ABOVE: Install, Szwedzinski’s MFA thesis exhibition
︎ Hite Art Institute’s MFA Studios, Louisville
KCJ Szwedzinski’s work navigates identity at the intersections of history and change, assimilation and preservation, as well as how these themes may create dissonance in determination of the Self. Specifically, her work investigates what it means to be a Jewish woman through her own autobiography and her family’s past. Rooted in the foundations of intersectional feminist theory, Szwedzinski’s work questions the institutional forces driving erasure, legacy, and identity in Judaism.
In order to explore Judaism as an institution, Szwedzinski simultaneously reveals, enacts, and subverts systems operating within its structure. Through her work, she essentially becomes a force that determines what will be remembered and what will be forgotten in ways that mimic history’s discursive remembrance. In She Calls Herself The Referee of Love (2018), Szwedzinski performs the Klemzer Step, a traditional Jewish dance. A scroll of paper records each movement as footprints scatter across the page, either opaque and blackened or translucent and soft. At a distance, the scroll is dynamic and bold; upon closer inspection, handwritten text peeks through the margins. The audience can read a transcribed conversation between the artist and her grandmother. They speak on religion, family, and experience. While intimate and revealing, large portions of the text are illegible, blacked out by footprints in an additive subtraction similar to the text-based works by Idris Khan or Glenn Ligon.
She Calls Herself The Referee of Love may seem unplanned in its fruition but it is an aggregate of conscious, authorial decisions made throughout the process. In addition to physical erasure, the artist discloses that she excluded side chats from the first iteration of the conversation. She writes by hand, possibly missing details by mistake or on purpose. Before the audience may interpret the work, it has already been touched, existed in different forms, transformed altogether—not unlike how word is dictated at the collective level. The inked steps serve as physical evidence of this manipulation, of the artist’s hand—or foot, rather—in archiving narrative. The work is then presented to an audience who selects and disregards information using their own perceptive filters. Here, the information is altered and dissipated in an endless cycle of change, like a game of telephone. Contemporary art historian Wu Hung theorized that an artwork has a lifespan. It is born in the artist’s studio, grows there, and ages each time it is seen.1 Szwedzinski’s artwork is a living entity, but so too is the passage of history. What, then, does it mean to determine history, to be privileged by it, or to be the ones it erases?
Women have been largely invisible in many arenas throughout historical discourse. Szwedzinski’s work investigates Rabbinic Judaism as one of these problematic grounds, exposing its flaws while also creating space for inclusion. A particularly antiquated piece of literature is the Talmudic Tractate Sotah, or The Ordeal of Bitter Water. Sotah refers to a woman whose husband believes her guilty of adultery.2 Across multiple volumes, the tractate labors to outline what the husband and Rabbi are to do with this woman.3 A sotah is subjected to a ritualized trial by the Temple where she may be stripped and humiliated in front of a public audience.4 In her sculptural installation Mutualism (2019), Szwedzinski grapples with themes of gender, matrilineage, and legacy. She deconstructs her grandmother’s chair by replacing one of the front legs with the Tractate Sotah, stacked one atop the other with their spines facing the viewer. One comes to believe that this chair has been passed down generationally. Still, Szwedzinski defaces it. Appropriating and dismantling a woman-owned, historical object points not only to the ways in which Rabbinic tradition perpetuates misogynistic legacy, but also to how institutions value and archive “women’s craft” objects compared to “men’s art” objects. Szwedzinski performs the hierarchical ways in which institutions frame information as “Truth” in place of them acknowledging the implicit biases upon which they were founded. Replacing the leg with degrading and sexist books aggravates the chair’s injury. Yet, the chair stands nonetheless and it only needs three legs to go on standing, with or without the Tractate Sotah beneath. Despite all attempts at erasure, defacement, and control, woman’s presence continues sturdily, inserting herself into the realm of visibility. This work navigates the age-old struggle between past and present: how to be a feminist today while bisecting the overarching religious practice and family ancestry from yesterday’s misogynistic traditions. Szwedzinski achieves an elusive balance between critique and celebration.
Similarly, Aleph Bet (2018) explores women’s exclusion from important Jewish traditions. In Rabbinic Judaism, as boys age, teachers and parents will drip honey over the Hebrew Alphabet during their early education.5 According to tradition, the boy then licks the honey in hopes that he will associate learning with sweetness and pleasure.6 While girls’ early learning was not forbidden, it was not prioritized or spotlighted in this way. Lack of ancestral and generational participation in traditions surrounding language left very little for women to pass down accounting for their experiences with Judaism. Women’s subjectives are rendered partially, if not totally, invisible. In response, Szwedzinski creates her own counter-tradition whereby glass, Hebrew characters from the alphabet, dripping with honey display openly to everyone in the gallery space. Szwedzinski plans to distribute sugar glass characters to visitors at her MFA Thesis reception as a way to democratize the sweetness of knowledge. She recognizes the power that language can hold, how this power has fallen into the hands of a certain few, and how those certain few have narrated many legacy scriptures, rituals, and practices. Szwedzinski yet again enacts processes of history by creating and distributing a legacy of her own, one where there is no exclusion or hierarchy.
What is special about this body of work is its ability to be specific to the artist’s life yet so recognizable in our own, the way it both performs and undermines the destructive ways of history, and in doing so, creates space for progress and celebration. Szwedzinski’s work is not an attack on Judaism. Rather, it is a celebration of this identity, a look into how we are continuously renegotiating our past with terms we use today. At the same time, her work reveals the ways history and those privileged with its narration can alter discourse. Swedzinski tackles the balance of inherited legacy, past, present, and how we proceed with these findings in the future. These works among others will appear at Szwedzinski’s MFA Thesis exhibition. After graduation, she plans to continue exploring legacy and identity. She is interested in how these themes manifest in individuals within the context of contemporary identity and history politics.
KCJ Szwedzinski’s MFA Thesis Exhibition will be on view Friday, March 29th through Thursday, April 4th at the gallery located in Hite Art Institute’s MFA Studios. The opening reception will be 6:00-9:00pm on Friday.
Ruckus would like to credit and thank KCJ Szwedzinski for allowing access to the research and source material pertaining to Jewish history and practices used in this review. Throughout her MFA career, Szwedzinski has performed extensive research on the topics discussed above.
- Wu Hung, and David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art. 1999. Transience : Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art The University of Chicago
- Rosen-Zvi, Ishay. "Sotah." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 25, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sotah>.
- Prov. 24:13-14a
- “An Interview with KCJ Szwedzinski." Personal interview. 18 Mar. 2019.
- The Hebrew Bible. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
- KCJ Szwedzinski
Install, courtesy of Ruckus.
Mutualism (2019). Heirloom chair, Tractate Sotah. Courtesy of Ruckus.
She Called Herself The Referee of Love (2018). Blown glass, wood, ink on Stonehenge paper. Courtesy of the artist.
She Called Herself The Referee of Love (2018), detail. Courtesy of the artist.
Aleph Bet (2018). Kiln formed glass, honey. Courtesy of the artist.
Aleph Bet (2018). Detail, courtesy of the artist.