Last week, when you were passing the trees that line the West Campus Plaza on your way to lunch, did you catch a glimmer of silver out of the corner of your eye? While sitting on the C-1 on the way back from class, did you spot a humanoid figure dangling from the handrail above your head? Or did a miniature soldier guarding the beverage-containers recycling bin perhaps give you a moment’s pause as you walked out of Perkins after a night of studying?
If you’re familiar with the aluminum foil figurines that make mysterious appearances around West Campus, you know what I’m talking about. At half a foot tall with a metallic sheen that flashes in the sunlight, they’re pretty hard to miss. Notice one dangling from a tree branch, and suddenly they’re everywhere—an invasion of tiny foil statuettes peaking out from every corner of campus.
Of course, detecting their unexplained existence on campus opens the door to further mystery: Who makes these foil men? Why? What, if anything, do they mean? These questions always puzzled me, until I traced the foil men back to their source.
As it turns out, they’re made by a soft-spoken and thoughtfully philosophical student at Duke, who prefers anonymity. After picking up the skill at a young age, “bin Fuad” (a code name he specified upon our introduction) can now make each foil man in less than five minutes—and he makes, he said, sometimes a hundred at once to scatter across campus. At other times, he shapes just one based on a passing fancy and leaves it wherever it strikes him as a fitting location.
This is not to say that I found out everything there is to know about our diminutive aluminum foil friends. As we sat on the Plaza mere feet from where I’d seen my very first foil man, bin Fuad remained reluctant to lend his own interpretation to his artwork.
The simplicity of his aluminum art reflects, in a sense, the sincerity of his intentions: “I really enjoy when I see them make certain people happy,” he explained, though he stressed their exact meaning was meant to be open to personal interpretation. When, for instance, I pressed him on the whimsical nature of his creations, he suggested that despite their fanciful and “very temporary” quality, there remains “a part of whimsy that’s very important—people can often think better when their spirits are lifted... and this is serious.”
For bin Fuad, to whom the subtle spreading of the “joy of the universe” is a significant endeavor, anonymity lends an aura of secrecy that he believes heightens the intrigue of his project. “If I were in the audience, I’d think [anonymity] is more interesting,” he insisted, noting that he’d like his figurines to take on “some kind of universal aspect” independent of his identity.
This sentiment, which associates the appeal of a piece of art to the secrecy of its origins, brings to mind another, more well-known artistic undertaking. PostSecret, started by Frank Warren as an ongoing community art project, relies on the anonymity of its contributors, who mail Warren their secrets on homemade postcards. Selected secrets appear weekly on Warren’s blog, with the hope that these concealed experiences will represent the collective confessions of those who visit the PostSecret website.
Bin Fuad’s aluminum foil men and PostSecret are examples of the way in which anonymous art can use personal reactions and experiences to express human universals. They reveal how basic emotions—joy, for instance—are both private and common phenomena, how perhaps the most deeply personal feelings are always universal.
Indeed, with finals looming and end-of-the-semester ennui setting in, the urge to retreat into our own worlds of stress and individual summer plans may be appealing. But we should try not to forget the ties that bond us together in spite of our individual frustrations and ambitions.
Whenever you next find yourself bogged down, look around instead, because who knows? There may be an aluminum foil man peeking out at you from the nearest tree, or the archway of your dorm, or the bench in front of your doorway. Go ahead, look around—see what you’re missing.
Shining Li is a Trinity sophomore. This is her final column of the semester.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.