Author and potter Bonnie Kemske in her studio
Author and potter Bonnie Kemske. (Photo: Ian Olsson)

A New Book Examines the Enduring Relevance of Kintsugi as Metaphor

Author and potter Bonnie Kemske discusses the origins and implications of the age-old Japanese practice in “Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend.”
By Tiffany Lambert
May 22, 2021
3 minute read

Kintsugi, the time-honored Japanese practice of using powdered precious metals to repair broken ceramics, has steadily gained popularity in Western culture (aided, perhaps, by our increasing fervor for handcrafted pottery): It’s been the subject of TED Talks, exhibitions at leading institutions such as the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and written works that use it as a symbol for embracing one’s imperfections or as a model for sustainability. But learning about the origin of the craft in Japan, which likely took place during the late 16th or early 17th century, is critical to fully understanding the art form and its impacts. Both are surveyed in the Okinawa-born author and potter Bonnie Kemske’s new book Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend (Bloomsbury). In it, she interviews kintsugi masters, details various techniques, and considers potential grounds for the custom’s development. Here, Kemske discusses kintsugi’s origins and why it resonates so strongly with people today.

“The concept of breakage features prominently in contemporary art: Look at Doris Salcedo’s big crack in the floor of the Tate Modern. Ceramicist Claudia Clare, who’s done a lot of work about domestic violence towards women, built this beautiful, very large vase for her project ‘Remembering Atefeh’ (2011) that stood about three feet high. Then there was a ceremony outside the Iranian embassy in London’s Hyde Park, [during which] refugees joined her and ceremoniously smashed it. She took the pieces back to her studio and reconstructed them—a powerful use of both breakage and mending.

restores function, so you can use the broken pieces again, and afterward, it adds beauty and tells a story. The beauty is that it’s actually ornamentation—you can see the marks of the repair. It can be a very delicate bit of gold webbing, a big, solid-gold line, or it can be in silver, nickel, and other materials as well. The practice draws on the Japanese concept of mottainai, which means ‘Don’t waste.’ Just because it’s broken, you don’t throw it away. It’s also about not wasting an object’s potential.

Every time you see a kintsugi, you know that there’s a tale behind it because someone cared enough about it to have it mended. The metaphor of kintsugi is one of resilience and overcoming hardship, pain, and tragedy. And of finding a way of accepting ourselves and our imperfections, and the imperfections in other people and things. I think that’s been hitting a chord as of late.

The other thing that’s really important about the metaphor is that if you use kintsugi to repair something, you’re creating a new entity. It’s actually physically stronger than the original object, and it can be more beautiful and more valuable. We can make our personal lives better, but also communally, we can make [societies] better, too. We can put things back together in a better way without trying to hide what’s happened. Kintsugi acknowledges the damage.”