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Kintsugi - Revealing Beauty

The Japanese practice of Kintsugi offers a compelling contrast to Western attitudes towards aging and restoration
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Kintsugi – Revealing Beauty Through The Broken

Samantha Edgley
24th Jun 2016
By Samantha Edgley

What does it mean when something breaks? For Western cultures it may signify a time for change or upgrade. But, for the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, proudly wearing the scars of aging and wear means embracing transition and acknowledging of the impermanence of life. Sam Edgley provides a fascinating insight into the practice.

In January 2006, a man was visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. As he began to descend the staircase, he tripped on his untied shoelace. As he began to fall, he instinctively grasped out, accidently knocking over three valuable vases in the process. The incident led to the man and the three vases, tumbling to the bottom of the stairs.

Despite being shaken, the man was not badly injured and was soon back on his feet. The vases, however, were not so resilient and shattered into pieces. The incident was widely described as being a ‘disaster’ and restorers set to work – attempting to restore the vases in a way that would minimise any signs of the incident. The idea of putting the vases back on display, without making every effort to reduce the visible signs of damage upon them, would probably be unthinkable for the majority of Western museums and gallery visitors. However, there is an alternative approach.

In Japanese culture, there is a term called Kintsugi, which means golden joinery. It is a method utilised for repairing broken objects. Rather than attempting to hide the damage, Kintsugi actually draws attention to the cracks and the chips, and perceives these marks of wear and tear as a valuable addition to the story of the object. The technique uses a special lacquer which can be mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. This lacquer fixes the object, but in a way that highlights (rather than hides) the damage, and in the process it creates an aesthetically beautiful effect.

In Western culture, we tend to believe that if an object cannot be mended to look almost identical to the way it did prior to being damaged, the attempts to fix it have failed. In addition, there’s the opinion that the items significance is lessened. As such, we aim to ‘restore’ items and artwork.

Redefining restoration

According to the Oxford Dictionary the term restore means to “repair or renovate (a building, work of art, etc.) so as to return it to its original condition”. This desire for things to appear in their original condition is very different to the Kintsugi method, which celebrates the evolving history of object.

Kintsugi is a style which complements the philosophical notion of Wabi-sabi, which is a Japanese concept that encourages acceptance of the transitional nature of life, and its impermanence. Just as people grow old and die, objects go through stages of their own lives. These changes can include being broken or the colours fading. Transition permeates all things, and is unavoidable.

Kintsugi can be seen as an approach which helps the viewer to acknowledge and be comfortable with life being in flux. By contrast, in Western culture there is a fixation upon youth and perfection. The cosmetic industry sells an ‘anti-ageing’ dream, which claims to slow down the development of the lines and wrinkles which etch our life experiences upon our faces. In a similar manner, advertisements encourage us to relentlessly update and upgrade things. Old products – and particularly broken objects – are discarded. If they are fixed then it is with the hope and intention that they will be as they once were, rather than allowing an item to display the events that have occurred in a visible way.

At Maidstone Museum, there are many items on display in the Japanese collection that have been mended with the Kintsugi techniques. These include bowls, tea sets, and ornaments. Each object wears its scars with pride and tells its history through the twisting, flowing, vivid lines of Kintsugi which decorate the objects. Next time you are at the museum, take the time to look closely at these items, and perhaps when you break a fragile object in the future (maybe a vase or your favourite mug), you may recognise it as less of a tragedy and more of a transition.