Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The art of repair

Here’s the more or less original version of an article I’ve written for Aeon magazine. It carries a heavy debt to the wonderful catalogue of an exhibition entitled Flickwerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics (Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 2008). It also informed my recent “60-second idea” on the BBC World Service’s Forum programme, broadcast this week, which was otherwise focused (loosely) on the topic of curiosity. Here I met cosmologist Lee Smolin, whose book Time Reborn I have just reviewed for the Observer – I’ll post the review here once it’s published.


Is your toilet seat broken? I only ask because it is damned hard to get things like that fixed. Are your shoes splitting? Good luck finding a cobbler these days. Is the insulation on your MacBook mains lead abraded and splitting at the power brick? They all do that, and they’re not cheap to replace.

There’s an answer to all these little repair jobs. It’s called Sugru: an adhesive, putty-like silicone polymer that you can hand-mould to shape and then leave overnight to set into a tough, flexible seal. Devised by Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, an Irish design graduate at the Royal College of Art in London, in collaboration with retired industrial chemists, Sugru is an all-purpose mending material with an avid following of ‘hackers’ who relish its potential not just to repair but to modify off-the-shelf products. When it was pronounced a top invention of 2010 by Time magazine, it acquired international cult status.

Sugru doesn’t, however, do its job subtly. You can get it in modest white, but Sugru-fixers tend to prefer the bright primary colours, giving their repairs maximal visibility. They seem determined to present mending not as an unfortunate necessity to be carried out as quietly as possible but as an act worth celebrating.

That’s an attitude also found in the burgeoning world of ‘radical knitting’, where artists are bringing a punk sensibility to the Women’s Institute. Take textiles artist Celia Pym, who darns people’s clothes as a way of “briefly making contact with strangers”. There are no ‘invisible mends’ here: Pym introduces bold new colours and patterns, transforming rather than merely repairing the garments.

What Pym and the Sugru crew are asserting is that mending has an aesthetic as well as a practical function. They say that if you’re going to mend, you might as well do it openly and beautifully.

If that sounds like a new idea in the pragmatic West, it has a long tradition in the East. Pym’s artful recovery of damaged clothing is anticipated by more than three centuries in the boro garments of the Japanese peasant and artisan classes, which were stitched together from scraps of cloth in a time when nothing went to waste. In boro clothing the mends become the object, much like Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath’s celebrated hypothetical boat, repaired a plank at a time until nothing of the original remains. Some boro garments might in similar fashion be colonized and eventually overwhelmed by patches; others were assembled from scraps at the outset. Today boro’s shabby chic risks becoming merely an ethnic pose in trendy Tokyo markets, belying the necessity from which it arose. But boro was always an aesthetic idea as much as an imposition of hardship. It draws on the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi, a world view that acknowledges transience and imperfection.

I have been patching clothes for years into a kind of makeshift, barely competent boro. Trousers in particular get colonized by patches that start at the knees and the holes poked by keys around the pockets, spreading steadily across thighs with increasing disregard for colour matching. Only when patches need patches does the recycling bin beckon. At first I did this first as a hangover from student privation. Later it became a token of ecological sensibility. Those changing motives carry implications for appearance: the more defiantly visible the mend, the less it risks looking like mere penny-pinching. That’s a foolishly self-conscious consideration, of course, which is precisely why the Japanese aesthetic of repair is potentially so liberating: there is nothing defensive about it. That’s even more explicit in the tradition of ceramic mending.

In old Japan, when a treasured bowl fell to the floor one didn’t just reach for the glue. The old item was gone, but its fracture created the opportunity for a new one to be made. Such accidents held lessons worth heeding, being both respected and remedied by creating from the shards something even more elegant. Smashed ceramics would be stuck back together with a strong adhesive made from lacquer and rice glue – but then the web of cracks would actually be emphasized by tracing it out in coloured lacquer, sometimes mixed or sprinkled with powdered silver or gold and polished with silk so that the joins gleamed.

