In the Western world, when ceramic artefacts break, people sweep up the pieces and throw them away. If the broken object doesn’t shatter in the fall and is particularly dear to its owner, some might try to glue the pieces back together. The object will then be put back in place trying to hide the seams from sight, hoping that no-one will notice those tiny cracks that reveal its lack of integrity.
Fractures, scars, imperfections are considered unsightly, something to hide and be ashamed of.
In Japan, the ancient tradition of kintsugi reveals quite the opposite. Kintsugi or kintsukuroi is a practice that consists in repairing broken ceramic objects using precious metals, cast gold and silver, to enhance the cracks and fractures.
Legend has it that this technique originated in Japan in the 15th Century, when the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent some damaged tea bowls back to China to be repaired. They were returned with the pieces stuck together with ugly metal staples. It is believed that this event prompted the Japanese craftsmen to compete with one another to find a new welding technique that could make broken objects even more beautiful than the new ones.
Over time, Japanese collectors have developed such a passion for this practice that they have even been accused of deliberately breaking antique and valuable ceramics to have them repaired with gold.
The meaning attributed to scars is associated to a deep spiritual reflections: just as war wounds prove a warrior’s value at war, for ceramic artefacts they represent a time in which they suffered and were damaged, followed by rebirth when they become even more beautiful. Unlike the dualistic western philosophy founded on the contrast between opposites, i.e. beauty and ugliness, good and bad, whole and broken, Japanese thought acknowledges that the opposites are complementary forces and the fluid transformation of one into the other.
Today, in the region of Kyoto, there are several workshops exclusively dedicated to the art of kintsugi. They have added some variations to the traditional practice: if a fragment is missing, it can be repaired using pieces of other ceramic artefacts, playing with colour contrasts and affinity or drawing directly on the golden lacquer.
As stated by Muneaki Shimode, a kintsugi artists “Anyone can repair an object, but give them to an artisan/artist and they will become a unique piece of art”.
More recently, some contemporary artists have been inspired by the practice of kintsugi to realise sculptures and installations. In particular, we would in particular to mention the Korean artist Yeesookyung, represented by Saatchi Gallery in London.