kintsugi

Japanese Art Kintsugi and Contemporary Artworks

Human lives and bodies are fragile and impermanent. So are human-made and natural objects. It is merely a cycle of life. Nothing lasts forever. Thus, it is up to us to make every second of our lives valuable and appreciate whatever makes this life more precious to us. Life might challenge us throughout our journey and leave scars on and within the body. Every scar on the human body is a memory that tells a story, a diary about our past, a lesson that we shouldn’t forget. The same goes for the objects. In the Japanese art of kintsugi, objects have their own scars, making them look more unique and perfect than ever before.

Being home to the idea of perfection of imperfection, kintsugi is the art of putting broken pieces of pottery together and highlighting the damaged parts with golden pigment powder. Composed of two words ( kin/gold and tsugi/joining), kintsugi denotes “join with gold”.  I have two aims while writing this article. First, I want to explore kintsugi’s origin and its use as philosophical practise and art technique. Secondly, my goal is to reflect on contemporary interpretations of the art technique kintsugi. 

 


Kintsugi

The Origin of Kintsugi

 According to a story dating back to the fifteenth century in the Muromachi period, the shogunate Ashigaka Yoshimasa’s tea cup gets broken and he sends the broken pieces to China to be fixed. Unfortunately, he feels disappointed with the returned piece, when he sees the pieces are merely patched together with metallic staples.  Then he asks Japanese craftsmen to fix it. They come up with a more aesthetic solution, the technique we know today as kintsugi.

Philosophy of Kintsugi

Kintsugi is not only a technique to mend broken pieces together. The philosophy beneath it is much more important. Finding its roots in Zen Buddhism, kintsugi definitely proposes an alternative way of looking at the world. First of all,  it is a metaphor to appreciate life with all flaws. Secondly, it suggests a holistic view of the world. 

The art of kintsugi is closely related to the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which nurtures impermanence. It sees perfection in the imperfections and admires the simplicity. In his book  “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers”, Leonard Koren’s definition of wabi-sabi is as follows: “ Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional”. This sounds like a wonderful summary of wabi-sabi. As this aesthetic ideal suggests, beauty is in every corner of the world. It is just us who need to look at nature and ourselves from the right perspective. We should open our eyes to the little details in order to see value in everything.

Wabi-Sabi Aesthetics and Philosophy

The phrase “wabi-sabi” refers to the expression of beauty which celebrates joy, Example of Kintsgui techniquemelancholy and life in all its transitions while accepting and appreciating the flaws of life. According to this philosophy, everything is in a state of constant flux. It also represents the aesthetic ideals and philosophy of Japanese culture, leaving a significant impact on other Japanese arts such as flower arranging, tea ceremony and haiku.  Moreover, it praises impermanence, transience, imperfection, asymmetry and humility.

In other words, Japanese philosophy respects things as they are, even if they are full of flaws and imperfections. From that perspective, it is a kind of philosophy which runs counter to the West’s emphasis on linearity, progress and teleology. Wabi-sabi is more about becoming and being part of a journey. It ensures the beauty of aging and decay. It encourages us to seek beauty in the artistry of the natural world as well as in the flaws. This philosophy echos the language of the art of Kintsugi.

 “Wabi” & “Sabi” and Kintsugi

If we look at the words, “wabi” and “sabi”, individually, we will see that both concepts have a plethora of meanings.  It is because time changes the perception of these words. Secondly, the poets endow them with different connotations in their literary works.  Therefore, it requires intuition to perceive the gist of these concepts.

Literally, “wabi” means poverty. It  epitomizes quietness, simplicity and stillness.  “Sabi” denotes aging and decay by indicating the beauty of it. These two concepts complement each other and take their roots from nihilistic Zen ideals. Even though the words might seem to have negative meanings, they have positive connotations.  The ambiguity of these words is another key element in Japanese culture.