A bowl or container repaired in this way would typically be valued even more highly, aesthetically and financially, than the original. The sixteenth-century Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu is said once to have ignored his host’s fine Song Dynasty Chinese tea jar until it was mended after the owner smashed it in despair at Rikyu’s indifference. “Now the piece is magnificent”, he pronounced of the shards painstakingly reassembled by the man’s friends. According to contemporary tea master Christy Bartlett, it was “the gap between the vanity of pristine appearance and the fractured manifestation of mortal fate which deepen[ed] its appeal”. The repair, like that of an old teddy bear, is testament to the affection in which the object is held: what is valued is not a literally superficial perfection but something deeper. The mended object is special precisely because it was worth mending. In the Japanese tea ceremony, says cultural anthropologist James-Henry Holland, “a newly-mended utensil proclaims the owner’s personal endorsement, and visually apparent repairs call attention to this honor.”

To mend such objects requires an acceptance of whatever the fracture gives: a relinquishment of the determination to impose one’s will on the world, in accord with the Japanese concept of mushin. Meaning literally “no mind”, this expresses a detachment sought by many artists and warriors. “Accidental fractures set in motion acts of repair that accept given circumstances and work within them to lead to an ultimately more profound appearance,” says Bartlett. Mended ceramics displayed their history – the pattern of fracture documented the specific forces and events that caused it. This fact has recently been recognized by a team of French physicists, who have shown that the starlike cracks in broken glass plates capture a forensic record of the mechanics of the impact. By reassembling the pieces, that moment becomes preserved. The stories of how mended Japanese ceramics were broken – like that of the jar initially spurned by Sen no Rikyu – would be perpetuated by constant retelling. In the tea ceremony these histories of the utensils provide raw materials for the stylized conversational puzzles that the host sets the guests, a function for which undamaged appearance was irrelevant.

Sugru users will appreciate another of the aesthetic considerations of Japanese ceramic repairs: the notion of asobi, which refers to a kind of playful creativity and was introduced by the sixteenth-century tea master Furuta Oribe. Repairs that embody this principle tended to be more extrovert, even crude in their lively energy. When larger areas of damage were patched using pieces from a totally different broken object, fragments with a totally different appearance might be selected to express the asobi ideal, just as clothes today might be patched with exuberant contrasting colours or patterns. Of course, one can now buy new clothes patched this way – a seemingly mannered gesture, perhaps, yet anticipated in the way Oribe would sometimes purposely damage utensils so that they were not “too perfect”. This was less a Zen-like expression of impermanence and more an exuberant relish of variety.

Such modern fashion statements aside, repair in the West has tended to be more a matter of grumbling and making do. But occasionally the aesthetic questions have been impossible to avoid. When the painting of an Old Master starts cracking and flaking off, what is the best way to make it good? Should we reverently pick up the flakes of paint and surreptitiously glue them back on again? Is it honest to display a Raphael held together with PVA? When Renaissance paint fades or discolours, should we touch it up to retain at least a semblance of what the artist intended, or surrender to wabi-sabi? It’s safe to assume that no conservator would ever have countenanced the recent ‘repair’ of Elias Garcia Martinez’s crumbling nineteenth-century fresco of Jesus in Zaragoza by an elderly woman with the artistic skills of Mr Bean. But does even a skilled ‘retouching’ risk much the same hubris?

These questions are difficult because aesthetic considerations pull in the opposite direction from concerns of authenticity. Who wants to look at a fresco anyway if only half of it is still on the wall? Victorian conservators were rather cavalier in their solutions, often deciding it was better to have a retouched Old Master than none at all. In an age that would happily render Titian’s tones more ‘acceptable’ with muddy brown varnish, that was hardly surprising. But today’s conservators mostly recoil at the idea of painting over damage in old works, although they will permit some delicate ‘inpainting’ that fills cracks without covering any of the original paint: Cosimo Tura’s Allegorical Figure in London’s National Gallery was repaired this way in the 1980s. Where damage is extensive, standard practice now is to apply treatments that prevent further decay but leave the existing damage visible.

