What would it feel like to fall down into the rabbit hole with Alice, step into the Vortex with The Doctor, jump through a portal to another dimension like those created by Aperture Science Enrichment Center, experience the eerie sensation of entering The Twilight Zone, and weave through a Labyrinth world in search of goblins? Spend a day at the Santa Fe immersive art experience, Meow Wolf, and you’ll find out.
I first heard of Meow Wolf in 2011, when we visited a clever installation called “Glitteropolis” at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. It was a glimpse at what archaeologist from distant future might discover, although not necessarily on this planet. It was one of a few amazing projects created by the Santa Fe-based art collective that was already growing like a small universe of controlled madness.
Thanks to the collective imagination and artistic prowess of several artists, as well as the generous donation of a vacant bowling alley from Game of Thrones author and Santa Fe resident, George R.R. Martin, Meow Wolf now has a permanent way to let their distinctive form of weirdness gloriously infect people of all age ages year round: The House of Eternal Return.
We recently spent a few hours at this “House,” and it was one of the best creative experiences we’ve had as a family in a long time.
It’s a Multiverse
There is one thing visitors to Meow Wolf need to prepare for, and that is to have their minds working in overdrive. The 20,000 sq. ft. House of Eternal Return is billed as a “new form of non-linear storytelling.”
However, everything in this multiverse leads back to this house, hence the “eternal return” concept. They have made no secret the refrigerator is a portal, but there are at least four other hidden portals in the house, some easy to get through and others that require climbing, shimmying through dark, foggy spaces, or sliding down tubes. I wanted to see as much as I could, so I had to overcome my claustrophobia a bit to do so. It was worth it.
Once out of the house, the worlds change around every corner. There are even spaces reminiscent of other past Meow Wolf “universes” of the past. I recognized a few elements from “Glitteropolis,” as well as projects like “Omega Mart” and “The Due Return.”
This summer was especially fun, as “visitors” from other worlds were roaming the ground in neon colored garb, dancing with light-up props, or hiding in various corners telling fortunes or performing esoteric music as part of their “Summer in the Multiverse” days.
Everyone in our family had their favorite spaces: the “animated” room, the frenzied black-and-white mural covered walls (drawn by a great artist named Nico Salazar), an alien market space, enchanted (or possibly haunted) forests, a futuristic ice station inhabited by a wonderful beast, intergalactic travel portals, and one of the best neon-covered performance spaces I’ve ever seen, Fancy Town. Yes, Meow Wolf hosts live music events!
You have to work hard not to find something you like in these worlds.
It’s a Mystery
Meow Wolf can be fully enjoyed as just a journey through time and space, but there is a full-blown, multi-layered, remarkably complicated mystery to be solved. This is what is obvious: the entire house disappeared from Mendocino, California and emerged at its current site in Northern New Mexico. It was the home of the Selig family, whose otherworldly abilities have gotten out of control, causing a tragic dimensional accident. The family, including a young son, Lex, has disappeared. We soon learn “Master” Lucius Selig had become a cult leader, offering his most loyal (and wealthy) followers a way to vacation in various dimensions.
There are newspapers, pamphlets, and business cards to peruse (replicas can be purchased in the gift shop for those who want to read more at their leisure). There are letters pinned around the house from Lex’s twin sister, Morgan, and hints of the worlds beyond. Don’t worry about sitting and fiddling with the reading material. There are several lab-coated “spies” patrolling the grounds keeping tabs on visitors. They are also kind enough to keep the spaces tidy for the next visitors. The mystery all boils down to one simple question: where are these people, and what happened to them?
We spent some time trying to solve a few riddles, but visitors could easily spend hours just reading through all the material available, searching the home’s computer, and trying to break codes.
Our biggest revelation was returning to the twins’ room after exploring most of the other worlds, and we got a serious vibe Sarah’s room from Labyrinth. Spoiler: look at everything in that room, from the curtains to the patterns on the sheets to the books (which include some advanced scientific reading, as well as favorite tales like A Wrinkle In Time, and works by Lewis Carroll). The room is an Easter egg factory for those with a keen eye for detail. To be honest, all the rooms are, from the office to the bathroom. Look in the toilet, too.
