Sunburn and Bugs 2016: The House of Eternal Return

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The big day was finally here. Finally. Four days and around 1,500 miles had passed since we started this fool’s errand epic adventure, all for the express purpose of being right here: Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return. But first, a quick stop at Angel’s Bakery & Cafe for a ham, cheese, and green chile croissant, because I’ll be damned if I was only going to get one full day in Santa Fe and not stuff myself with as much chile as humanly possible.

If you haven’t heard about it (in the months before the trip, it seemed like I was reading/hearing about this place everywhere, in the way that only the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon can explain), Meow Wolf is an art production company that creates immersive experiences. With some funding from notable Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin, they were able to buy and convert an old bowling alley into a permanent interactive art space they’ve named The House of Eternal Return. The building also contains a nonprofit education center for children and a makerspace  For my part, knowing I intended to visit someday, I tried to know and read about it as little as possible before visiting. I believe I initially heard about it on NPR, and when Emily linked an article about it on my facebook wall (which kicked off this entire journey), I didn’t even read it, not wanting to feel familiarity instead of awe when I stood before it. If you intend to visit someday, I encourage you to do the same and actually not click the “more” link where I go into the house in depth so you can see it with fresh eyes. If you’d rather visit vicariously or you think the concept of spoilers is bullshit, by all means, read on past the cut.

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meow wolf (5 of 129)They wanted to fondle the mandibles for some reason.

We were some of the first people through the door that morning, and were so amped up we could probably collectively take down 50 toddlers who had been turned loose in a sugar factory. When we told the ticket seller that we’d road tripped from Washington to be there, he grinned from ear to ear, gave us the resident’s discount, and told us about another group he’d seen that had come, spent the entire day, went back to their hotel that night, thought about what they’d seen, and then come back the next day to further work out the mysteries of the house. There would be none of that for us: in order to keep to our schedule, we had to see and absorb what we could in one day. The first half an hour, we moved around in hushed awe, with only one other group present, sticking to the first couple of rooms of the house and eventually deciding to split up so that we could each experience it on our own terms. Because it’s the nature of art that different pieces and themes would appeal to us differently individually and very little is a joy-killer so much as looking at something that speaks to you on a primal level and having someone huff over your shoulder because they’re ready to move on.

 

I would have paid anything to have the space solely to ourselves, and that’s not bougie selfish misanthropic Mellzah talking. I don’t have “shut the place down for my selfish pleasures” kind of money–if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know this. And yes, while I have been known to utter “I hate people” in a crowd more than once, it isn’t about my urge to go hide in a cave for three days after attending some massive event. There is so much going on in the house to learn and discover, some of which can really only be experienced by one person at a time, and it is unbelievably distracting and frustrating to have crowds elbowing around you, children screaming, and one group stymieing an area key to the mysteries for hours at a freaking time. I think the overall experience would be immensely improved with the addition of adult-only hours, timed entry, and potentially a limit to the amount of people who can be in the exhibit at once (that is significantly lower than the max set by the fire department). I would pay significantly more for a ticket to have significantly fewer people there. Had I known then what I know now, I still don’t think I would have immediately rushed to the depths of the house to experience them alone, because there is important context at the start, but there are some areas I would have tried to get to earlier so that I could be the one monopolizing it.  THAT is selfish Mellzah talking.

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meow wolf (7 of 129)Beyond here there be spoilers as well. And about a bullion pictures which will eat up your entire data plan if you’re browsing on mobile. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Your experience at The House of Eternal Return starts with a Victorian style home that has been built inside of the bowling alley. The home formerly belongs to the Selig family, who have disappeared, and it’s our job to put the pieces together. I cannot say that I fully got to the bottom of everything (because I definitely didn’t), but what I did learn was daaaark, which made it even weirder that as the day progressed, the place turned into a children’s playground. Toward the entrance is a mailbox, and if you read the letters inside, you’ll learn that the family lost their son, Lex, and his twin, Morgan, is subsequently struggling in school. The patriarch, Lucius Selig, is a scientist turned cult leader under the name “The Power of Positive Mechanics”,  and you quickly discover that he’s found away to not only open up portals to other dimensions but also alter those dimensions to create new ones, say, by plucking pristine beaches out wholesale and putting them together to make the ultimate beach resort for his rich followers, who believe visiting these places is a spiritual experience. A local newspaper informs you that weird storms have been happening in the area, pets have gone missing, and an agency has learned what Lucius is doing and is intent on shutting him down. On the kitchen table is an unpaid bill for a child’s coffin. I still honestly don’t know if Lex died out in the multiverse or just disappeared, and his family disappeared while looking for him. All around are agents, moving from room to room, supervising people and resetting the home after people have moved through. Remember that thing I said earlier about what I would do if I did it over? I would also touch more, be more comfortable with rifling through papers and picking things up to more fully comprehend them. I’m so used to “look, don’t touch” that everything I touched was very tentatively, waiting for someone to tell me no. If I’d known that I could get up into things into the elbows and that was fine, I definitely would have dug deeper earlier.