Such rarefied instances aside, the prejudice against repair as an embarrassing sign of poverty or thrift is surely a product of the age of consumerism. Mending clothes was once routine for every stratum of society. The aristocracy were unabashed at their elbow patches – in truth more prevention than cure, since they protected shooting jackets from wear caused by the shotgun butt. Everything got mended, and mending was a trade.

But what sort of trade? Highly skilled, perhaps, but manual, consigning it to a low status in a culture that has always been shaped (this is one way that West differs from East) by the ancient Greek preference for thinking over doing. Just as, over the course of the nineteenth century, the ‘pure’ scientist gained ascendancy over the ‘applied’ (or worse still, the engineer), so too the professional engineer could at least pull rank on the maintenance man: he was a creator and innovator, not a chap with oily rag and tools. “Although central to our relationship with things”, writes historian of technology David Edgerton, “maintenance and repair are matters we would rather not think about.” Indeed, they are increasingly matters we’d rather not even do.

Edgerton explains that until the mid-twentieth century repair was a permanent state of affairs, especially for expensive items like vehicles, which “lived in constant interaction with a workshop.” It wasn’t so much that things stopped working and then got repaired, but that repair was the means by which they worked at all. Neurath’s boat probably sailed for real: “ships were often radically changed, often more than once, in the course of their lives,” says Edgerton. Repair might even spawn primary manufacturing industries: many early Japanese bicycles were assembled from the spare parts imported to repair foreign (mostly British) models.

It’s not hard to understand a certain wariness about repair: what broke once might break again. But its neglect in recent times surely owes something also to an under-developed repair aesthetic, an insistence on perfection of appearance: on the semblance of newness even in the old, a visual illusion now increasingly applied to our own bodies, repair of which is supposed to (but rarely does) make the wear and tear invisible.

Equally detrimental to a culture of repair is the ever more hermetic nature of technology, whereby DIY mending becomes impossible either physically (the unit, like your MacBook lead, is sealed) or technically (you wouldn’t know where to start). Either way, your warranty is void the moment you start tinkering. Couple that to a climate in which you pay for the service or accessories rather than the item – inks pricier than printers, mobile phones free when you subscribe to a network – and repair lacks feasibility, infrastructure or economic motivation. I gave up on repair of computer peripherals years ago when the only person I could find to fix a printer was a crook who lacked the skills for the job but charged me the price of a new one anyway. Breakers’ yards, which used to seem like places of wonder, have all but vanished as car repair has become both unfashionable and impractical.

Some feel this is going to change, whether because of the exigencies of austerity or increasing ecological concerns about waste and consumption. Martin Conreen, a design lecturer at Goldsmith’s College in London, believes that TV cookery programmes will soon be replaced by ‘how to’ DIY shows, in which repair would surely feature heavily. The hacker culture is nurturing an underground movement of making and modifying that is merging with the crowdsourcing of fixes and bodges – for example, on websites such as ifixit.com, which offers free service manuals and advice for technical devices such as computers, cameras, vehicles and domestic appliances, and fixperts.org, set up by design lecturer Daniel Charny and Sugru cofounder James Carrigan, which documents fixes on film. The mending movement has taken to the streets in the international Repair Café movement, where you can go to get free tools, materials, advice and assistance for mending anything from phones to jumpers. As 3D printers become more accessible – which can produce one-off objects made from cured resin, built up from granular ‘inks’ layer by layer – it may become possible to make your own spare parts rather than having to source them, often at some cost, from suppliers (only to discover your model is obsolete). And as fixing becomes cool, there’s good reason to hope it will acquire an aesthetic that owes less to a “make do and mend” mentality of soldiering on, and more to mushin and asobi.


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