these is primarily in e-readers so there is little incentive for the manufacturers to make screens that can be addressed as a normal video monitor with an HDMI input for example. Only recently have companies started producing and selling consumer models or development kits that connect via USB, but only in limited quantities. There are several e-ink development boards that can be addressed with a micro controller, but they are about the size of an index card or smaller.
Visionect is working on development kits for 32" e-ink screens that could potentially be tiled together to create a much larger display, but their price is still quite high compared to traditional displays. Some companies are also working on developing larger e-ink based “pixels” that can be tiled together to make incredibly large architectural elements that can change or be combined with projection mapping.
Various examples from E-Ink
Sped up video of a flower using colored E-Ink
eºFlow sculpture from SEGD using E-Ink