Jen­nifer Goes to Things & Does Stuff

Jen­nifer Levin tears into the time-space con­tin­uum at Meow Wolf

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When you first en­ter the new per­ma­nent Meow Wolf in­stal­la­tion on the site of the old Silva Lanes bowl­ing al­ley on Ru­fina Cir­cle, which opened to the pub­lic on March 17, you are stand­ing out­side a Vic­to­rian house at dusk. Inside, the house seems lived in but re­cently aban­doned — the com­puter in the study is still on, with text on the screen. As you ex­plore the rooms of the house, time be­gins to feel un­real, as if you might have trav­eled into the past or the fu­ture, or to the Mars of Ray Brad­bury’s imag­i­na­tion. The mir­ror in the din­ing room re­flects peo­ple who are not stand­ing be­hind you. The bath­room f loor is buck­led like a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. The re­frig­er­a­tor opens into a glow­ing white por­tal that takes you, pos­si­bly, to Ber­muda. Af­ter that, you are in a labyrinth of doors and pas­sage­ways that lead to rooms tiny and large, quiet and loud, filled with bugs, mu­si­cal an­i­mal bones, neon, lasers, and old-timey car­toons. Ev­ery­where is some­thing to look at, from the gen­tly puls­ing col­or­ful bar­na­cles high up on a roof above a dance f loor that ap­pears to be straight out of an es­pe­cially sur­real 1980s mu­sic video, to the silent art films play­ing in ob­scure cor­ners, fea­tur­ing the same peo­ple who ap­pear in the pic­tures dec­o­rat­ing the walls of the house.

This de­scrip­tion barely touches the won­der that is Meow Wolf’s House of Eter­nal Re­turn — and I do not use the con­cept of “won­der” lightly. I am pretty well known for eschew­ing science-fic­tion and fan­tasy sto­ries. I of­ten say that I was born with­out the ca­pac­ity for will­ful sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief, but it’s more of a pre­dis­po­si­tion than a hard- and-fast rule. My ex­cep­tions tend to be for science-fic­tion firmly rooted on Earth, and if there’s a fam­ily that has been ex­per­i­ment­ing on one an­other in the name of science for gen­er­a­tions, then you’ve def­i­nitely got my in­ter­est. Throw in a few sets of twins, a sense of his­tory and mem­ory, and a cor­rup­tion of the time-space con­tin­uum, and my cyn­i­cism will be all but gone.

House of Eter­nal Re­turn hits my sweet spots, but that’s about as much of the nar­ra­tive as I’m go­ing to give away here. Un­der­stand­ing the story, which is dense but dis­cov­er­able upon re­peated vis­its, isn’t nec­es­sary to en­joy the ex­hibit. I cer­tainly wouldn’t have picked up on even this much had I not spo­ken at length to one of the mem­bers of the nar­ra­tive team who helped cre­ate the con­cept and de­velop the char­ac­ters. In fact, my best crit­i­cal ad­vice for any­one vis­it­ing Meow Wolf is to learn noth­ing ahead of time so that you can go in with no pre­con­cep­tions. Nu­mer­ous visi­tors at the open­ing, many of whom had come in from out of town, were at a loss for words when asked what they thought of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “Mind-blow­ing,” said al­most ev­ery­one.

To me, House of Eter­nal Re­turn is ev­ery book I half-re­mem­ber read­ing in child­hood that had dolls

liv­ing be­hind at­tic walls, time por­tals in el­e­va­tors and root cel­lars, and end­less sets of stair­cases rep­re­sent­ing chaos. It makes me won­der what the chil­dren at the open­ing will re­mem­ber of this in 10 or 20 years. All around me were shouts of, “Did you see that, Mom?” and “Dad! Let’s go over here!” Kids were more in­ter­ested in the choose-your-own-ad­ven­ture world they found af­ter crawl­ing through the fire­place than they were in the story of the fam­ily in the house. There were many re­quests for Mom and Dad to “hurry up,” mak­ing me think some par­ents will hire babysit­ters just so they can come back on their own to rum­mage through clos­ets, desk draw­ers, and kitchen cab­i­nets at a more leisurely pace.