We think we got a handle on some things, but certainly not everything. This is why Santa Fe area residents have an advantage. They can purchase a season pass and pop in over the year to spend more time discovering all the ins and outs of this mystery.
Don’t try to get too many spoilers from chat rooms, as it seems most visitors are intent on keeping the mystery a mystery to be discovered. Trust me, if you want all the answers, you can’t just Google the solution. I won’t give anything else away, but here are some fun things to think about if you visit:
- What is recurring Pliocene epoch mammal’s significance?
- Look at hint portals drawn in the wallpaper designs.
- Who is Nimsesku?
- If there are only two twins, who lives in the room adorned with posters of the faceless androgynous pop star, “Girl Boy”?
- What is Morgan’s special ability?
- Why is one of those bats different from the others?
- What items can be seen that pay homage to George R.R. Martin and to the installation’s former life as a bowling alley?
- Where did the term “Meow Wolf” come from?
The answers aren’t out there in the open, but don’t let that stop you from taking this wild ride.
Incidentally, there may or may not be a secret website, TheCharter.org, that may unlock a few clues. Be careful, though–the trees are watching. Remember, you didn’t hear this from me.
It’s Maker’s Dream… or Nightmare
Meow Wolf’s most impressive feature, by far, is the moment when you realize every detail of the space, every written word, every creature, every secret passageway, nook and cranny, and every new world was the product of someone’s imagination and skill.
Both upcycled and original art ranges from small individual items to full-blown installations, most of which beckon the visitor to touch, pick up, peek through, read, or listen. There are rules. Don’t run. Be respectful of the space and handle every thing gently, and keep you younglings at close range (it is easy to get lost). Yet, by all means, participate in the world. Press that button, turn that handle, sit on that odd little chair, and play that old-school arcade game.
There is so much to see, touch, hear, and immerse yourself in, it is at times overwhelming trying to keep up with everything, and it is a maker’s celebration. The installations make use of animators, sculptors, illustrators and painters, fabric artists, composers and actors, fiction writers, filmmakers, coders, metal workers, architects and builders, and any other form or performing and visual artist you can conjure. The people working at the desk will tell you to “hold onto your mind,” and for good reason; it could explode thinking about everything that went into this undertaking.
They have a small taproom in the lobby to get your mind back in order, as well as recently added food trucks outside that hold their own among Santa Fe’s famous foodie appeal.
Included in the Meow Wolf Complex, right next to the House of Eternal Return, is the learning area of Meow Wolf’s educational outreach, Chimera, for classes, camps, and workshops, allowing kids and teens to learn from some of the artists involved in their installations.
Some of the creations were amazing feats, while others were incredibly simple. For example, try these three elements of objects, found in larger scale in the installation, at home:
Aquarium Forest: Find some interesting-shaped twigs and small rocks. Use acrylic craft paint to make them different fluorescent colors. Once dry, place them in sand or gravel-filled glass jar or vase. If the container is shallow, secure them with a glue gun. Add a little plastic fish, if you like.
Extra Terrestrial Treats: Use an empty cereal or snack box as a canvas, and paint an alien brand of cereal or other product over it. You can create an entirely original design, or have fun with the logo already pictured on the box.
Perler Bead Pixel Art: Print out an image of an old-school pixelated image from games (like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, or Galaga), and use them as a Perler bead pattern.
Bonus points if you can find all these in the installation.
Each of these simple ideas is used in ways to bring together a world that is constantly on the verge of expanding, shifting, and exploding (or imploding in some cases) into a horrible, beautiful chaos.
If I had wanted to explain the experience of Meow Wolf to someone in just a few words, I would use some words from the opening stanza of one of my favorite poems, Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy, which kept bouncing around in my head during my visit:
“We are the music makers; And we are the dreamers of dreams…World-losers and world-forsakers, On whom the pale moon gleams.”
That, my fellow dreamers, is Meow Wolf in a nutshell… if it is, indeed, really a nutshell.
Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return is open every day except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. Single day tickets and annual passes are available in advance at MeowWolf.com.