How to Create Divinity

The categorization of domestic space as sacred through the work of women photographers: Felicia Chang, Kawauchi Rinko, and Jessica Labatte

By: Dahlia Labatte

Jan 16, 2024

Is it possible to create divinity, or the sense of divinity? Humanity has always used art and ritual to explore and create experiences of the sacred. Domestic labour itself functions as a ritual, and women artists especially have examined domestic space through a variety of interpretations over time. This paper offers a different way of understanding domestic photography, one that positions domestic life as something that is not insignificant and is worth deep consideration; particularly through the eyes of women photographers. Domestic space can be categorized and experienced as a kind of sacred space, and in the capturing of domestic space it undergoes a process of sacralization. This categorization and way of experiencing domestic space is shown through the photography of Felicia Chang, Kawauchi Rinko, and Jessica Labatte. These artists show this experience through their choice in subject (domestic objects and spaces), and in the way they depict these subjects as sacred; entitled to reverence or respect, worthy of religious veneration. These women photographers have picked these moments and subjects to capture, with intense understanding of their context and place in domestic existence. There is a sacralization to these domestic spaces and existence in that process of capturing. Chang, Kawauchi, and Labatte sacralize their domestic space in their processes of picking subjects, and capturing their image.

Understanding sacred space is a complicated endeavour, as it is deeply personal and subject to individual readings and personal societal context (gender, class, religion, etc.). This paper focuses on the depiction of sacred space through a gendered lens, and so this definition will put that into focus. However, still attempting to construct a definition or understanding that can be used for a more general understanding and other methodologies. Beginning with Taylor’s observation, “The sacred and sacred space is not limited to the physical environment but embraces the capability of objects, animals, plants, people, and spirits to become a part of what is considered holy.” and Barrie’s “Contemporary sacred space does not need to be exclusively ecclesiastical or doctrinal (or even be religiously affiliated at all).” This paper understands sacred space to not be limited to architecturally built spaces, but also objects, and socially and individually constructed spaces; sacred can mean religiously affiliated but also simply a space that has been created through emotion, ritualistic actions, and meaningful objects. Sacred space does require a continual material and emotional investment. This paper uses religious sacred spaces as the foundation for understanding and analyzes with the perspective that sacred space can also be in ‘secular’ space. Sacralization is also understood to be the process of a space becoming sacred through actions, emotions and spatial practices; concepts of values, memory, and power are also impactful in the process of sacralization. Sacralization of space in this case is done through photography, and the actions and emotions that accompany it. 

Mentioned above that this connection between domestic and sacred space will be understood through the work of women photographers. This distinction is important because throughout the building of buildings, and the practice of architecture, has been a male-dominated space. Furthermore, women have also had more control over domestic spaces than men, throughout history. There is also a dialogue between many women photographers and their domestic space, especially in the three photographers covered here. In early feminist movements there was a rebellion of domestic life, marriage, and familial responsibilities; and many women photographers have also photographed domestic space for the simple reason that it was a readily available subject. Regardless, domestic space has been in dialogue with women photographers for a variety of reasons such as feminism, identity, family, among others. Altogether, women photographers being the key element of this paper’s categorization of domestic as sacred space is relevant and an important distinction. It is also worth mentioning that domestic and sacred architecture, using the more standard understanding of architecture and physical buildings, are not entirely separated either. Barrie in his essay “The Domestic and the Numinous in Sacred Architecture” outlines that the first spiritual places evolved from the houses of the priests or rulers, and “Home and temple were often conflated and how, paradoxically, the multifarious symbolic agendas of religious architecture often relied on symbols of home and dwelling.” The definition provided allows for its use in multiple religious, spiritual, and non-religious contexts and so the artists in this paper were not chosen for their affiliation with certain spiritual or religious beliefs. All three artists are women, in alignment with the gendered lens of this argument, and all their featured work was made past 1990. 