The sitting room was fairly normal, featuring some artwork on an easel. In the living room, a Power of Positive Mechanics handbook sat out on the coffee table, along with a communication that had been intercepted and deciphered by a PPM member from the group that was attempting to stop Selig. Some fish lazily swum in an aquarium with neon coral and a diver lugging up a treasure chest, while a purple glow radiated from the fireplace.

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 It’s when you walk into the dining room that things start to get weird. You can see that the ceiling is rippled, and as you enter the room, the lights pulsate and a low hum shakes the room. I wanted to know how they did it and assumed it wasn’t manually controlled because it kept happening as just our group moved in and out of the room, and I figured any human controlling it wouldn’t do that. I turned around and noticed they’d tucked an Xbox Kinect up in the corner, and it was really cool for me to see one being used in this avant garde way. There was also a video flickering in the mirror that you could see but not hear, and the most striking image was a woman standing in front of the refrigerator, opening it, and stepping inside.

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Which meant that of course I needed to do the same.

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The refrigerator tunnel led to an area that declared it was my gateway to the multiverse and I could choose my destination by placing my hand on any portal door I wished to open. I selected one at random, the door opened, and I found myself in a hallway which I followed until it led me to another portal into one of the children’s bedrooms. That’s part of why it’s called The House of Eternal Return. Wherever you go, wherever you wander, whichever path you take, you eventually end up back in the victorian home you started in.

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Each room is packed with detail, from albums of family photos to significant reading material (I was tickled to see A Wrinkle in Time in this bedroom, which was one of my favorite books as a kid, and is also obviously relevant due to its theme of folding spacetime, as well as containing a missing family member and beginning with a thunderstorm). Note also the missing hamster from Morgan and Lex’s room.

Since I was back in the house, I went down the hallway and scoped out the bathroom, the floor of which is also rippled (I believe its placement in the house would put it directly above the dining room ripple, but I’m not 100% certain as my spatial perception can be a bit wonky). If you look into the toilet, you’ll see a boy floating and flailing in the darkness.  The medicine cabinet also opens into a portal of sorts, its skewed shelves filled with apothecary style remedies. On the counter are various pills and potions for the regulation of black and yellow bile in your system as well as an expired box of “glotion” which may or may not make your skin glow and that glow may or may not be permanent, but as their mascot, Glowie the alien says “You bought it, you pay the consequences”. Thankfully, at least it’s gluten free.

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meow wolf (53 of 129)Is that you in the toilet portal, Lex?

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After the bathroom, I backtracked to the corner office, and it’s here that I got blocked up. There’s a safe to open, piles of papers on the desk to read, and computer files to peruse, and I couldn’t do any of it because there was a group there intent on solving all the mysteries themselves. Which, you know, fine, they deserve the experience no less than I do, but they were seriously there for hours. I’d leave, go do something, circle back, and they’d still be there. Repeatedly.  Which I suppose makes it The House of Eternal Return in a different, more irritating way that the creators did not necessarily intend. I did take note of the scrap of paper on the bulletin board abut missing twins, and the disciplinary note about Lex in which the teacher sounded unhinged and the punishment bordering on torture, but Lucius’ only concern was the repeated incorrect capitalization of “charter”, which he circled in red pen each time it appeared. Having been one to engage in similarly petty behaviors when someone calls me out, I recognize a bit of myself in Lucius Selig.

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From that point forward, I decided to delve more deeply into the portal side, and it’s also from this point that my recollections and observations also become more disjointed, as I would move forward and double back as pathways branched off and led to different rooms. I would say that by the end of the three and a half hours we spent there, I had a good working layout of the place in my head and could easily get to any particular room I was looking for, but I’m sure I just scratched the surface. What’s funny is that over the course of that time, I only bumped into Emily a couple of times, and I didn’t see Rachel until just before we left–it was that sprawling and complex.

From Lucius’ bedroom closet, I found myself in this large lighted cave-like region. I turned left and went down a mirrored hallway which led to a teeny-tiny circular staircase. Seriously, only one person could go up or down it at a time, and as a fatty with a sizeable purse, it was a bit of a squeeze.

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On the second floor, after a brief stop in a camper where a raven with a knowing look stares at you through a window,  I found myself near a black geodesic dome, so I popped in and was immediately surrounded by night sounds with an array of eyes around me, winking on and off.  The ground was covered in astroturf and there were a number of stones around that were actually pillows so you could sit or lay back in comfort.

