An Essay on Meow Wolf The House of Eternal Return Santa Fe, New Mexico by James Bonner

My Time with Meow Wolf: A Journey Through Santa Fe's Iconic Art Collective and Its Immersive Installations

I walked through a false hallway draped by a sunless rough heavy fabric that veiled the gallery beyond; the hall continued to spiral, and the heavy fabric transformed into an alien amber that was coarse to the touch—it was a papier-mâché tunnel—ahead of me different passageways disappeared in senseless directions that went nowhere. The tunnel opened into the gallery and directly ahead of me was a full-scale wooden Fleut.

I've never seen anything like it, it was as if the ship was ripped from the seas and then abandoned in an inter-dimensional landscape. I tiptoed along at the base of the hull with my hand pressed up against the slivered wood and I peeked into the voids where planks were stripped from the frame, inside the ship there were unique compartments, each was an exhibit apart from the whole, it was a museum.

I found an entrance on the starboard side and boarded the Due Return. I wandered through the massive multi-layered installation with interactive art, secret chambers, storied histories, and hidden doors. And on the deck, three, or maybe four flights above the alien terrain, was the ship’s bridge, complete with a flight deck and space capsule. It was an afternoon in early May 2011, I had only been in Santa Fe, New Mexico a few months, and an hour earlier I had walked through the doors of the 6,000-square-foot gallery of the Center of Contemporary Arts where Meow Wolf’s Due Return was on exhibit.

          My experience with Meow Wolf, when I first became aware of the art collective, was not the same experience that most people have had since the collective exploded into the nation’s art world—although there are many newcomers to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the first few years following the establishment of the collective in 2008, that was fortunate to share in the experience that I had—Meow Wolf is an art collective, yes, and one of the largest in the country, they were much more than that for me. One of Meow Wolf’s missions was to act as a welcoming committee for newcomers to the city, and involved in those efforts, were hosting dance parties at the VFW, networking, facilitating friendships, and helping people to explore their passions.

Meow Wolf made people feel welcomed to the community in many different ways but primarily through art and music, and in large part, because Vince, a founding member of Meow Wolf, believes that “…we are living in a crisis of imagination,” and what better way to offset that than to help develop behaviors of acceptance using the gifts and passions given to us. The collective used to host dance parties out of the VFW in Santa Fe. I would have one or two drinks, and dance in these small-scale yet wildly varicolored and psychedelic, electro-soirees.

Meow Wolf opened the Due Return to the public in May 2011, and the gallery, aside from the phenomenal art exhibit, became an evening event space, selling drink tickets, and hosting concerts. I would stand on the deck of the Fleut with a beer listening to the music—A Hawk and a Hacksaw was a common contributor—watching in awe, and listening to familiar music on an alien planet, my time spent there is treasured, and the fact that the group went out of their way to make me, and others, feel welcome in a foreign city has always amazed me.

One afternoon, in the autumn of the same year that Meow Wolf unveiled the Due Return, I started walking the few blocks from my Santa Fe casita to the plaza downtown, knowing that something spectacular was afoot, but not knowing what to expect, and as I came around the corner in front of Ortega’s jewelry store—the same corner that I was rounding when I physical collided with Mr. Willem Defoe while he was in town filming Odd Thomas—I saw a gathering of monsters in front of the stage near the plaza’s obelisk. It was Meow Wolf’s fourth annual Monster Battle. Everyone was wearing costumes for the reigning dance-off.

The Monster Battle was meant to create an opportunity to learn how to open yourself up, by becoming someone other than yourself, so that you might then learn to release all your inhibitions and let loose, which is often easier for people to do in costume, at first. We were hundreds of people exploring a part of ourselves that we have otherwise hidden, we left our masks of expectations behind, and we all gathered to remember our inner child, our inner child was more than happy to be seen, and here, on Sante Fe’s famed plaza, in the heart of the city.

I started getting to know Vince Kadlubek when the collective began work on a project in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I offered to do some marketing for their installation, Glitteropolis—I think it was called. I had been overseeing the marketing for an art gallery on Canyon Road and, being new to the commercial marketing industry, and excited to contribute to Meow Wolf, I wanted to put some of my newly acquired skills to market for a collective that had inspired me and was there to welcome me into a foreign city.

As a writer, I struggled to recognize how I might be able to contribute my art to Meow Wolf, but marketing was something that I knew I could offer, so I applied myself to some marketing for Glitteropolis. Las Cruces was less familiar to me than Santa Fe and it was a four-hour commute, so, unfortunately, my early efforts were fairly dismal, but fortunately, I would, eventually, find a way to contribute when I was involved in organizing a local Santa Fe event almost a year later.

I watched Meow Wolf grow from hosting dances at the VFW and Monster Battles, to the massive scale Due Return, to their first permanent installation, the House of Eternal Return, to expanding into Las Vegas, Nevada, and Denver, Colorado with their installations Omega Mart and the Convergence Station. I left Santa Fe in 2015, and I came back for a year in 2021, and during that time Meow Wolf became a nationwide phenomenon. Meow Wolf developed so much and so quickly that a good deal of what Meow Wolf was exceptional for the community faded, by no fault of their own. When I moved back to Santa Fe years later it was clear how much the city suffered for it.

Santa Fe wasn’t the same place that I left in 2015; that city is in desperate need of Meow Wolf, and the hometown presence that was the heart of Santa Fe, the childlike wonder of artistic expression, the pop-up dance parties, and the Monster Battle’s, and the way that Meow Wolf just noticed everybody. Santa Fe's culture is almost inexpressible. Art was always at the foundation of this culture and had a harmony about it. Santa Fe lost so much of itself partially because it came to rely so heavily on Meow Wolf. Foundations can be delicate, and Meow Wolf was able to unite the seemingly ununitable, to create cohesion in the insanity.

            A few years after leaving Santa Fe, for the first time, several friends of mine from Texas and I took a weekend trip to Santa Fe to explore the House of Eternal Return. I was already impressed walking through the hall and seeing a suburban single-family two-story home with a picket fence and a half-acre yard inside the renovated bowling alley. We walked through the house, and read the documents and letters that set the scene for the House of Eternal Returns chronicle. We didn't engage in the story accompanying the whole experience, instead, we wandered the house wide-eyed and followed the other visitors down the chute of the family's washing machine, sliding into a world altogether impossible to describe.

The exhibit is truly remarkable. George R. R. Martin, the author of what has become known as the Game of Thrones series, invested in the collective’s ingenuity. Martin's generosity created the opportunity to buy the abandoned bowling alley and develop the House of Eternal Return. I still haven’t seen the Omega Mart in Vegas or the Convergence Station in Denver, now they’re working on another large-scale, permanent exhibit in Grapevine, Texas that’s supposed to open this summer [2023].

          An afternoon at the House of Eternal Return is nowhere near enough time. We would have liked to follow the storyline Meow Wolf created, something I would very much like to do at some point soon. When you find yourself in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and any city where Meow Wolf sponsors similar art installations, make the time to explore the House of Eternal Return and anything that Meow Wolf might be promoting. Be aware too that there is a certain chaos surrounding their installations, ordered chaos. The experience is life-altering.

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