In 1913, Americans found their first use for aluminum foil: creating identification leg bands for valuable racing and messenger pigeons. Later, when those same birds had bred freely to become an urban nuisance, people realized they could scare them away from rooftops and window ledges with a little adhesive and aluminum foil’s startling silver shine. Now, the material is produced for hundreds of applications from thermal insulation to packaging for everything from candy to pharmaceuticals, and we may marvel at how it has been manipulated for so many common and even contradictory uses. In one sense, however, its versatility should come as no surprise because, after oxygen and silicon, aluminum is the most plentiful element found in the Earth, appearing in almost every ordinary rock.
“Aluminum is a surface material shaped by the forces around it,” says Toshihiko Mitsuya in a Buzzword interview with Jessica Bush about his installation Aluminum Garden (2015–16). “Far from static, it takes on the feeling of its surroundings—the wind, the light and the hands that touch it. As a material, aluminum starts in a huge factory and ends in something precious yet transitive: the installation reclaims an industrial material back to nature.” The images featured in this issue, drawn from several of Mitsuya’s exhibitions, exemplify his root passion for the mutability and ubiquity of aluminum foil—his primary artistic medium.
Mitsuya’s Aluminum Garden comprises 180 structural studies of plants, each intricately crafted by hand at full scale and to a level of near-cellular engagement with stem, leaf, and reed. Wherever Mitsuya installs the garden, he organizes the plant sculptures carefully as a collective organism, as it would be found in nature. “A garden is never one, always many,” he shares in his artist statement. Attendees are invited to sit within the garden and walk up to its edges—see this portfolio’s opening image—where the illusion of silver solidity gives way to the fragility and lushness of nature as rendered in pliable aluminum. If one were to touch the gentle bends and exacting edges of the sculptures it would lead to their irrevocable change, a reminder from Mitsuya that our interactions with nature are impactful, and within that fact lies our responsibility for our world.
On one of the walls facing the garden, Mitsuya mounts Still River–Hidden Space, a large, rectangular sheet of stainless steel, which he scored slightly to capture in blurry focus the plants and their human interlocutors, and the light as it changes during the course of each viewer’s interaction with the space. Part mirror and deliberately distorting, the stainless steel heightens the sensation of participation in a space where reality and illusion meet. Many of Mitsuya’s other installations feature such stainless-steel reflectors as well, highlighting each piece and its given gallery space.
The larger-than-life-size mythological creatures collected in the Anonymous Relatives series prowl through, tend, and protect the rooms and parks in which they reside, inviting through their captured movements this question among others: In Mitsuya’s universe, shimmering as an intimate parallel of our own, can creature, plant, or viewer persevere? The artist’s knights enchant and glisten almost futuristically, even timelessly, but their material betrays their apparent strength. The aluminum feathers, unlike those of bronze or marble, threaten to blow in the wind, and the foil breastplates could be marred with a misplaced touch. And the face of Gardener (shown on the cover) is, unlike those of the knights, visible and demonically revealed as a human skull. Such horror may hearken to man’s failure to attend to the preservation of the natural world and also predict our fates, even while Mitsuya’s craftsmanship maintains the childlike wonder of creating whole worlds out of now-everyday materials—sounding a call to our responsibility for the planet, and offering a reminder that we may still innovate and flourish. Mitsuya, who has been making aluminum foil sculptures since he was four years old, would most certainly agree.
Copyright © 2018 Toshihiko Mitsuya. All images appear courtesy of the artist
and the galleries listed in the captions.