By Madeleine Watkins
Beneath endless blue skies and relentless New Mexican sun, custodial figures stand guard. The large Red Robot, Timberwolf, and a long-legged spider dominate the parking lot, guarding one of the most renowned artistic exhibits in the western United States.
Somehow, in an old Victorian house moved from California, an experiment has gone horribly wrong. Wormholes cling to every corner of the house, opening portals to different dimensions. The Selig family has mysteriously disappeared following the assumed death of their young son, and exploration of the notes and cryptic messages left in their wake allude to answers that come from something out of science fiction. Welcome to the House of Eternal Return.
Conceived in 2008, Meow Wolf, an immersive artistic production company, ”is composed of nearly 200 artists across all disciplines including architecture, sculpture, painting, photography and video production, virtual and augmented reality, music and audio engineering, narrative writing, costuming and performance, and more. Basically everything.” With the help of Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, the company launched their new initiative: a creative endeavor that would transform their home base of Santa Fe, New Mexico and “dissolve the nature of time and space.”
The House of Eternal Return is a permanent installation at 1352 Rufina Circle in Santa Fe, “The City Different.” A walk-through world constructed inside a gutted and reconfigured bowling alley, this playground of story and mystery follows the tale of the fictional Selig family, who supposedly disappeared from their California home somewhere into the multiverse through the wormhole dimensions that surround the house.
In an interview, Meow Wolf’s Marketing Director John Feins stated that their initiative was to “tell a story in an immersive, interactive and maximalist way” that combined video game, narrative writing, and surrealist art forms. Within the installation, visitors choose their own path through hidden passages, portals, and winding steps to become fully immersed in the story of the Selig family and the clues they left behind. The story of the house resolves around this fictional family and the eerie documents and clues that lie in their home. Ordinary household items become transformed as curious messages appear on the computer when you try to access any of their documents, a fireplace that opens into a bright glacial cave when you crawl through it, or a second floor hallway that opens into a time-warped forest.
“By going inside, putting your hands on the items and objects and places of the story, engaging all your senses and going into a world,” visitors truly inhabit this novel, non-linear form of storytelling.
After my first visit, a three-hour excursion, I was so determined to figure this place out that I returned three days later to see if I could somehow wrap my head around the full story of the House. Though I had climbed through the wormholes and pulled myself up into different passages of the exhibit, I discovered more than five new rooms or installations that I had not seen the first time. That I was amazed would be an understatement.
Lesley Dyer, an advertising executive producer, painter, and local Santa Fe resident, says it is the “scope of each artist’s expression” and the “variety of experiences” that make Meow Wolf so alluring: “I have a desire to go back again and again to see what new things they have come up with to tantalize the senses!”
In addition to providing the riveting experience of a Sherlockian mystery with the science fiction, dimension-bending abilities of an augmented reality, Meow Wolf also positively impacts the city. Dyer says, “young people leave Santa Fe because their are so few work opportunities.” For young or budding artists of every caliber, there are simply not enough “galleries or venues to show their work.” Meow Wolf employs hundreds of people from all backgrounds and industries. This is seen most spectacularly in the varying arrays of artists they host for both single gigs and longer performances—musicians, dancers, contortionists, body painters, actors, and writers. The story and world of the House of Eternal Returns is represented all throughout the facility, and every facet of those artists’ work is showcased in brilliant detail.
Meow Wolf also serves as a home to Chimera, an arts education program for children. Dyer says that the company allows “kids, especially those who may never see college or leave the city, an opportunity to see what is possible when you have imagination.” Feins states that although Santa Fe is “one of the world’s most unique, creative, inspiring, multicultural, tolerant, friendly, and different places with an exquisite tradition of outside, rebellious, and visionary artistry and craft,” there is a acute lack of jobs or youth culture. The House of Eternal Return brought enticement for families and has put the city into the international spotlight, essential for a region dependent on tourism and travel. Feins says that Meow Wolf “redefines the possibilities for youth culture” in a hitherto retirement town that feels a pressing need to “grow young.” On this front, the company has given back to schools, nonprofits, and other cultural forces in the community. He says that it has “inspired young people to use their imagination and believe in their dreams, that anything is possible with vision, elbow grease, and love.”
Meow Wolf is an experience like no other. It is like playing a video game of your favorite mystery novel, starring in your very own detective show, being overwhelmed and dazzled through all senses. A true gem resting in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, Meow Wolf is a necessary trip for anyone who relishes in superior storytelling and the beauties of art.