In the mid 14th century, a powerful military leader in Japan broke a much beloved bowl. Distraught, he sent the bowl back to China to be repaired. At first, they attempted to repair the pottery with metal staples but this was deemed too unsightly. Instead, Japanese craftsmen repaired the bowl by filling the cracks with gold and thus an artform was born.
Kinstukuroi (金繕い) is the Japanese artform of repairing broken pottery with precious metals such as gold, platinum or silver. The fragments are carefully put together using a metallic binding agent. The illuminated fault lines delineate the irregular fragments of pottery (either original or supplemented from other pieces) while still maintaining the integrity of the original shape of the object. In this way, Kinstukuroi is in some ways ‘more organic’ than a carefully constructed mosaic, in which the individual fragments of glass are secondary to the overall image. This aesthetic was so praised that ceramics were sometimes deliberately damaged to produce this effect. Kintsukuroi also challenges the ‘eternal’ quality that is often constructed in works of high art. Inherently, pieces of kintsukuroi have a timeline-the way they existed before the break is inherently different from the way the piece exists after the break. In addition to being more beautiful after being broken, because of the method of repair they are also much more valuable.
Although there have been several wonderful examples of kinstukuroi in contemporary art
as well as an exhibit at the Smithsonian, it really gained traction in the public eye in a rather different way. In the last few years, posts with simply the definition of kintsukuroi have gone viral on social media sites like Tumblr and Reddit (they provide no context like the paragraph above). Is it because Japanese pottery is so inherently fascinating? Do so many people have a proclivity for an obscure branch of Japanese pottery making? While I personally wish that were the case, the real reason seems to be rather less academic.
Kintsukuroi went viral because it poetically resonant with the trajectory our lives, as a metaphor for the human condition. People felt compelled and comforted by this art of repair and resurrection. The act of fixing something and not only considering it pleasing but raising it to the level of ‘art’ suggests that life’s misfortunes and mistakes can similarly elevated. The artform relies on the understanding that although something may have suffered damage, it does not lose its value and instead can become stronger and more beautiful for having been broken. There is no hiding from the fact that the pieces were damaged-the cracks and fragmentations literally take center stage-but rather, they are celebrated as something that enhanced the object and gave it a new life. Gold both fortifies and transforms the ordinary into something extraordinary.
The fact that kintsukuroi touched people so deeply is a testament to the potential of art to explain things beyond the material. Art has a power to unite people as both a physical medium of expression but also as a means to express a shared experience. But more powerful than both of those, the very existence of the art form can bring hope that, whatever it may be, the break is not the end. In fact, it might be the beginning of a life that would not have been imagined before.