SANTA FE — Inside an old bowling alley here, in an industrial district a few miles south of the well-trodden, gallery-lined Canyon Road, there is a house. The house is Victorian, with gingerbread details like honeycomb shingles and an elaborate latticed porch, which are rare in the southwest, and because the house is constructed indoors, it is always nighttime. Summer, probably, because you can hear the chirps of crickets and frogs and feel a thick blanket of astroturf underfoot. The front door of the house is ajar, and even if you aren’t explicitly invited, it’s impossible to resist going in.
The house is the gateway to arts collective Meow Wolf’s highly anticipated new permanent exhibition, the 20,000-square-foot House of Eternal Return. Comprised of about 135 mostly local artists, Meow Wolf was previously best known for “The Due Return,” a ship constructed and housed at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts in 2012.
Meow Wolf’s exhibition in the formerly abandoned space is the result of enormous effort (14 months of construction) and resources: the bowling alley was bought and renovated by Santa Fe’s man-about-town and patron of the arts George R. R. Martin — otherwise known for authoring the book series on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based — for about $2.7 million. Martin acts as Meow Wolf’s landlord; the group pays rent and has a 10-year lease. Meow Wolf also raised just over $100,000 in a Kickstarter campaign for the project and received $60,000 from the City of Santa Fe. Additional funding came from private investors. Besides House of Eternal Return, the complex includes artist studios, workshops, a gift shop, interactive classrooms (which are the site of Chimera, Meow Wolf’s educational arm), traditional galleries, and event spaces — you can even have your birthday party there. The studios will house a nonprofit called MAKE Santa Fe, where, for a fee, you can learn about and use equipment like power tools, laser cutters, and 3D printers.
The house itself is merely a gateway. While richly detailed and believably lived-in, there are lots of hints that something isn’t quite right: the bathroom floor ripples, as though hit by seismic waves and frozen mid-wrinkle; literature and notes strewn about the rooms nod to conspiracy theories and other dimensions; the family who lives there is conspicuously absent. Even casual observers will have no trouble discovering the world beyond the house (hint: open the fridge), which is huge and all-consuming, like wandering into a series of dreams.
That world includes luminescent caves, an enchanted forest peppered with tree houses, and corridors that are decidedly space-age. There are 70 distinct yet interconnected spaces in House of Eternal Return, each more eccentric and whimsical than the last. It’s hard not to mutter “oh, cool” to yourself constantly as you move through the complex because everything is cool, and unexpected, and sometimes, touch- and motion-sensitive, like doors that open when you press your hand to a panel or opaque white tree mushrooms that light up and sound a note when you tap them. There’s such an incredible amount of stuff inside the house and the spaces beyond that it’s difficult to hone in on specific moments and objects, but what follows is an (extremely limited) sampling.
A to-scale (ish) mastodon skeleton with musical ribs; a 30-foot-high laser-beam harp in a room full of fog; Tales from the Crypt pinball (which you can play gratis) in the arcade; a teeny diorama depicting an old Western ranch powered by giant hamsters; a planetarium-like dome adorned with eyeballs as big as dinner plates; snow-white owls swooping through the enchanted woods; a board game in the daughter’s room of the house based on the early ’00s teen soap The OC. In fact, all the ephemera in the house is precisely selected and manages to fit without trying too hard, from ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s toys, games, and books, sourced at thrift shops and online, to the rumpled bedspread in the parents’ dark, bohemian bedroom that doubles as the dad’s sound studio, to the dining room wallpaper, which provides visual clues as to the family’s whereabouts in time and space.
The narrative of the family is deliberately vague — according to Meow Wolf’s press kit, they’re located in Mendocino, California, though it’s unclear how anyone without inside info would know this, and how that seemingly arbitrary location was chosen is also a mystery. The ambiguity is great for allowing a creative range of interpretations, but threatens to disappear once visitors cross the threshold to the alternate world beyond the portals, where the bright, psychedelic explosions can lead to sensory overload, in a mostly good way. Finding one of the house’s gateways is as close as most of us will come to Lucy Pevensie’s discovery of Narnia at the back of the wardrobe, and the sheer thrill of uncovering the unknown is a potent thread that carries visitors through the exhibit.
