A new Santa Fe art installation explores a fantastical family narrative


You enter a large building formerly known as the Silva Lanes bowling alley, buy your ticket at the counter, and proceed into what’s apparently someone’s front yard. It’s dark as night, stars shine above, and light radiates from the porch and windows of an old two-story Victorian. It’s not your neighbor’s place, not your childhood home stirring up memories, but the keystone of The House of Eternal Return, a permanent, interactive installation by the collective art group Meow Wolf, set to launch this fall.

Situated within the Meow Wolf Art Complex on Rufina Court in the geographical heart of Santa Fe, the installation unfolds over 20,000 square feet and two stories. Its overarching narrative is of a house divided, not in the traditional sense, but through space and time, as if it’s been drawn into a black hole only to emerge reassembled in wildly fantastic ways on the other side.

Visitors are presented with the story of the imaginary Sig family—a mom and dad, brother and sister twins, an uncle, and grandfather. Each possesses a unique character, but also abilities beyond natural that when exercised precipitate a fracture in space and time. This event occurs within their home, causing the family’s memories, secrets, and fantasies to expand and contract in unusual ways. An uncle’s dream of success, for instance, takes the form of a travel agency, and a family remembrance of a trip becomes a cave of luminous lights and interactive sounds. A place of touch-sensitive stalagmites and stalactites (the father’s retro-game nostalgia) turns into a light-filled arcade and pinball experience that immerses you in the game.

Artist Erika Wanenmacher has contributed
a dome of animal eyes to the installation.

Visitors can discover the family’s story through audio, video, and tangible

objects, like a cell phone. The group even outsourced the creation of an app that allows spectators to snap photographs at various points and pull up further information. Yet the house takes up only about a tenth of the installation. One can explore it and then by various egresses, such as through the refrigerator or backdoor, discover the remaining spaces. Some of these were conceived by Meow Wolf members, while others are the result of applications from artists across the nation.

This collaborative approach has defined the Meow Wolf pack since a core group of members established it in 2007. They’re best known for The Due Return, an immersive installation in the form of a 73 ½-foot, two-story ship that was moored outside the Center for Contemporary Arts long enough to draw 100,000 visitors in 2011.

The House of Eternal Return is Meow Wolf’s most comprehensive project yet, exemplifying the group’s mission to build multifaceted projects that provide a full sensory experience. “It’s an environment that you walk into, that surrounds you,” says Emily Montoya, a core member and the group’s graphic designer. “It’s not ‘don’t touch this, don’t open that.’ It invites you to be a character within it at some level, to share its reality and to make it your own.”

Making it your own is what the story’s about. Although the fictional family members can all interact with the element of time, it was the twin brother Lex—aided by his uncle—who conducted an experiment gone wrong, putting the home at the focal point of a rupture in physics. Yet the real gist of the story is a reward to spectators who search for it, uncovering the secrets of the narrative and how family dynamics are written into time and space.

More than 85 artists and 180 volunteers have contributed to Eternal Return in a space big enough for nine Due Returns. Since January 2015, Meow Wolf has assembled various teams: technology, performance, narrative, graphic design, aesthetic direction, administration, volunteer coordination, and more, each with a project leader, several artists, and a greater number of long- and short-term volunteers. “Many of our new artists have expressed that they’re taking this opportunity to build a piece they’ve been dreaming about making for years but have never had a venue for,” says Caity Kennedy, project coordinator.

Local artist Erika Wanenmacher has been involved with Meow Wolf since its inception. She champions the collective’s niche in the city’s art scene—its vitality, diversity of shows, and general “artists-helping-artists” mentality. Her project is a dome of meticulously crafted iridescent animal eyes located deep within Eternal Return, and it includes the ever-watching eyes of the family pet and other significant animals.

Others involved in forging this world include volunteer painters, filmmakers, and actors, as well as those working in welding, lighting, and website building. Following a town-hall-style public meeting at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Meow Wolf also coordinated youth involvement. Projects headed up by youth include posters, drawings, notebooks, and other items belonging to the twins in the narrative. And two kids were cast to play the twins in various films, photographs, and audio recordings throughout the space.

Zubin, age ten (like the twins), built a Minecraft version of the entire installation, and Liam, 11, wrote and illustrated the notebooks of Lex. For Liam, Meow Wolf changes the face of what art can be. He recalls the impact of seeing The Due Return. “It’s cool that art can be a world,” he says, “a place you can walk into.”

Resources, both financial and technical, helped turn Meow Wolf’s dreams of an art center into reality. In early 2015, CEOs Sean Di Ianni and Vince Kadlubek made a winning pitch to Albuquerque-based Creative Startups, followed by the purchase of the Silva Lanes building and the public support of Santa Fe local George R. R. Martin, author of the popular Game of Thrones book series. Along with a Kickstarter campaign and private donations, the Meow Wolf Art Complex took form. In addition to the installation space, it will include 19 artist studios, a learning center, a gift shop, and a smaller gallery with rotating shows.

The group’s hope is that the complex will receive 100,000 visitors a year for Eternal Return alone, a figure Kadlubek says is just slightly less than the annual attendance of the Santa Fe Children’s Museum and about a third of Albuquerque’s Explora museum, both of which were chosen for their interactive appeal. The number doesn’t include those who visit the gallery or performance center. There will also be students from ArtSmart and other programs held at the Loughridge Learning Center, which at night will double as a venue for creative classes aimed at adults.

With its worlds within worlds, Meow Wolf’s expanding community of artists has created an exhibition space unlike any other. The House of Eternal Return begs visitors not just to view but to also explore the world before them and become part of its story. It also invites them to join a created world and its fictional family, but with its creators, designers, even fellow visitors, forming a makeshift family across the boundaries of space and time.

Left: Some of the Meow Wolf pack with George R. R. Martin (center with bowling pin) and other contributors. Right: The group’s Due Return installation of 2007 pitched a unique aesthetic that Eternal Return will expand to a greater scope.

First-time contributors Christina Sporrong and Christian Ristow make large-scale robotic pieces that have been featured in wide-ranging venues, from Burning Man to the International Symposium for Electronic Arts 2012 Machine Wilderness installation in New Mexico. For Eternal Return, they’ve created Swarm, an installation of 300 flocking mechanical birds.

From the Summer 2016 issue | Republished in Trend 2024

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