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Kintsugi: On mending, memory

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Senior Staff

MARCH 09, 2023

In my writing, I often find myself drawn to the theme of kintsugi, the Japanese art form of mending broken pottery with gold. These pieces are provided with new life, and the beauty in their age and history is not wasted. 

Think of two ceramic vases: One is brand new, glistening with its novelty, and the other is aged, worn in by the hands of mothers and grandmothers. The second vase’s cracks are filled in with soft flakes of gold, and it’s worn in by the base of its handle. Only one of the two connects an individual to their history and holds the power of being passed on. Kintsugi infuses a piece with the ability to prolong its lifespan, and thus, its story.

However, in Western culture, I have yet to see kintsugi take on in mainstream media as much as other Japanese art forms, such as manga or calligraphy. Perhaps, this is because the idea behind kintsugi fundamentally combats materialistic nature, which is so keenly valued in our society. Quantity is often emphasized over quality, evident through the rise of fast fashion and mass-produced goods. From the perspective of a company trying to maximize their profits, the best part of stuff is that it breaks. Once a necessary item no longer functions, it must be replaced, and thus the buyer must repurchase a similar one. It is not in the interest of corporate greed for things to be mendable; therefore, they are not marketed as such. Kintsugi directly fights this concept of overconsumption and materialism, bringing forth a new power in reuse.

I first encountered the concept of kintsugi on a very memorable Tuesday. My gaze fell onto my grandmother’s precious vase, which now lay fragmented on the floor, and fear rushed through my veins as I imagined her reaction. I was eight years old, but I still vividly remember that sheer terror. The vase was of extreme importance to my family: It had been in my ancestors’ possession since before World War II and was one of few things that survived. I frantically began trying to find a way to fix it, and in my search, I stumbled across an article online, on mending ceramics with gold. Though I did not have a liquified form of gold at my disposal to restore it, I was able to fix the vase with some glue hiding out in a toolbox. I additionally colored the broken cracks with a gold gel pen to give it that kintsugi aspect. My grandmother was less than thrilled that I had broken a family heirloom but was proud I attempted to mend it.

This logic does not only apply to ceramics, of course. I never feel more beautiful and empowered than while wearing clothing my mother had owned since before I was born. Each stray thread or mended hole proves that this garment has lived. These clothes have witnessed decades of my mother’s life and have seen me grow. My prom dress, for example, was purchased by her in the late ‘90s, when she was my age. The dress has seen our questionable attempts at dancing and embraced us when we felt at our best. It holds both her story and mine.

Of course, one doesn’t need an arsenal of family heirlooms to disengage from a culture of overconsumption. Instead, take a trip to your nearest thrift store, and pick through the treasures lurking around the corners. Remember not to skip out on the ceramics as well! You may even find your own kintsugi project.

All of my best jeans are from second-hand stores. I’ve found that nothing can replicate the comfort of a perfectly worn-in pair of denim, soft in their stiffness. Often, I imagine the stories of the people who wore them before me. By creating the garments’ history, I gain a window into the long lives of my pants. I like to think that my beloved black Lee jeans were owned by a twenty-something frequent concertgoer, and they have seen many more of my favorite bands than I have. My light-wash straight-leg jeans were worn by an always-on-the-road professional woman, who shook the hands of many interesting people while wearing this adored pair. Each hole and stray thread tells me part of the previous owner’s story, and the wear and tear make an item all the more special.

“Kintsugi can only mend what knows it is broken,” reads a line from a poem I composed in 2021. To perform kintsugi, an object’s story must be recognized; one must see additional worth in that this piece has lived. A vase split down the center isn’t defective but merely needs to be granted a new strength to continue holding onto its powerful history. I’ve found that this practice of infusing items with more beauty and power through repairing them can be moving, especially when considering the human condition. 

After all, does humanity itself not come in fragments? Do one’s imperfections render them useless, destined to be cast away? Or, is there beauty in uniqueness? Perhaps there is power in being mended, in collecting stories and healing scars with precious gold and love?

Miriam Klaczynska writes the Thursday column on words that can't be translated into English. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

APRIL 10, 2023