But the house itself is worth a longer look, particularly the grandfather’s top-of-the-stairs study, where perusing scattered stacks of classified documents with keywords and phrases underlined dramatically in red ballpoint pen, as well as cryptic notes-to-self on yellow legal paper, could easily occupy an entire visit. What’s fascinating in the study and other parts of the house is the hint of the surreal, an eerie current flowing between the stone-cold fireplace and innocuous refrigerator door. The mood of the house recalls the moment in a supernatural thriller before things go awry, when there’s an electricity in the air that’s neither dread nor excitement, but both at once. By contrast, the world outside the house elicits an onslaught of the senses, which is often pleasurable, and even when it’s not remains worth experiencing. Genuine awe is not an easy emotion to provoke, yet the rooms beyond the house do it again and again. Peel away that awe and the puzzle of house itself is harder and subtler, however, the sense it elicits ultimately more interesting and more satisfying: it gives us just enough wonder and doubt to allow the imagination to run wild.
Not everyone is happy about the new addition to the neighborhood. On Saturday, March 19, a day after the complex opened to the public, someone posted an impeccably painted sign (in yellow and red, the colors of New Mexico’s state flag) just in front that read: “Welcome, Gentrifiers. Keep pushing us out! Consequence: we lose space, you lose culture.” A local man named Hernan Gomez has since taken responsibility for it on Facebook.
The neighborhood that Meow Wolf’s exhibition occupies is historically industrial: the city bus depot and a Pepsi bottling plant are nearby, among auto-body shops, a tortillaria, and a handful of rental apartments and artist studios. The area is gentrifying, with a microbrewery, a coffee shop, and a new community theater, among other businesses, all owned and operated by (local) white people. It’s also true that Meow Wolf’s artists are mostly white, and that the family who lives in House of Eternal Return is white, too. (And, don’t forget, bizarrely located in Mendocino.) During opening weekend, conversations about the sign erupted on Facebook; many posters defended Meow Wolf’s right to the space and praised the group’s achievement, while others described the collective’s presence in the area as neocolonialism and pointed out that the price of admission could be prohibitive for lower-income families. (Admission is $18 for out-of-state adults; $15 for New Mexico residents. For the under-13 set, tickets cost $12; $10 if you live here. Family passes cost $200 a year.)
The extent to which Meow Wolf will conduct community outreach in its new ’hood and ensure the accessibility of the complex to minority and low-income groups remains to be seen. Certainly, imposing a pseudo Native and/or Hispanic narrative on the exhibit would have been offensive and false. But Meow Wolf should do a better job of listening to its detractors and recognizing that creating and ensuring inclusivity is an ongoing process. Nominal inclusivity is not enough: as a group with relative power and privilege, the onus is on Meow Wolf to engage the neighborhood, not the other way around. Conversations about who’s entitled to space and money and influence are often uncomfortable, but that’s why they’re so important. There is room to commend Meow Wolf’s achievement while identifying areas in which they can improve.
Still, before Martin bought the building, the bowling alley was vacant for six years. Before Silva Lanes closed its doors for good in 2009, the parking lot was the site of a 2005 murder — the business filed for bankruptcy after being consumed by legal fees in a wrongful death suit. In 2007, a shooting victim’s body was dumped in the parking lot.
Santa Fe desperately needs new ways to engage residents, especially young people, who are notoriously leaving the state in droves. House of Eternal Return is ambitious and imperfect; the prevailing sense from visitors seems to be that they can’t believe an exhibition of this scale and novelty exists in Santa Fe. Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek told Hyperallergic that in order to turn a profit, the complex will have to clear 125,000 visitors a year; for perspective, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the biggest game in town, drew 159,000 visitors in 2014. Kadlubek added that they’re shooting for 250,000 a year — the group hopes for significant traffic from visitors to Santa Fe, but is also banking on locals visiting the place again and again, particularly with children. House of Eternal Return aspires to greatness and, like most things, in reality is uncertain and unwieldy — yet it’s undeniably dazzling.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated, based on an old press release, that the family’s house was located in Mobile, Alabama. We regret the error, and it has been fixed.