By EUGENE SONG
Tea bowl, with gold lacquer Kintsugi repair work, 16th century. Ethnological Museum, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.
My Mom loves ceramics. It was, and still remains paramount among the artistic passions she acquired, polished and eventually lost throughout the years. To her, an old and seemingly bland piece of Fine China teacup, carefully wrapped in newspaper and tucked away in an unseen corner of the dressing room, means much more than just a utilitarian demitasse. It’s an appreciation of her unique aesthetic palette, and more dearly, a homage to her mother, who helped her cultivate her love for aesthetics.
I believe however that over the years, our family’s frequent migrations between South Korea and New Zealand added a new layer of meaning to my Mom’s love for porcelain.
Right upon our first arrival in New Zealand in the winter of 2003, one thing became clear to me; My Mom, despite the endearing demeanor she displayed in my presence, felt sadness. She was even pained by it. I found my Mom in the storage room, silently weeping, holding shattered pieces of one of her Villeroy & Boch Knife Plates - not the most exquisite piece of her collection, but a cherished one; it was my grandmother’s dearest.
South Korea was, for the most part of my Mom’s life, the soil that cultured her relationships with her family and friends. I too was scared of having to break with the old world - there was a strong sense of permanence about it. My friends back in Korea would remain together, intact, strengthening their bonds while I would deviate from our once-shared trajectory. If, however, breaking with an old world meant leaving behind permanence, my Mom had all the more reasons to be melancholic.
Despite her efforts to protect her ceramics - cherished symbols of the past - the impermanence of life seemed too substantial for the fragile plates to bear. Looking back, I think the broken plate reminded her of the inevitable fragility of life. While immigration means the permanent settlement in a new world, it also means the permanent departure, or breaking, with the world that was once familiar.
So, 13 years later, when I first encountered Kintsugi - the Japanese art of mending broken ceramics with lacquer resin, mixed with powdered gold - I was inclined to explore. Was there an artistic way of viewing the world that embraced the inevitable fragility of life? I was eager to learn a means of expression that could illustrate, poetically and subtly, the paradoxical strength of brokenness.
Within the millennia long history of lacquerware, Kintsugi reportedly began in the 15th century. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, unsettled by the poor repair techniques of his age, encouraged Japanese craftsmen to develop a more artistic method of repairing ceramics. The repaired products turned out to be more beautiful than the original ceramics, garnering appreciation for this new art form.
Underlying this aesthetic aspect of Kintsugi however is a philosophical contemplation of ‘impermanence’ - most likely originating from the Japanese philosophical tradition of Wabi Sabi. Wabi Sabi is a worldview that embraces transience and imperfection - commonly represented through Japanese zen gardens - rather than glorifying permanence and perfection.
Instead of seeing cracks as irreparable flaws or reasons to dispose the ceramic, Kintsugi embraces them as undeniably unique moments in the history of that ceramic, adding more meaning and value to its existence. In truth, throughout our many more migrations between New Zealand and Korea, my Mom continuously engaged with her past, reflecting upon the cracks in her history, reminding me that the forging of meaning and identity largely depends on the narratives of our personal histories that we tell ourselves. Her narrative found beauty in brokenness.
Whether it be in counseling peers or engaging in long overdue chats with old friends, Ernest Hemingway’s quote, though admittedly taken out of context, “the world breaks everyone” somehow always rings true. Regardless of each and every individual’s unceasing strive towards perfection and permanence, everyone, in some minor or major way, succumbs to breaks and fractures in their personal narrative of life.
However, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places” - the latter part of Hemingway’s quote - is equally resonant and compelling whenever I am reminded of my mother and Kintsugi. To predicate the countless breaks and reconciliations in life - with people, the past or entire worlds - on the foundation of honesty, vulnerability, grace and vigor became our common understanding.
Indeed, even when broken, we are always intact.