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The next room I went into was the red room, which is not all that different from how I’d been thinking about decorating the bottom floor of my house.

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What’s weird and creepy about it, though, was while I was looking through this room, I would swear to you, swear to you, that I heard a voice calling my name and saying they saw me. Evidently this was not a thing that happened sooo I guess I’m just hearing voices now. Yay!

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meow wolf (48 of 129)This treehouse was great and I want one for my yard. Complete with bird leg guardians.

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I bumped into Emily at the treehouse and she led me to the other daughter’s bedroom–the older daughter is someone that I didn’t really see much about in the house: not in photographs, not in text, just kind of absent. At least where I looked.

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From the bedroom, we walked past this…ship of sorts, as well as the crystal Lucius was using to power the portals, and found ourselves in an underwater world, which mirrored exactly the fish tank in the house’s living room. If you continue down the path, the underwater world loops around to the front of the house, exiting by the mailbox next to where we entered the exhibit.

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 Instead of reentering by the front door, we looped back into the cave region, where we found a giant glowing mastodon with a sign informing us that he is musical (but please be gentle), so I started tapping his ribs with my finger. Nothing. But when you picked up one of the provided mallets and gave it a less tentative strike, you could indeed play its ribcage like a cartoon skeleton. Also, recall if you will the mastodon skeleton china in the dining room hutch. The house is full of little nods to other areas like that, which is another way the name The House of Eternal Return is apropos. Through that door past the mastodon is a tiny nook where one person can lean over to watch a video (with sound) of the family using the portal opening device (to find Lex?), with that same image of the wife walking into the refrigerator. It’s the same video that you can see in the mirror upstairs, but in whole, with sound. Other people wanted to come in and see what I was looking at, and I tried to scoot over and make room, but it was yet another part of the house that’s better experienced by one person and would be better served for all by limited entry, especially considering how long the video was (pretty long).

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From there, we parted ways again, and I hung out in this Acid Jesus church room for a minute, just because.

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It was in this room that I started to feel a little emotional. I felt awe and wonder and amazement  in a number of the rooms, but this is the first room that really made me feel like I was going to start to cry. The work and care and love and dedication that it would take to fill a space with this many drawings blew me away. It was more than that, but I can’t begin to explain how and why it resonated with me. Everywhere I looked, I saw my new favorite illustration.

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The room that split off from this one was dark and fairly quiet, the only illumination coming from the little splits in the ceiling and beneath benches that looked like they were made from tree roots that had grown from the ground. People did not tend to hang out in this room. It’s not nearly as exciting as the stuff going on everywhere else. It was for this reason that I sought this room out later when I was on sensory and people overload. I was able to hang out on a bench for a little while and pretend there wasn’t this whole pulsating world full of sound, light, and humanity waiting right outside.

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meow wolf (77 of 129)Really? No.

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At the end of this corridor was a doorway filled with those thick plastic sheeting strips that you see in places with walk in refrigeration. When you push through them, you’re in a black room with a fog machine and a row of lasers that can be played like a harp.

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After this photo, I took a little bit to watch a video that showed Lucius’ wife (I did not catch her name), walking through a forest, in what appeared to be a state of fear, approach a tree, and see it’s weeping green ectoplasm. There were a number of videos, and each time I walked past this area, another was playing. I definitely did not see even close to everything. I then played a piano that was supposed to do something when I struck the right combination of notes, which incidentally I never did and I’ve also pretty much forgotten every single bit of piano I ever learned, so sorry, but all that money on lessons was a total waste.

meow wolf (81 of 129)This room looks like someplace you’d hang out at a shitty party when you’re too high to go home. Not that I would know anything about that.

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There was also an arcade filled with playable games, some of which I’m pretty sure I recognized and some I definitely did not. I didn’t spend more than a couple of minutes in this room total because the amount of excited screaming and shouting was just too much for me, in my new role as Bitter Old Hag. I did briefly play a game about a gravekeeper that I have never seen before and can find zero information about online. Did Meow Wolf make their own arcade games for this room? MAD FUCKING PROPS to them if they did.

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I spent some more time in the forest region, sitting on more pillow stones, playing music on glowing mushrooms jutting out from the trees and just kind of taking it all in. When it was the appointed time to leave, I exited down a stark black and white hallway past a room with a white rabbit with glowing eyes and a cavernous belly.      

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After this many hours inside, I needed to take a quick bathroom break before checking out the gift shop, because I knew there was likely something awesome that I could take home and use to hold on to some of what I felt when I was immersed in the experience.

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meow wolf (106 of 129)Even the freaking bathroom wallpaper was bonkers cool.

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Oh yeah, and I found the missing hamster. And it had been modified according to the diagram found in the twins’ room. What does it mean? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!?

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