Kawauchi Rinko is a Japanese photographer who has explored a variety of subjects throughout her practice, but she has always focused on detail and subjects that could be considered ‘insignificant’; domestic elements and space are a large part of her portfolio. Simon and Bryce describe her work as having “a dream-like haze and a focus on small details and habits of daily life. Kawauchi’s mode of seeing and her resulting work is positioned as exploring a ‘subtle, poetic, and spiritual sense of self.’” Her series Cui Cui (2005) mostly comprises details from domestic life. The series also features subjects that can be found in the work of both Labatte and Change: the garden and the dinner table. The garden photograph (fig. 1) is taken of a moment where an elderly woman, who could be a family member, is crouching down to tend to the plants. The garden looks well taken care of, and overflows with greenery; a labour of love. Simon and Bryce talk about Kawauchi’s work and highlight her focus on domestic labour, this links to the process of sacralization as being done through embodied practices; especially the garden and its literal transformation of space. Kawauchi’s photograph of the woman in the garden puts equal importance on her labour as it does the plants; she is in the centre of the composition as the main subject but the rest of the composition is taken up almost entirely by the greenery. Although the style is very different from Labatte’s, both see the garden as a subject worthy of capturing, and as a domestic labour that is worth attaching meaning to. The dinner table photograph (fig. 2) seems like a candid taken during a large family dinner, with people interacting and moving dishes around. This photograph highlights the use of this subject by both Kawauchi and Chang, as we understand the kitchen as a place of power, memory, and of culture. The kitchen is also a place that has been primarily occupied by women throughout history, which is also discussed in relation to Chang’s work, and so dining and cooking spaces can highlight the gendered lens of sacralization that this paper focuses on. Worth mentioning are also Kawauchi’s photographs of the bowl of strawberries (fig. 3), and the hands washing a rag (fig. 4). Both photographs demonstrate Kawauchi’s “philosophy of attaching great significance to listening to small voices and valuing small things.’” Kawauchi sees the beauty in domestic life and attaches meaning to these small moments by her simple act of capturing them. 

Felicia Chang is a photographer whose work explores a variety of paths, from capturing the single parenthood of a Jewish woman in her 40s to a series about immigrant identity in Chinatown. Her series From, Ah Ma is an exploration of her identity and cultural roots. The series is presented as sets of diptychs, each pair showing elements of her homeland Malaysia and Canada, which is where she currently lives. This paper will focus on the photographs in the series that capture domestic space; the other subjects include family portraits, city scenes, among others.

The pieces are presented in her digital portfolio without a title, and so for identification purposes the focus pieces will be referred to as the dinner tables or kitchens (fig. 5) and the collection of family photos (fig. 6). Starting with the diptych of the dinner tables, and the visual elements. Both photographs seem to be candids with people sitting at the tables, both also have similar colour palettes; the browns and blues of the tiles and cabinets of the left image reflect the brown stools, blue cabinets and walls of the right image. Both photographs also seem to be using natural light, and look like they were taken at the same time of day. The photographs seem to reflect each other and their pairing seems to be done with great care to the circumstances of their photographing. The bright lighting of Chang’s table photographs that seems to be coming through windows to illuminate the space is similar to Gustave Le Gray’s St Pierre Church (fig. 7), where the space is solely illuminated by the bright light coming through the arches; giving a similar effect to Chang’s photographs. Chang’s capturing of domestic space with such reverence is in line with this paper’s understanding of sacralization of space. Especially with Chang’s choice to photograph the kitchen which throughout history has been occupied primarily by women (and both photographs only include women); she highlights the kitchen as a beautiful space, through her use of lighting, that is worth recording. Chang shows that the kitchen plays an important part in building identity and memory, through space. She sacralizes the kitchen through the care she takes in her photographing of it, and her understanding of it as a place of memory and identity. In Klingorová and Gökarıksel’s paper they study women’s experience of religion and spirituality through analysis of photos taken by the subjects, of places that have special emotional or spiritual meaning to them. Many of the subjects photographed places that are not officially spiritually affiliated, like kitchens, a parking lot, a bus station, etc. The paper highlights how women locate their religion and spirituality in the everyday, and that there are similarities in the way religious, spiritual, & non-religious experience and express sacrality in space. The diptych featuring the family photos (fig. 6) is worth mentioning because of the left photograph, where the family photos are also sitting amongst a crucifix, images and sculptures of Christian figures. It shows that the family’s identity is understood to be related to their faith, and that faith has a place in their domestic environment; linking the sacred with the ‘secular’. Chang sacralizes domestic space through her photographic process, she shows the emotions, memories, and embodied practices that make domestic space sacred.