Kintsugi and Today’s World

Today’s world’s design overwhelms our senses. Artificial environments like malls  stimulate the human mind to consume more and more. They push people to buy new items continuously. Kintsugi says “no” to this overwhelming consumption. It teaches us that we have more options than just buying and replacing old stuff with new things. It praises the beauty of the aged and rustic objects. Kintsugi promises a spiritual and physical rebirth, a sort of healing and a teaching that life moves on even with the scars. And those scars make us unique and more beautiful. 

art technique kintsugi
image source: https://www.artlovingitaly.com/the-japanese-art-of-kintsugi-explained/

The Technique of Kintsugi

The type of lacquers and cracks, and artists’ intention play a role in the mending process. Briefly put, the shattered pieces of pottery are reassembled and glued together with lacquer resin. Then they are dusted with powdered gold. This shining powder emphasizes the broken part and beautifies the flaws of the object. The lacquer resin is obtained from the sap of an indigenous tree in Japan called Rhus verniciflua. The lacquer’s colour and texture resemble blood. A tree’s life ends and the lacquer produced from the sap of the tree returns this lost life to the broken pot.

In his article ” The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics”, Charly Iten delves into the lacquer technique in a very detailed way. He states that artists classify cracks according to their size. For instance, hibiware (crack) denotes wide fissures in the ceramics while nyu¯ (hairline crack) refers to narrow cracks. Cracks need more than one layer of transparent lacquer. For every layer, experts need to wait a week before adding the next coat. Then, red or black lacquer is applied. This becomes the final coating. Then silver or gold powder is sprinkled. 

Finally, the object undergoes polishing to protect it from further damage like discoloration and abrasion. This last process also shows high-esteem felt for the object’s new appearance while the whole process pays homage to the broken object. 

The Aesthetics of Japanese Ceramics 

Yobitsugi- kintsugi
Yobitsugi

There are some variations of the kintsugi concept, which are tomotsugi and yobitsugi. Kintsugi is applicable to all sorts of damaged objects. Artists prefer the tomotsugi concept if they only want to patch the original pieces of pottery. Yobitsugi allows for alien pieces to be patched. If there is a missing piece of the broken pot, the yobitsugi technique becomes very beneficial. During the mending process, artists have the option to modify the object by patching different pieces.

Japanese Lacquer

 The lacquer is called “urushi” and is used by the Japanese lacquer-masters for various functions such as glue and paint. Practicing the restoration of ceramics with lacquer for centuries, Japanese artists excelled at the artistry and technicality of ceramic-restoration. Therefore,  the traditional Japanese lacquer is extremely important to the Japanese. Consequently, Japan has a rich vocabulary to distinguish lacquers based on their color and chemical components:

Urushinaoshi : lacquer repair (as a general term)

Bengrara urushi : red lacquer

Kuro Urushi: black lacquer.

Kinnaoshi: gold repair

ginnaoshi: silver repair

 

Makienaoshi: An Artistic Language of Kintsugi

The maki-e technique is more related to the world of artistry and it is used for illustrations. “Maki” means sprinkling, while “e” denotes a picture. Artists decorate the lacquerware with different floral and curvy patterns. These decorative patterns are examples of the maki-e technique. More or less, it embodies the artistic part of the kintsugi concept. 

 

 

japanese lacquer
Sample of Makienaoshi

The Influence of Kintsugi on Contemporary Artists

The art of kintsugi comes as a big influence in today’s world. Artists from all around the world bring their own interpretations to this art style. In contemporary interpretations of kintsugi technique, streets, sculptures, threads,  porcelain and fabric replace the pots. 

 The Conceptual Artist Rachel Sussman and Kintsugi

Rachel Sussman applies the kintsugi technique of filling cracks in the streets.  For more ideas and examples, you can visit the following website: http://www.rachelsussman.com/sidewalk-kintsukuroi.

kintsugi contemporary
Sidewalk-kintuskuroi by Rachel Sussman

 

 

Sculpturer Paige Bradley and Kintsugi Study

Another contemporary study of kintsugi belongs to Paige Bradley. Her art medium is sculpture, and she chooses light/ electricity to fill the cracks in the body of the sculpture. She writes depictions for her every piece.  For  “Illumination, Inspiration and Expansion”, she states: “…in order for a work to be truly organic and emulate the human condition, then there must be an element of chaos and imperfection. This is a lesson in letting go and allowing myself to become vulnerable.”