If I had to pick a fa­vorite space in the ex­hibit, it would be the bath­room in the house — make sure you look inside the toi­let — or the in­te­rior of a camper tucked inside a furry cave sys­tem. Though dimly lit, it was bright enough for me to sit at a ta­ble and take notes. There were many spa­ces that were set up like tiny lounges, which I fore­see be­com­ing pop­u­lar spots for writ­ers who like to write in pub­lic but are tired of the café scene. A cou­ple who had driven from Al­bu­querque for the Amanda Palmer con­cert echoed these sen­ti­ments with a wish to see the art pro­duced by peo­ple in­spired by the ex­hibit. Two women from Den­ver, also there to see Palmer, com­pared House of Eter­nal Re­turn to be­ing in a dream and called it “the ul­ti­mate artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tion.” They told me they’d come with­out their spouses but planned to bring them back to Santa Fe soon just to come to Meow Wolf. Nei­ther had any idea what was go­ing on with the nar­ra­tive and they didn’t care; the cou­ple from Al­bu­querque said the same thing, as did a cou­ple from Texas, also there to see Palmer.

I en­joy Palmer’s mu­sic and had been look­ing for­ward to the sold-out con­cert, but I’m not a die-hard fan, as many there that night surely were. Santa Fe’s Jessie Deluxe opened with a fan­tas­tic loud and ex­u­ber­ant set. Af­ter a break, Palmer’s friend and fre­quent mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor, Ja­son We­b­ley, per­formed for half an hour. He’s a bit of a sto­ry­teller and his mu­sic, played on ac­cor­dion and gui­tar, has an earnest folksy throw­back qual­ity that won me over from my spot on the bal­cony above the per­for­mance space. Palmer joined him for a cou­ple of songs from their con­cept al­bum Eve­lyn Eve­lyn, about a set of con­joined twins, and then it was her turn to en­ter­tain the crowd.

Maybe die-hard fans would dis­agree, but the con­cert was dis­ap­point­ing — or at least the first 40 min­utes were. Palmer an­nounced straight­away that she had no set list and was play­ing songs by re­quest. She spent a great deal of time try­ing to tune her ukulele, us­ing an au­di­ence mem­ber’s ukulele-tun­ing smart­phone app, and try­ing to re­mem­ber the lyrics of a song by Kimya Daw­son, which an­other au­di­ence mem­ber Googled for her. She then played the Daw­son song so qui­etly that on the bal­cony she was all but drowned out by peo­ple talk­ing in other parts of the ex­hibit (an acous­tic prob­lem Meow Wolf should look into). Then there was a con­ver­sa­tion with an au­di­ence mem­ber about whether or not Palmer likes it when peo­ple sing along with her. (She doesn’t mind but can be dis­tracted from play­ing be­cause she’s watch­ing peo­ple sing.) By the time Palmer moved to the pi­ano, at about 11:30 p.m., she’d played just three songs and had been telling a very per­sonal story about a friend’s death for sev­eral min­utes. A few peo­ple left, and I was among them, be­cause the show was more about be­ing con­nected to Palmer’s per­son­al­ity and daily life than hear­ing her mu­sic. Usu­ally, my ap­pre­ci­a­tion of an artist in­creases af­ter I see her play live, but Palmer didn’t give me that op­por­tu­nity.

I’m happy to say that the off-putting con­cert ex­pe­ri­ence didn’t dampen my en­thu­si­asm for House of Eter­nal Re­turn at all. I think it would make a great set­ting for an an­nual haunted house at Hal­loween, as did 20 out of 21 peo­ple I asked. (The dis­senter pre­ferred it “just as it is.”) When I have visi­tors from out of town I will take them to Silva Lanes, which I will not ex­plain isn’t a bowl­ing al­ley any­more. I will watch as they ex­plore the house and labyrinth with­out guid­ance and with­out an open­ing-night crowd, so I can soak up as much vi­car­i­ous won­der as pos­si­ble.

“House of Eter­nal Re­turn” is at the Meow Wolf Art Com­plex (1352 Ru­fina Cir­cle). It is open Wed­nes­days through Sun­days. Call 505-395- 6369 or visit www.me­ow­wolf.com.

House of Eter­nal Re­turn, bot­tom right, Amanda Palmer; images courtesy Meow Wolf

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