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Exploring Celebration Park with Kerstin Winking

Perusing petroglyphs to find connections between contemporary and 'primitive' art

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Just south of the green cornfields between Kuna and Caldwell is a prairie of stubby shrubs, parched earth and volcanic rocks that rolls like ocean swells to the banks of the Snake River. Over the edge of the Snake River Canyon is Celebration Park, where thousands of massive, polished stones lay between the angular basalt of the canyon and the water's edge.

Painstakingly etched on many of these stones are some 5,000 petroglyphs depicting people, animals, symbols, astronomical tools and other designs anthropologists still struggle to interpret. Before it was Celebration Park, the field was a Native American religious site where people would starve and dehydrate themselves to experience hallucinations as part of their vision quests. It was during these quests that they often chipped and chiseled signs and symbols into the smooth rocks nearby.

For Kerstin Winking, Celebration Park was a must-see destination. A curator at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where she specializes in parallels between contemporary and ancient art found around the world, Winking came to experience a place where what mattered to some of Southern Idaho's earliest inhabitants is literally etched in stone.

Her visit to Boise was at the behest of Ming Studios, and exploring the park was a chance for Winking to draw connections between contemporary artists and those long ago people whose work inspired them to retool millennia-old aesthetics for an array of personal, artistic and political purposes.

"I'm really interested in contemporary art, so I'm always excited when I see these things in their work," Winking said.

Winking and a small group made the pilgrimage to Celebration Park early on a Saturday morning. By 10:30 a.m., the group was meandering along the pathways between "gravels" (the technical term for the stones) and examining the petroglyphs with the help of a tour guide. Amid a grove of gravels, the guide distinguished between three different kinds of petroglyphs found in the park: linear, representational and abstract. Linear glyphs tend to be symbolic and appear as rough combs, fences and squiggly lines. Representational etchings depict real-world objects like people and animals. But many of the petroglyphs in the park are abstract, leading to widespread disagreement between anthropologists as to their meaning and use.

The temptation to interpret the petroglyphs is as strong for visitors to the park as it is for archaeologists. Almost immediately, the tour group began to come up with its own explanations for the designs on the rocks, some of which date back as far as 10,000 years.

"Based on your own culture and the evidence in front of you, people make up their own stories," said tour guide Deb Ellis.

Among them are figures that look like alien heads, a rare "X-ray" design (one of the few north of the equator) depicting a vivisected snake, what appears to be a three-legged squid and hundreds of designs that invite endless interpretation. An astronomical chart is aligned with true north to within six-tenths of a degree. Then there's the so-called Anomaly, which comprises 19 vertical hashes surrounding the crest of a gravel--one of the only petroglyphs in the park that can be seen from 360 degrees.

On the ride back to Boise, Winking talked about the universality of many of the themes she saw in Celebration Park's petroglyphs. Among her favorites were the three-legged octopus and a cracked stone in the shape of a chair, covered in markings suggesting fertility.

"It reminded me of an origin story and how ancient cultures have these things. It's a theme: All great books connect back to them," she said.

While many native peoples used the arts to represent their spirituality and the tensions of the material worlds in which they lived, Winking said contemporary artists often crib their aesthetic to represent more abstract themes.

"The artists also have interpretations [of native artworks]. I think artists use the primitive to comment on and critique modern society--you could say capitalist society," she said.

Use of the word "primitive" in relation to native or ancient art is controversial. For many, the term implies the cultural superiority of the interpreter--as if primitive arts are in some way simplistic or less developed than contemporary art--and critical discussion of artworks is hampered or even invalidated when it's used. Far from rehabilitating the term was the Museum of Modern Art's 1984 exhibition, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, which was criticized for mishandling the topic. Its mistakes--e.g. insensitive definition of primitivism, mislabeling works and failure to verify if pieces on display had been acquired ethically--are just a few of the pitfalls Winking said she hopes to avoid in her own work at the Stedelijk Museum, tentatively titled The Primitive in Us.

In a presentation she delivered July 24 at Ming Studios, Winking described her own interest in the intersection of the contemporary and the so-called primitive as a fascination with how the representational, ceremonial and tribal aspects of native artworks inform contemporary artists. She cited the work of artists like Richard Long and Kerry James Marshall, and anthropologists James Clifford and Stanley Diamond as a guiding influences. Winking's view is that contemporary art is an extension of an artistic heritage dating back tens of thousands of years, and attempts to separate the two are misguided.

"The primitive is inextricably linked to civilization. Civilization tries to subvert the primitive, but it fails," Winking said.

Her presentation, for all its rounded edges, was still controversial. Some in the audience noted that modern art's fascination with ancient or native works has resulted in the theft, destruction and cultural appropriation of thousands of pieces. Others took offense at Winking's terminology.

She noted that though it may be impossible to fully right the wrongs of colonialism, the conversation about contemporary art's connection with the past is too productive to abandon. When one audience member said she "had a real problem with the word 'primitive,'" worrying that its use is politically incorrect, Winking's response was curt.

"So, you can have this problem," Winking said.