Culture / Travel

Inside Meow Wolf — a Closer Look at the Immersive Art Wonderland Taking Over the World

With George R.R. Martin's Early Blessing, This Phenomenon Left the World of Museums Long Ago

BY Tarra Gaines // 07.26.19

SANTA FE, N.M. — Fifteen minutes from the traditional adobe architecture of downtown Santa Fe lies a star-lit portal into alternative dimensions housed in a whitewashed strip mall and guarded by a giant metal spider, a wolf and a flower-offering robot. Inside, there be art dragons, fluffy aliens, neon forests and science fiction mysteries all layered into an immersive art experience that is Meow Wolf’s The House of Eternal Return.

The immersive experience company merges the concepts of large-scale art installation that viewers enter and wander through with innovative ideas from immersive theater, but in this case theater that’s all set design, some story, but no live actors.

Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe art collective with the Dadaist name, seems ready to take over the world, remaking it into immersive art. Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin gave his fantasy blessing and investment support early on, when The House of Eternal Return launched in 2016. The arts and entertainment group continues to open more multimillion dollar permanent art exhibitions — with Las Vegas scheduled to open in December, Denver in 2021 and Washington, D.C in 2022.

The New York Times pondered if the group will become the Disney of immersive experience creators, while some art critics lamented the death of art when turned into an amusement park. So on a recent trip to Santa Fe, I just had to see the Meow Wolf phenomenon for myself with a visit to this House that welds art and entertainment into a kind of “artainment” experience.

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Take a rest or a selfie in the base of the massive tree trunk at Meow Wolf Santa Fe. (Photo by Kate Russell, Courtesy of Meow Wolf)

When I arrived at the renovated bowling alley, I was greeted by those giant parking lot sculptures and colorful painted bats on the outside of the quirky space that is Meow Wolf headquarters. Even on a Sunday mid-morning, a long line had already formed with both returning fans and novices awaiting the House to open. Once inside the venue, visitors find a cafe, bar, learning center and gift shop, but the actual House itself, a 20,000-square-foot immersive art installation is hidden deeper within the building.

The journey begins with a video on infinite loop of a shadowy government agent warning us we’re entering a contamination area. We can ignore or use the video as the first of many clues as to what this all means before going through a corridor into a larger space to discover the front of a Victorian-style home. Messages in the mailbox for Agent 35 gives us more warnings that the homeowners, the Selig family, have vanish, the house us under quarantine, and the agent’s assignment is now to discover what caused the “anomaly.”

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Before entering, I wiped my feet on the Beyond Here There Be Dragons doormat.

Meow Wolf’s Hidden Wonders

Once inside the house, visitors — and secret agents — are free to snoop and rummage through the layers of Selig family history found in papers, photos, children’s toys and artwork throughout the house. Even cursory glances at the family flotsam across the front rooms — an orange portrait of a faceless head, an aquarium filled with glowing coral but no fish, a worried note from a child about grandpa’s “machine” — lead to vague dread that something is wrong.

I felt that foreboding even before a fellow explorer opened the refrigerator, stepped in and disappeared.

The house is filled with secret, and occasionally blatant entrances, to other art spaces or, going with the story, other dimensions. One room leads to the next installation and each seems to lead into another world or alternative universe: pastel caves filled with alien mammoth, mushroom treehouses a mirrored infinity spa, those stunning neon forests, a manga graffiti office and lots of alien alleyways and bazaars.

At some point in the experience, visitors need to decide what role they are assuming in the journey. Was I an astronaut striding onto new planets, cartographer trying to map unknown worlds, detective attempting to deduce what happened to the Selig family and the mystery of how they opened doorways into higher dimensions? Or should I simply be a gawker and go with it? Documentarian/influencer is also another valid role to take because Meow Wolf could have only created The House of Eternal Return in and for the Instagram age.

The $29 ticket gives access for the day, but I only had about two hours in my schedule. I felt I needed another several hours just to fully explore the Eternal multiverse or at the very least to find an exit. I made it through the alternate dimension gateway in the fireplace and refrigerator but the dishwasher portal was apparently on the fritz. It must be hard to get speedy appliance repair when the service person is teleporting in from the Andromeda Galaxy.

For immersive art and theater lovers, and yes even amusement park fans, a Meow Wolf House call is a must when visiting Santa Fe, and soon Denver, Las Vegas and D.C. Serious art aficionados, however, might spend more energy and have more fun debating the “But is this really art?” question than the science fiction story woven into the experience.

So on that inter-dimensional art level, Meow Wolf has made certain there’s a room for even naysayers in their House.

When others see a home,
We see a Work of Art
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