Artist Jessica Labatte, specifically her series Almanac of Shade Gardeners, focuses on floral still lifes. The photographs feature flowers from her garden and objects from her domestic space such as textiles, children’s toys, and food; the primary concern of the series being the relationship between motherhood and her artistic practice. “In the Almanac for Shade Gardeners series, Labatte plunges into risky subject matter for women artists–her own motherhood and domestic surroundings.” Each piece in the series is full of intentional choice while also being subjected to the bloom cycle of the flower she photographs, an example of this being her piece Homeschool (2020) (fig. 8). The piece features a collection of various items used for educational activities for her four-year-old when in-person school was stopped due to the pandemic, the main focus are the pink lilies which were able to bloom for the first time since she planted them. Labatte domestic space is the key feature of this series, and her experience of it dictates what is included in the photographs. Almanac for Shade Gardeners is the result of the committed ritual action of caring and tending to a garden, and the collecting of little pieces of domestic life. Labatte’s actions and capturing of chosen objects functions as a sacralization of her domestic space. Taylor succinctly summarizes this idea by stating that “Whether as a part of nature, a plant, an animal, human-made object, or artistic creation, the concept of sacralization provides a cultural paradigm for seeing how belief is transmitted in a communal way through…performance, art, and ritual”. 

Labatte started the series after a series of very large changes in her life: having her first child, moving to the suburbs, and a new job. The series was a way of practicing mindfulness and attentive looking during a time of radical lifestyle and identity changes; the light, colour, and texture of a new domestic space seen by the eyes of a person with a newly transformed identity as a parent. It builds on the idea of transitional objects, that everyday objects can obtain meaning and symbolism through association to situations and people, and be a source of comfort. It is worth mentioning Barrie’s observation that contemporary sacred space does not need to be religiously affiliated at all. Another piece is Labatte’s piece Ice Dying (2020) (fig. 9), in the background are the paper towels that were used while she tried ice dying with her kids. The flower is a lily speciosum rubrum from her ‘mourning garden’ that was put in following a miscarriage, which is next to her husband’s vegetable garden, where the tomatoes are from. Each piece in the series immortalizes a very impermanent context of the garden, familial life, and the emotions accompanying it. Although most of the pieces are captured in white spaces with bright white lighting, they are the result of deliberate decision-making of subject and placement. Due to their placement and the nature of the focus and lighting of each piece, each part of the still lifes are given equal visual importance and have equal impact on the final image. Organized almost like an altar, allowing us to understand that each part of the piece has meaning and functions as a symbol in the narrative that the assemblage creates. The flowers are the main purpose of the photograph, but their contextual weight can only be understood through the other inclusions in the piece. This paper holds that sacralization of space can also be a ‘secular’ process, and that memories, values and power are vital in this process. Klingorová and Gökarıksel argue that women make sacred space through embodied, emotional, and spatially varying practices, which is exactly what Labatte demonstrates in her series Almanac for Shade Gardeners.

