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In Santa Fe, Meow Wolf’s ‘House of Eternal Return’ is mind-blowing in all the best ways

At the “House of Eternal Return,” a multimedia, interactive art installation, visitors are invited to explore each room. Most incorporate interactive elements that pull visitors deeper into the underlying story.
At the “House of Eternal Return,” a multimedia, interactive art installation, visitors are invited to explore each room. Most incorporate interactive elements that pull visitors deeper into the underlying story.(Kate Russell)

Santa Fe has long been a mecca for artists and art lovers. From the many galleries lining Canyon Road to the legacy of Georgia O’Keeffe and artisanship of the Northern Pueblo Indian tribes, New Mexico’s capital city has offered world travelers a wide and colorful artistic palette from which to choose.

With the opening in 2016 of “House of Eternal Return,” a multimedia, interactive art installation designed and built by the Meow Wolf artists’ collective, it now has something to offer otherworldly travelers, too.

What is “House of Eternal Return?” Not easy to say.

Imagine if Red Grooms, Tim Burton, and George Lucas designed a Pee-wee’s Playhouse for Planet Naboo. Or, more specifically, if “Game of Thrones” creator and Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin bought an abandoned bowling alley, then leased it to a consortium of local artists and techies. And that they in turn constructed a full-immersion theme park that is part mystery story, part self-guided journey through time, space, and alternative realities.

Also, one totally trippy walk-in refrigerator.

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Meow Wolf’s installation is certainly unlike anything I have experienced before. Ditto for my wife and our two children, aged 22 and 18, on a recent family stay in Santa Fe, as we compared notes following our two-hour, 3-D-aided, sensory-overloaded exploration of the 20,000-square-foot exhibit.

Consensus? Mind-blowing. And we meant that in the best possible sense.

(Kate Russell)

“House of Eternal Return” combines a variety of storytelling elements — written notes, painting, sculpture, music, video, lighting, set design, fabrics, and more — into a kind of walk-in science-fiction novel whose narrative framework is anchored inside a two-story Victorian house.

Visitors are invited to explore each room in the house, whose occupants, the Selig family, have apparently vanished, their previous existence shrouded in mystery. What happened and why is hinted at in clues scattered throughout. A garden-variety scavenger hunt this is not, however.

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More like Alice slipping through the looking glass and dropping into a psychedelic Wonderland.

The Dryer Tunnel
The Dryer Tunnel(Kate Russell)

The rooms themselves contain not-so-hidden passageways — wormholes opening into other dimensions, as it’s revealed — located within seemingly ordinary objects like a clothes dryer or fireplace.

Each X-dimension is unique, a world unto itself. In one looms a mastodon skeleton whose glowing ribs can be played like a xylophone. Another contains a bioluminescent, walk-through aquarium, another an enchanted treehouse forest. Yet another houses a retro video-game arcade.

Most incorporate interactive design elements that pull visitors ever deeper into the underlying story. Some may elect to follow the clue trail closely and attempt to “solve” the mystery (we did not). Others might choose to wander more or less aimlessly from one space to the next. For families with young children especially, it may be enough to delight in the exhibit’s multisensory nature and in walking, climbing, and crawling through one fantastic space after another.

Visitors can augment their journey via an audio-tour headset, offering behind-the-scenes commentary by contributing artists, or a tracker app that helps unlock the story’s deeper mysteries. 3-D glasses are optional but strongly recommended.

Meow Wolf’s history illuminates another aspect of the “House” story.

(Kate Russell)

Founded in 2008 as a working collective of millennial artists and technicians, it took its name from two words pulled at random from a pair of hats. Its foundational mission: to create a space where artists, architects, photographers, videographers, writers, costume and set designers, and other creative types could hang out and brainstorm collaboratively.

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In a TED talk, Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek described the organization as an “open-door collective, radically inclusive.” Being nontraditional Santa Fe-based artists, he said, “We felt we were on the outside looking in” and aimed to “create a new perspective on how people participated in art.”

A decade later, Meow Wolf and its signature installation have become star attractions. Drawing half a million visitors annually, “House” has continued to add new features to a complex that also contains a children’s learning center, café and bar, and live music venue. Workshops and special performances are staged on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, Meow Wolf and its 400-plus members have entered an aggressive expansion phase. This April, they are scheduled to open a theme park ride, “The Kaleidoscape,” at Elitch Gardens in Denver. The Mile High City will also welcome a brand new, 90,000-square-foot Meow Wolf exhibit sometime next year.

Additional installations are slated for Las Vegas in 2020, Washington, D.C., in 2022, and Phoenix at an unspecified date. The latter will incorporate a hotel with rooms designed by local artists.

What would Georgia O’Keeffe think? Not easy to say. However, I’d wager she would marvel at how vibrantly the avant-garde aesthetic she once championed is alive and well in her old backyard.

Meow Wolf is located at 1352 Rufina Circle, Santa Fe. Open Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesdays). Admission: adults, $25; seniors/military $23; children under 13 and under, $19 (under 3 free). Discounts for New Mexico residents. More information available at meowwolf.com.

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Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at josephpkahn@gmail.com.