Ean White: The Future Farmers of America
The Artists Foundation Gallery, 516 Second St., Boston

There is a curious mixture of apprehension and assuredness upon encountering an artist’s installation. That initial apprehension towards the non-traditional aspects of the work (unfamiliar, yet intriguing) gets counteracted by the confidence that we’ll figure out what the artist intended—a sort of deciphering of the art work. Deciphering art work has become fairly common in contemporary art, ever since the emergence of Conceptualism in the mid-1960s, even before, art dared interpretation. In fact, some exhibitions contain demanding works we want to understand, but often don’t. And that’s good. Because as esoteric as a work of art may be we still respond to it on an intuitive, emotional and visual level.

At the entrance to The Future Farmers of America installation, Ean White prepares us for this visual deciphering. Identified as a “site specific sound installation.” White first presents the curious viewer with an enigmatic statement: “A decision is at hand. A choice to be made. Perhaps an exercise of will. Is it possible?” Re-reading the statement augments its ambiguity while the installation only hints at clarification.

White has constructed an approximately two foot wide by ten foot long enclosed passageway lined with dark gray fabric. At the end of the narrow low-lit corridor, an altar-like pedestal balances a slender vertical object, calling up memories of a ritualistic monolith; the confined structure overemphasizes its importance. As we search for references, the empty silence is simultaneously interrupted by uniform, then abstractly rhythmic clicking. The persistent sound lures us towards the monolith, but with each step on the gravel path we are distracted by very loud crushing and crunching footsteps. The amplified sounds of entering and exiting overcome the clicking.

The monolith reveals itself as an acoustical ant-farm housing worker ants in continuous motion. Are these ants the “future farmers?” Is their clicking a language, work movements or the basic sounds of survival? Survival does appear to be the ants primary function as they ceaselessly build labyrinthine tunnels in an instinctual attempt to escape from the artificial environment—but some of them don’t make it. In fact, with an average life span of four to seven years [sic], worker ants, many of the [sic] buried in White’s installation probably died from boredom, entrapment or overwork, unceasingly moving perlite granules from one area to another, changing the configuration of these functionless tunnels—a sort of dying for art.

Ean White uses the installation as a vehicle for serious thought by suggesting the dichotomy of existentialism (natural/artifical or active/passive) in an art context. Within the installation White joins together his expertise in sound amplification with his interest in “epistemological investigation.” That is, White states the work is about “making decisions” and the “limits of free will.” Yet, he disguises this in an alluring sound and visual presentation. But that may not be enough. By not providing the viewer with sufficient information, White’s initially enticing installation leaves us looking for more. A that may be precisely his intention. That’s when the narrative and visual ambiguity becomes “a choice to be made.” Like all good existential arguments, we therefore must decide to get involved with the creative process—or not.

Ean White’s installation captures the viewer, as he has captured the ants, requiring both to work—one at digging tunnels, the other at deciphering art. And like ants entering and exiting the installation, we are participant-observers, involved in the process of manufacturing art.

–Grace Consoli, artsMEDIA, September 1997

Photo Caption: Ean White, detail of The Future Farmers of America, installation shot, 1997