Maybe you remember what happened when the Pevensie children from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe returned to the magical land of Narnia in Prince Caspian, the second book in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. Although only a year had passed in their native England, the children found that 1,300 years had passed in Narnia. The castle they remembered was in ruins, a usurper sat on the throne, and all the talking beasts were driven underground by an invading force of ruthless men. The message? Even a fantasyland can go to seed if it is left untended.
With that in mind, the featured exhibition at the Meow Wolf Art Complex — House of Eternal Return — temporarily closed earlier this year for upgrades. Two years of howling, handsy children, and adults can leave as much wear and tear on a place as an army of Telmarines. The shantytown surrounding the performance stage got a fresh coat of Day-Glo paint, the handful of out-of-order classic arcade games got fixed, and a new retro-science-fiction themed café and bar called Float now offers visitors Cajun cuisine from Trinity Kitchen and an expanded cocktail menu. Science fiction, alligator po’boys, and fried green tomatoes. It’s a mash-up to go with the rest of Meow Wolf’s confluence of offbeat ideas, and so it seems fitting.
The short hiatus brought more than just upgrades to the exhibit. There are several new components. In fact, part of Float has been recently taken over by a new installation called King’s Mouth designed by Wayne Coyne, the frontman for the Flaming Lips. The installation is a massive metal head, inside of which you can kick back and take in an LED display and soundscape. Several other newly commissioned installations are also part of the revamped experience.
The house component of the main exhibit, House of Eternal Return, is an axis, a starting point from which you move outward into environments inspired by alien worlds that seem partly like fairylands and partly like the mall in a futuristic city. The home is a full-scale Victorian with interiors that lead you to unexpected places. Portals accessed from major appliances — a refrigerator, a laundry dryer — open onto a steampunk microcosmos. You are enticed into enchanted forests and subterranean caverns. The house itself lies at the crossroads of different dimensions that expand outward from its heart. And most of these worlds lead back, eventually, to the main house. You can weave in and out of it as though you’re dreaming fitfully in your nice warm bed.
Among the new features is yet another portal than can be accessed, in secret-passage-fashion, from a bookcase in the Victorian house. My own house, for comparison’s sake, has nothing that can compete — but who doesn’t envy such contraptions when we see them in the movies? If I tried to squeeze behind my own bookcase, I’d just get a face full of cobwebs. My childlike sense of discovery, which is one of Meow Wolf’s hooks, would be limited to finding some long-lost cat toys and maybe a few dead moths behind my shelf. The portal inside my own refrigerator, unlike theirs, is more of a black hole, leading to a long-term exhibit I call “Condiment City.” You might not feel like you’ve willingly gone down the rabbit hole in my fridge, but at least I can offer you seven different kinds of hot sauce and your choice of pickled jalapeños: whole or sliced. For your money and sense of fantasy, Meow Wolf is the better bet.
Because there are so many aspects to the exhibition and so much to see, only those with an intimate familiarity with House of Eternal Return would catch all the changes, except for the larger installations. “It’s such a rich, dense space that a lot of the newer details — folks might not notice,” Meow Wolf marketing director John Feins said. During a visit on a bustling Wednesday afternoon in late February, he introduced me to one of the exhibit’s latest installations, a wall of glowing boxes that, when touched, change colors. They were created by artist Betsy Braly. If you chance upon the correct sequence of etched light boxes, you receive a code that unlocks a safe, which hides a clue to the mystery of the central narrative that accompanies the main exhibit.
The story, which you probably can’t fathom unless you do your homework before you go, involves the fictional Selig family of Mendocino, whose Victorian manse somehow exists in two places at once: sunny California and Santa Fe. Their house is in situ at the former Silva Lanes bowling alley, the art complex building’s previous identity before the A Song of Ice and Fire series author George R.R. Martin bought the property and basically told Meow Wolf to go nuts. If you want, you can hunt for clues about the missing family, who have mysteriously vanished. You can sleuth as the star of your own detective movie. Or not. You can do whatever you want. There’s enough eye candy and wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimeyness going on everywhere you look to satisfy even the most die-hard Doctor Who fan, narrative or no narrative. Like Doctor Who’s TARDIS time machine, House of Eternal Return looks even bigger from the inside.
About that new bookcase portal: It leads, not to a hidden dungeon or secret lair (although that would be cool), but to something called the Timeworm, which despite its futuristic design is modeled on what’s probably a completely subjective interpretation of what a worm’s insides look like — a robot worm, at least. But the point, I imagine, is that you’ve entered into a liminal space designed to give the impression that you are moving through time, traveling farther afield than you’d expect when merely going from one room to the next. “The Timeworm — which is all one word — was part of the original plan. But we ran out of time, money, and everything when we opened in 2016,” Feins said. “The neat thing about these upgrades is the opportunity to realize visions that were part of the original plan.”
