Janet Zweig by Amanda Means

BOMB 66 Winter 1999
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Janet Zweig Thinking Contest

Janet Zweig, Thinking Contest (installation view), 1995, mixed media. All images courtesy of the artist.

In Janet Zweig’s kinetic sculpture there are uneasy juxtapositions between the ancient and the modern, the mechanical and the emotional, the playful and the dead serious. Her art symbolizes a continuous search to find the means for mind to control matter. Thus it is no surprise to discover that her father is a chemist. Chemistry was once rooted in alchemy—a search for the magical means to transmute the base into the valuable, or find the vital formula for an elixir of life.

Her sculptures, larger than the human figure, resonate with simple mechanical and arithmetical means. Zweig states, “To make Thinking Contest, I gave two computers two different vocabularies of adjectives and nouns. I programmed them to print “I am thinking of” followed by a randomly selected adjective followed by a randomly selected noun, each choosing from its own vocabulary.”

Some of the resulting sentences are:


I’m thinking of urban knowledge.
I’m thinking of major taboo.
I’m thinking of twisted tips.
I’m thinking of zigzag bananas.
I’m thinking of brittle cities.
I’m thinking of taxable sleep.
I’m thinking of Taoist reason.
I’m thinking of retail hospitality.


As the stream of emerging paper gathers weight, it activates the sculpture—a huge balance scale—which gauges the competition.

In her sculpture Everything in the World, the process is somewhat different but the end result similar. Painted on the face of a huge wheel of printout paper attached to the wall is an image reminiscent of a 17th-century Dutch landscape. When the computer (hidden behind the wall) runs, its printer endlessly eats the world and regurgitates it as computer language, in this case the infinite permutations of binary code.

Despite the fact that an electronic computer drives her sculpture and prints her messages, Zweig’s work is rooted in a past that includes the I Ching and medieval Kabbalistic traditions. Her art reflects how these early systems used numerical and linguistic permutations to speak of the indescribable, the unpredictable, and the inexplicable.

—Amanda Means

Zweig Everything in the World

Janet Zweig, Everything in the World (detail), 1996, mixed media.

Zweig Everything in the World Installation

Janet Zweig, Everything in the World (installation view), 1996, mixed media.

Zweig Everything in the World detail

Janet Zweig, Everything in the World (detail), 1996, mixed media.

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Originally published in

BOMB 66, Winter 1999

Featuring interviews with Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Diski, Michael Cunningham, Simon Ortiz, Petuuche Gilbert, Simon Winchester, Gary Sinise, Thomas Vinterberg, and Marc Ribot.

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