Tokyo Despatch | International

Seeing beauty in the imperfect

In a western suburb of Tokyo, Kunio Nakamura, a former TV executive, sits hunched over an array of repaired earthenware in the bookshop-cum-café that he now runs. Since the March 2011 earthquake that shattered much of the eastern coastline of Japan, Mr. Nakamura has come to believe that one way to repair the nation’s broken soul is to revive and popularise the Japanese art of repairing ceramics, called kintsugi.

The technique uses the sap of the urushi tree, a powerful natural adhesive, mixed with powdered gold to fill cracks, elevating damaged objects into luminous objets d’art. Unlike other methods of repair like welding or gluing, kintsugi’s power lies in its refusal to disguise the brokenness of an object. It does not aim to make what is broken as good as new, but to use the cracks to transform the object into something different, and arguably even more valuable. Kintsugi (kin means gold and tsugi ‘to join’) is not just a practical craft, although it undoubtedly prolongs the utility of things, it is also a philosophy that speaks at a visceral level to the human condition. As with much of Japanese aesthetics, it is steeped in philosophical concepts rooted in Zen Buddhism.

One of these is wabi-sabi, an aesthetic ideal that emerged in the 15th century as a reaction to the contemporary preference for ornate designs and rich materials. In contrast, wabi-sabi saw beauty in the weathered, the aged and the imperfect. It found profundity and authenticity without garnish. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, cracks and rust. A wabi-sabi way of seeing embraces these markers of passing time.

The act of repair

Mr. Nakamura’s smorgasbord of kintsugi-repaired pieces include some where shards of ancient pottery or coloured glass have been inserted to make an object whole. Others featured the more classic technique of gold-dusted lacquer filling in fractures. But, in every case, the act of repair is writ large by the deliberate use of disjunctive materials and textures. “The Japanese like cracks,” says Mr. Nakamura. “The shapes of the cracks are like nature: a river, a tree. Each piece has a keshiki, a landscape.”

Speaking of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in which thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed, Mr. Nakamura says he realised “we needed to repair ourselves to remake things”. Quitting his TV job, he began holding kintsugi workshops in the country’s most devastated areas, encouraging people to bring in treasured ceramics that had broken in the earthquake and teaching them how to mend these. “For me, kintsugi was a technique of healing.”

Mr. Nakamura started up the Ryokujin café, where he now holds weekly ceramic repair workshops. To mend a broken object at these costs $20. The price is kept this low by using silver and brass powder mixed with urushi lacquer, rather than gold dust. If gold is used, a skilled artist can charge hundreds of dollars for filling in a single crack. But for Mr. Nakamura, democratising kintsugi is an important goal.

Kintsugi inscribes an object’s story into its body: the moment of the breakage, the fact that it was loved enough to be repaired, and that it is likely to be handled with care in the future. A kintsugi-repaired artifact is what it is because of, not in spite of, its fissures. And it is this that takes the art beyond the arcana of ceramic repair, lending it the metaphorical power to describe the human condition. Kintsugi encourages people to embrace their past along with its scars.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 6:14:19 PM |

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