Everyone has seen an eye chart at some point (if not all the letters on it). It's one of the most recognizable diagnostic tools. The chart's purpose is simple. It measures the strength of one's vision on a scale from 20/200—the big letters at the top of the chart—to 20/10—the little type at the bottom. New York–based artist R. Luke DuBois has adapted the ubiquitous chart for a novel purpose in his new show Hindsight Is Always 20/20, which opened at the Weisman this weekend.
DuBois substitutes words culled from State of the Union addresses from forty-one presidents and arranges them top to bottom by frequency, omitting the most common words (“a,” “of,” “the,” etc.) At the top, a single word followed by smaller words, first two, then four, then whole strings of them.
Hindsight Is Always 20/20 offers up layers of meaning and interpretation. On the one hand, the exhibition acts as a modern window into American history, and points us toward the concerns of each era. Buchanan's "Slavery" next to Lincoln's "Emancipation," offers a singular example. On the other hand, it asks a series of intellectual and aesthetic questions about the arrangement and resulting meaning of such information. DuBois describes himself first and foremost as a composer who happens to work in a variety of media, and those familiar with the information design guru Edward Tufte will see a definite affinity here.
The exhibition raises questions, but it also offers simple pleasures. The bold words topping each chart are like the introduction to a brain teaser, drawing you in and making you want to try to piece together meaning. Some are obtuse. Why on earth would Ulysses S. Grant use the word “Procedure” so regularly in his State of the Union? Or McKinley, “Puerto”? Others draw you in with their ominous tone. Truman’s “Soviet” and Hoover’s “Unemployment” come to mind. Or come packed with ironic humor. Nixon’s top word: “Truly.” Still others strike as possibly prophetic. Bill Clinton’s chart starts with “21st” followed by “Got Lost.”
Dig deeper and you’ll find other amusing and telling juxtapositions, too. On one line toward the bottom of the chart for Jimmy Carter, the words "abuse I've endured" meld into a rather loaded phrase. In the chart for Lyndon Johnson’s speech, the very contemporary phrase, "beauty police," pops up.
Perhaps the most striking juxtaposition of all though is between the chart for George Washington and the chart for George W. Bush. “We go from ‘gentlemen’ to ‘terror,’” says DuBois. “Had George Washington lost the election 250 years ago, he would have been hanged for treason to the British crown, and gone down in history as a terrorist—yet his number one word is ‘gentlemen.’ Now we have a president with the background of a gentleman—he is a Yale graduate—but he’s fear-mongering, trying to make us scared.”
Hindsight is always 20/20 runs through January 4 at the Weisman Art Museum.