The classic video games in the arcade, which is called Wiggly’s Plasma Plex, are a cacophony of bleeps and electronic laser-fire. The arcade is coming into its own with a plan for an annual competition: Score Wars. “Meow Wolf was created out of the video game generation in a big way,” Feins said. “We have a great love of video games, retro and new. Score Wars is going to highlight a video game, and we’re bringing in the top record-holders in the world, and the top seven people who show us their scores. We’re going to fly them here to Santa Fe and they’re going to get to compete with the world-record-holders over several days for a $10,000 prize. There will also be an amateur-level tournament for a $15,000 prize.” The first Score Wars event was held March 29 through April 1; the game was the early ’80s classic, Galaga. “These dudes with the high scores — their scores are off the charts,” Feins said. “They live to do it.”
One new installation, designed by Los Angeles-based artist Scott Hove, is particularly dazzling in its detail. Using opposing mirrors to create a sense of the infinite, Cakeland is like being inside an inverted wedding cake — from which there’s no escape. “This was the bug room,” Feins said. “It was a rare occasion when we actually replaced something. We typically don’t do that, but we were so excited about Scott’s vision that we elected to replace the bug room. The interesting thing we’re dealing with as artists is making a permanent installation that’s a story. There’s a permanence to much of what’s here, in order to tell the story — and yet we don’t like to stand still. We want change. We want to have guest artists come in. So we’re working on how to be dynamic within a permanent space.”
The Meow Wolf experience, however, can feel like overload. They up the ante on the interactive and immersive art experience, the movement for which the art collective has become a sort of de facto helmsman. It is not, of course, a movement they can be credited with inventing. For instance, Sleep No More, the British theater company Punchdrunk’s immersive performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, staged on multiple floors of New York City’s McKittrick Hotel, predates House of Eternal Return by five years, though it evolved from a format first produced in England in 2003. House of Eternal Return has a similar portmanteau structure with soundscapes and interactivity. The Cakeland installation is situated next to what is known as the black-and-white room, an installation that’s derivative of the work of New York-based artist and filmmaker Mary Reid Kelley. SITE Santa Fe included a room full of props from Kelley’s films in their 2015 exhibit 20 Years/20 Shows: Spring. Meow Wolf’s room of white-painted domestic objects and furniture, outlined in black, would be right at home in Kelley’s universe — and that’s a problem, because the debt goes unacknowledged. Kelley’s installation was shown at SITE only a year before House of Eternal Return opened. The similarities seem too coincidental. Barring a familiarity with Reid’s work, though, most visitors probably wouldn’t notice the similarity.
Cakeland is a bit like House of Eternal Return itself: There’s something sweet, enticing, and delicious about it, but it never really satisfies. So many visual styles and diversions are vying for visibility inside the art complex. But they each offer, at best, only fleeting moments of intrigue and delight. As much as it is branded as an art experience, House of Eternal Return is really more about play, which is not exactly the same thing. It engages the senses and can capture the imagination, but don’t expect a transcendent, or even a cathartic experience. Instead, you tend to come out the exit a little more exhausted than when you went in.
The exhibit is, refreshingly and remarkably, free from the didacticism that drives a lot of contemporary art; the collective is committed to operating within a business model that is steadfastly democratic. They began as an art collective — a group of like-minded creatives — and they remain just so. You may be immersed, for the time you’re there, in pure escapism; but you are only transported for a brief while. It is certainly a place where you can vanish and easily while away some hours. It is not altogether different from visiting a theme park — except that, at Meow Wolf, you lose track of the theme.
The odes to fantasy, street, graffiti, and other lowbrow art forms — and there are many — are lovely, especially because these art forms rarely get their due. But at House of Eternal Return, it often feels like too many ideas and too many styles are crammed into too many small spaces — which is, perhaps, the consequence of working with several hundred contemporary artists and volunteers. Artists who wish to participate with semi-permanent and temporary installations have their proposed projects vetted, of course, in order to preserve some sense of cohesion and an alignment with Meow Wolf’s retro-futurist-steampunk-surrealist aesthetic. But it feels like visitors get merely a taste or sampling of many different conceptual ideas and environments. The irony is that, for such a large-scale exhibition, no one aspect has enough room to be fully realized. One feels hurried, maybe by the sheer volume of visitors and because there’s so much to see, to move quickly from one room to the next. The installation seems to cater to impulsiveness and hyperactivity; it’s as though it was specifically designed for those with attention-deficit disorder.
All that said, it takes an active team of artists and technicians to make sure everything stays in working order. The new Meow Wolf Creative Studios that was developed earlier this spring at 2600 Camino Entrada was in part to address upkeep at House of Eternal Return. Creative Studios serves as a central hub for Meow Wolf staff, whose offices were previously scattered in various locations across town. Along with administrative staff, the fabrication and sound teams — as well as narrative, film, and video production — are now streamlined into one central 52,000-square-foot building.
If House of Eternal Return can be regarded as something of a trial run for the yet-to-be-realized monumental projects that are planned for neighboring states, then perhaps they’ll take heed and consider more streamlined exhibitions with some consistency of style and, maybe this time, without the kitchen sink. ◀