Artist Rachel Sussman had traveled for years photographing the most ancient organisms on Earth when a photograph on social media of a shattered bowl reassembled with gold introduced her to the tradition of kintsukuroi, also called kintsugi. In this Japanese practice, broken pottery is repaired with gold dust and glue.
“It was the spring of 2014, right as my book, The Oldest Living Things in the World, was just coming out,” Sussman told Hyperallergic. “I had spent 10 years looking at ancient organisms who have withstood the test of time. I was already connected to the aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi inherent in the work and the organisms themselves: quiet and imperfect, bearing the proud patinas and injuries of age, while flirting with the boundaries of permanence.”
This sense of time and its visibly healed scars, and the beauty of imperfections, helped inspire her current Sidewalk Kintsukuroi series, of which the newest edition is in Alchemy: Transformations in Gold, currently at the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. As part of the exhibition, which considers the cultural and historical connotations of gold, Sussman repaired a fissure in the museum’s marble floor, an embedded installation now in their permanent collection.
“We’re not talking the millions of years it took for the Grand Canyon to form, but by noticing the crack in the marble floor of the Des Moines Art Center that formed over the course of several decades, it serves as a reminder that natural processes are happening all around us, but at a pace that is far too slow for us to observe with the naked eye,” Sussman explained.
The Alchemy exhibition includes images of her Sidewalk Kintsukuroi gold dust alterations on photographs of cracks on the streets of Soho and Williamsburg in New York City. Each patching, whether a physical surface or photograph, can take weeks of physically straining work. Japanese Kintsukuroi repairs are often on precious ceramics; these are much more everyday mends.
“Cracks represent something in need of attention, and the surfaces we walk, bike, and drive over are usually overlooked until they’re in truly critical condition,” Sussamn said. “By gilding them, it’s a way to see what’s around us with fresh eyes and to celebrate perseverance.”
Sussman’s ongoing focus is on finding connections between individual and cosmic time. For instance, her “Cosmic Microwave Mandala,” now at the New Museum Los Gatos as part of Making Contact: SETI Artists in Residence, is a Tibetan-style sand mandala of the cosmic microwave background, or the thermal radiation still detectable from a stage of Big Bang cosmology. The Sidewalk Kintsukuroi pieces are engaging with much shorter, geologic time in our urban environment. Yet both the mandala and the sidewalk gilding are ephemeral acts of engaging with eternity.
“Over time, even the repairs will be destroyed,” Sussman stated. “They will be walked on and scuffed, and eventually overwritten with something else. Such is the transient nature of everything in the universe. All the more reason to value the time we have.”
Alchemy: Transformations in Gold continues at the Des Moines Art Center (4700 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa) through May 5.