Jennifer Goes to Things & Does Stuff
Jennifer Levin tears into the time-space continuum at Meow Wolf
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