Review of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return
Meow Wolf is an artist collective that has been part of Santa Fe’s local art scene for over ten years. The House of Eternal Return is their first permanent exhibit. It opened in March 2016 in a unique location, the past site of a bowling alley, and is quite extensive, with over 20,000sqft. The House of Eternal Return is an interactive immersive collaborative art exhibit, with a loose narrative and background story, that plays on imagination and unique environments. In their own words, “Our work is a combination of jungle gym, haunted house, children’s museum, and immersive art exhibit” (from meowwolf.com). It not only features permanent individual “rooms” of exhibition, but there is a performance aspect as well, which take place either in the dedicated performance art space, or include the entirety of the exhibition, such as the “House of Halloween” performance scheduled for October 2016.
The House of Eternal Return took over two years to construct and is the creation of over 100 local artists, not to mention engineers, computer scientists, builders, etc. Almost every imaginable material and medium has been used, from yarn to RVs. Many of the larger exhibits (which boast no one individual creator) were made with sKratch, Instamorph, and medium-density fiberboard (according to an article on arstechnica.com by Newitz). The exhibit is a follow-up to The Due Return, a temporary exhibit of an interactive space-pirate ship that was housed at the CCA in Santa Fe, NM, although satellites of the exhibit could be found elsewhere.
Visually, the striking thing about the House of Eternal Return is the unusual utilization of three-dimensional space, and the prevalence of light art. While the size of the exhibit and the individual eccentricity of the rooms makes a common thread hard to find, there is a certain psychedelic aspect that runs throughout. This has been highlighted recently by the introduction of special glasses (of the kind that are usually found at a 3-D movie) that add a new layer of experience when viewing the lights in the exhibit. There is heavy use of black lights, fog machines, luminescent color palettes, black and white “funky” exhibits that play with hallucinogenic composition, and of course the glow-in-the-dark creatures and plants that have been molded from Instamorph and illuminate the collaborative spaces, such as the cave with its dinosaurs and the mushrooms in the fairy garden.
The emphasis at the House of Eternal Return is not to have a typical gallery experience, where one views the individual artworks on a wall or arranged and lit professionally in the space. Rather, the experience is the point, and it is meant to be transformational. Each room and passageway is complete, and transports you out of this world. From floor to ceiling the artwork encompasses the viewer. Each individual space is fantastical, trippy, horrific, or even calming. But they all work together to play on emotion, kidnapping the viewer and taking them far, far away.
Because of the shear vastness of the exhibit, it would be difficult to analyze along strictly formalist lines. Rather, I would like to make the case that The House of Eternal Return is a post-modern art statement, one where the traditional boundaries between individual artists v. community and single art piece v. gallery have become blurred. My thesis is that one piece of the House could not exist without the whole, and in fact becomes meaningless when taken from this context. The House of Eternal Return is not a normal gallery, and does not host ordinary art works.
Meow Wolf has not completely broken with the traditional exhibit form, of course. But many of their influences seem to be drawn from the 60’s, both stylistically and philosophically. The DIY artists from that time, such as Arte Povera, Alan Kaprow and others, often experimented with communal artworks, art that didn’t seem like art, and art that couldn’t be quantified or even recorded. The emphasis then was on the experiential, something which is often lacking in the world of fine art today.
That being said, the range of influences present in the House of Eternal Return are staggering. There is yarn art, sculpture, light art, a treehouse, a laser harp, and so much more. Various cultural influences are clear, and sometimes not so clear. There is Arabic written on one wall, and a passageway that mimics an Asian street with shop signs written in an alien language. There are miniature worlds in the walls, plants growing in glass, and a cartoon world inhabited by demon women. We have pop art, New Mexican art, traditional women’s crafts, anime, temples to false Gods, and even a modern take on cabinets of curiosity. Meow Wolf is a backlash against minimalism, creating instead an exhibit overflowing with material.
Artistic collaboration is a hallmark of post-modern art, because the Renaissance worship of the single artist as creator falls to the elevation of community and community-works. Meow Wolf is a wonderful example of this, for the House does not put emphasis on the individual artist. The exhibit would not have been possible without a multitude of different artists doing radically different things, but in the end, their individual art pieces blend together to create something larger. While this has been done before, the House of Eternal Return is impressive because the individuation still shines through, without taking away from the piece as a whole.
Another way in which Meow Wolf earns its credentials as a post-modern artist collective is through its emphasis on community outreach. Their space does not operate simply as a museum does, offering classes and walkthroughs. Their maker space went up at the same time as the House of Eternal Return, and they immediately began a massive outreach towards their community. This can be seen in a variety of ways, taking into account such things as their collaboration with local restaurants and food trucks. The mission statement of Meow Wolf is to better their community. It is not separate from their artist statement. This is apparent in the fact that the House of Eternal Return provides a place for children and teenagers in a town with a paucity of spaces and activities for those age groups.
Personally, I think that the House of Eternal Return are phenomenal. Many people, myself included, say that they have never seen anything quite like it. When I first entered the exhibit, I experienced an “art high.” I was immediately overwhelmed, shocked, and elated. I’ve been back 10 times, with plans to go again. I believe that Meow Wolf is doing great things for my community. I also feel that they have done something truly unique- a fantastical art space unlike anything else, with a mix of new and old practices. But perhaps my favorite part is the re-imaging of the traditional gallery space and experience. It doesn’t always have to be paintings hung on a wall and viewed with a glass of sparkling champagne in hand, Meow Wolf has proved that. Art can be collaborative, immersive, wild and free. Art can be glowing, musical mushrooms.
Photographs from Meow Wolf’s Facebook Page.
Check out their website for tickets and more.