Sacred space is not limited to built spaces, but also includes social spaces, objects, plants, and people; that is also not necessarily linked to any religious or spiritual affiliation. It is defined through the way it is created and experienced, as a place of meaning, emotion, and of intentional ritual (whether the rituals are religiously affiliated or not). In further research it would be worthwhile to examine the reverse, meaning domestic actions and practices in officially religiously affiliated spaces; strengthening understandings of the link between domestic and religious spaces. It would also be useful to examine this topic through other mediums such as painting, and through a more narrow lens of a specific faith. The concept of this paper is understood through a gendered lens, as women have experienced social spaces and built spaces differently. The focus for this paper being domestic space; throughout history women have had more control over domestic space, and architecture has been a male-dominated field. Women artists have also continually participated in representations and debates surrounding domestic space as ideas of feminism have developed, and understandings of ‘obligations’ and motherhood have evolved. To improve the strength of the argument it would be useful to include an artist who does consciously explore this connection. However despite this, Kawauchi, Chang, and Labatte do practice a sacralization of their space through their experience of domestic space, their deliberate choice of subject, and the treatment of their subject as something with meaning, deserving of earnest focus and respect through photography. All three artists capture the continual emotional and physical investment that makes domestic space sacred.

List of figures 

Figure 1: Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled (photograph of a woman in a garden), 2005. https://rinkokawauchi.com/en/works/213/

Figure 2: Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled (photograph of a full dining room table), 2005. https://rinkokawauchi.com/en/works/213/

Figure 3: Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled (photograph of a bowl of strawberries), 2005. https://rinkokawauchi.com/en/works/213/

Figure 4: Rinko Kawauchi, Untitled (photograph of hands washing a rag), 2005. https://rinkokawauchi.com/en/works/213/

Figure 5: Felicia Change, Untitled (diptych featuring two photographs of a kitchen and table). https://www.feliciachang.com/from-ah-ma

Figure 6: Felicia Chang, Untitled (diptych featuring two photographs of family photos). https://www.feliciachang.com/from-ah-ma

Figure 7: Gustave Le Gray, St Pierre Church, 1851. Paris, Orsay Museum. https://www.photo.rmn.fr/archive/00-003399-2C6NU04H0H0H.html

Figure 8: Jessica Labatte, Homeschool, 2020, archival pigment print, 76 x 59 in. Chicago, Western Exhibitions. https://westernexhibitions.com/in-depth/almanac-for-shade-gardeners/

Figure 9: Jessica Labatte, Ice Dying, 2020, archival pigment print, 20 x 25 in. Chicago, Western Exhibitions. https://westernexhibitions.com/in-depth/almanac-for-shade-gardeners/

Bibliography

Barrie, Thomas. “Sacred Space and the Mediating Roles of Architecture.” European Review 20, no. 1 (2012): 79–94. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1062798711000330.

Bermúdez, Julio Cesar, and Sue Ann Taylor. “Ritual, Belief, and Meaning in the Production of Sacred Space.” Essay. In Transcending Architecture: Contemporary Views on Sacred Space. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015.

Bermúdez, Julio Cesar, and Thomas Barrie. “The Domestic and the Numinous in Sacred Architecture.” Essay. In Transcending Architecture: Contemporary Views on Sacred Space. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015.

Chodos, Elizabeth. Jessica Labatte’s Life in the Shade: Floral Arrangements for Artists and Mothers, n.d.

“Cui Cui.” Rinko Kawauchi. Accessed December 16, 2023. https://rinkokawauchi.com/en/works/213/.

“From Ah Ma.” Felicia Chang. Accessed December 16, 2023. https://www.feliciachang.com/from-ah-ma.

“In Depth: Almanac for Shade Gardeners.” Western Exhibitions. Accessed December 16, 2023. https://westernexhibitions.com/in-depth/almanac-for-shade-gardeners/.

Klingorová, Kamila, and Banu Gökarıksel. “‘God Was with Me Everywhere’: Women’s Embodied Practices and Everyday Experiences of Sacred Space in Czechia.” Gender, Place & Culture 25, no. 1 (2018): 37–60. https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369x.2017.1398138.

“Sacred Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed December 16, 2023. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sacred.

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Simon, Jane, and Mio Bryce. “The Labour of Light: Gender, Technology and the Domestic in the Photography of Nagashima Yurie and Kawauchi Rinko.” Women’s History Review 31, no. 4 (2022): 645–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/09612025.2021.1944351.