This statement resonates with wabi-sabi aesthetics to a great extent.  The artist is not afraid of being vulnerable. She accepts the weaknesses and imperfections.  She chooses to highlight the cracks with electricity rather than gold powder.  By using the art of kintsugi, she explores the cracks on and within the human body. What is more important, these weaknesses are not seen as something dead. Rather, they are given life through electricity. 

Contemporary study of Kintsugi
Works shown (left to right): Illumination, Inspiration and Expansion (life-size figures). Image source: https://paigebradley.com/sculpture/metamorphosis/expansion-life/

Origin story of Kintsugi contemporary artist Zoe Hillyard

Zoe Hillyard’s ceramic, thread and fabric combination is another stylish technique for mending broken ceramics. Lucky as a child, Hillyard’s grandparents introduced her to different mediums of art ( watercolor and oil painting,) as well as knitting. These interests became her professional occupation in later years. At university, she got a degree in Textile Design and learnt to mix knit and embroidery approaches.  In an interview, she states, ” I was also recycling materials, loving their aged surfaces and seeking to value the stories they represented.” Her approach to the exterior world and objects resonates with wabi-sabi philosophy. Recycling and rebirth seem to be the key ideas beneath all these ancient and contemporary practices of kintsugi.

Most surprisingly, Hillyard’s story of coming up with this kind of practice reminds us of the shogunate Ashigaka Yoshimasa’s story. During the interview, she reveals that ” I broke a bowl in the kitchen one day and, knowing I didn’t have glue in the house, thought how else could it be mended?  This very practical problem led to a creative solution, which has in turn grown into an exploration of new craftsmanship and a new form of expression that encompasses all those areas of personal interest.  Ceramic Patchwork is all about treasuring rather than amassing possessions, celebrating the stories that materials gather on their journeys.” Pondering the journey of the materials and celebrating stories of aged surfaces, she speaks Zen ideals in her works created in the tradition of kintsugi.  

Ceramic patchwork
image source:https://www.textilecurator.com/home-default/home-2-2/zoe-hillyard/

 

 Artist Yee Songkyung and Kintsugi


Korean artist Yee Songkyung brings Korean traditional non-used ceramic pieces together in a very extraordinary way. She applies a character to every piece and reconstructes them by applying the kintsugi concept. Her Translated Vase is one of the most remarkable examples of her interpretation of Kintsugi. 

translated vase in the style of kintsugi
Translated Vase
image source: https://publicdelivery.org/yeesookyung-translated-vase/

Yee Songkyung highlights each patched part with gold. What is more, the golden lines on the ceramic seem as if they are flowing like a meandering river. A kind of energy circulates through her artworks. Irregularity and asymmetry of the parts as well as the glazing lines evoke mixed emotions in the spectators. 

 

 

Charlotte Bailey and Kintsugi

Another ceramic mending process influenced by kintsugi finds embodiment in Bailey’s works. She applies the method of embroidery to bring the broken pieces together. First, she covers the pieces in fabric. Later, she ties them together with gold-colored metallic threads.  In her works of art, she reflects upon the perfection of lived experience and vulnerability. 

kintsugi technique
Kintsugi with gold threads

Book Suggestions on Kintsugi

For those who are interested, there are a bunch of books and studies on this subject. They investigate the application of the kintsugi technique not only in ceramics but also in other art forms, such as fine art, textiles, along with its interrelation with other disciplines like  psychology, therapy, and music.

Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend by Bonnie Kemske
Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit by Candice Kumai
Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper
Kintsugi: Finding Strength in Imperfection by Celine Santini

Last Words on Kintsugi

Consequently, the art of kintsugi embodies Japanese culture and mind in its own unique way. The philosophy beneath it reminds us of our scars and weaknesses. Moreover, it encourages us to embrace them. 

Kintsugi continues to influence many artists, perhaps not as a technique but as a philosophy. Feelings of alienation and loneliness are the prevalent emotions of today’s world. Contemporary artists’ interpretations of kintsugi show our need for conciliation between these feelings. And the answer is acceptance. Bad things are not necessarily bad, and good things are not purely good. We just need to gain intuition to realize the good and bad sides of the same situation.

 

Leave a Reply