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Meow Wolf: Dawn Of A New Art World

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Everybody likes to complain about the art world, even as we participate in it to some degree or another. I’m talking of course about the art world of ludicrous prices, and bespoke museums, and unintentionally funny music videos shot in art galleries, and celebrities trying to make art.

The art world as we’ve understood it for over a century—where artists make work in their studios which then gets sold in galleries and collected by museums—that world has mushroomed into its own branch of pop culture, and it has very little to do with art anymore. That world is about shopping and status, investment and tax evasion, celebrity and decoration. It’s about huge commissions, and massive editions whose production is paid for by dealers. For the successful artists, it’s a hamster wheel. And the objects they make that are horse-traded so ferociously are not art anymore, mostly. At best they’re just well-crafted, high-end décor, with a light dusting of an idea if you’re lucky.

 

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This means that really interesting art is harder to find today, or even recognize. The best art, when you can spot it, is made by people who are resourceful by necessity (as artists always have been), using the tools at hand, be they social media and video, or advances in science, or buildings abandoned by economic ruin. Truly interesting work is out there, beyond the desiccated conceptual shows in kunsthalles and the safe retreads of 40-year-old ideas in galleries and the flatulent playground installations at museums. You want great art? Get out of the art world.

Which leads me to Meow Wolf.

Meow Wolf is a collective based in Santa Fe. Their massive new permanent installation House of Eternal Return is housed in a former bowling alley in a nondescript, slightly shabby, middle-class part of town that’s neither in the “serious” art enclave around Site Santa Fe, nor the 8th circle of tourist gallery hell on Canyon Road. Meow Wolf has been getting a lot of press since House of Eternal Return opened in March. The installation has been variously described as “a high-tech storytelling gameworld;” “part haunted house and part jungle gym;” and, in the tepidly enthusiastic phrase of the writer Ben Davis, simply “Big Fun Art.” It’s wonderful, in the sense that it is literally full of wonder.

 

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And while I’m not sure whether House of Eternal Return falls under any conventional definition of art, it is nonetheless a delightful, vast, immersive fun house created by real artists. It involves, without too many spoilers, a Victorian house that has experienced what appears to be a rift in the time-space continuum and opened portals into multiple fantastical dimensions. There’s an elaborate narrative about the family that lived there, and a mystery to solve. Clues are everywhere. When you buy your ticket, you’re told to plan on spending at least two hours inside. “Touch everything,” they say. This art installation isn’t meant to be passively experienced. It’s meant to be played.

House of Eternal Return is at once both massive and incredibly detailed. Two leisurely visits of a couple of hours each, and I was still discovering new spaces, each crafted by an artist or a team of artists and technicians. Taken individually, many of those moments were created by people whose artworks probably haven’t made it very far. But that’s kind of the point. In an interview with the LA Times, Nick Toll, one of the Meow Wolf artists, says “I was getting kind of bored with the old dynamics of the art world. This is kind of exciting because there is a whole other set of rules.”

And freedom from the art world is the name of the game. House of Eternal Return doesn’t feel like recognizable art any more than its visitors feel like recognizable art world people. The people I saw there were tattooed, working class parents out with their kids, teenagers on dates, grandparents peering tentatively into the narrow crawlspaces. The usual black-clad disciples of the high art church? Their hushed reverence is absent from House of Eternal Return. Meow Wolf has deliberately broken all those rules.

 

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And while I don’t think House of Eternal Return is an unequivocal success (I wasn’t interested in solving the mystery at the core of its Aleister Crowley-ish narrative, and its environments are not uniformly cool), it is the first really ambitious project I’ve seen by a large group of Millennial artists that didn’t feel like a bad trip to the desert, although it does have a whiff of Burning Man.

In his thoughtful article on Artnet, Ben Davis frets that Meow Wolf is the result of decades of emphasis on attendance numbers at museums, and a death knell for the individual practice. But House of Eternal Return could also be viewed as a positive outcome of the Millennial passion for teamwork and cooperation. Meow Wolf describes its goal as “many artists [collaborating] on a cohesive art piece while retaining individual creative goals and visions.” In House of Eternal Return, each artist staked out their eight-foot-square moment and went to town on it. While individualism within a collective may not appeal to your average middle-aged GenXer (and it certainly doesn’t jive with the Modernist notion of the heroic artist slaving away all tortured in his drafty studio and producing one-off masterpieces), it’s one way of doing things on a huge scale without selling your soul to Larry Gagosian.

Because we all know what that Faustian bargain looks like: artists who want to succeed in the art world today must carefully plot out a career, ticking off the right residencies and MFA programs, knowing the right curators, getting picked up by the right galleries. They must have the skills and aesthetic know-how to make the kind of fashionable work that will appeal to buyers.

 

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What I admire most about Meow Wolf is that they explicitly want out of that world. They want their freedom, and they figured out how to get it.

Of course, they still need money. And more than anything, House of Eternal Return is interesting as a model of post-art-world art. Crucially, it’s a for-profit business. It’s main benefactor, the Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, is not on ArtNews’s list of the top 100 art collectors. He made an investment in Meow Wolf, not a donation. Sold on the artists’ vision of a sci-fi wonderland, he purchased the derelict bowling alley for them, leased it back for 10 years, and invested an additional $2.5 million in the project. How generous his rate of return is is anybody’s guess—presumably it’s better than what you can make on the bond market these days—and it’s easy to imagine that he has cut the artists a generous deal. But it’s not a gift. Meow Wolf is not a non-profit. It’s a blueprint for a future of art-making where artists can free themselves from the limitations of art world patronage, so long as they’re willing to be entrepreneurs.

 

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I like this clarity and quid pro quo aspect of Meow Wolf: you pay for this, and you get this. Tickets to House of Eternal Return cost $18 for out-of-state residents. That’s the same as a ticket to the Yayoi Kusama infinity room at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and it’s a hundred times better than the Kusama. (You also get to spend a hundred times as many minutes in it as you do in the Kusama.) Meow Wolf has created something that is as honest and unpretentious as a circus: you enter House of Eternal Return and you know you’re going into pretendworld. There’s no fakery to the fakery. Whereas Kusama and the MFAH would have us buy into the smoke and mirrors and believe that it’s something transcendent, even when our own eyes tell us otherwise.

The artists of Meow Wolf, living out in weird old New Mexico, were never going to succeed in the art world as we know it, even in the little slice of it that exists in Santa Fe. So they’ve gone out and made their own success, and in doing so, they’ve created something new. It won’t be the only model for making art and succeeding outside the art world, but it’s a vital glimpse of a path forward for art.

 

This is the second in a series on immersion art. Part one, on Yayoi Kusama at the MFAH, is here.

 

also by Rainey Knudson
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14 Responses

  1. “… a positive outcome of the Millennial passion for teamwork and cooperation. Meow Wolf describes its goal as “many artists [collaborating] on a cohesive art piece while retaining individual creative goals and visions.”… ”

    Something about a collective effort to create immersive art environment while retaining individual practices, I wish Texans had that kind of millennial hutzpah. It does sound a little familiar though… Oh yeah!

    *dusts off old SCAB hat*

    Jeez guys, if all you wanted was the honesty of a circus you could’ve said something four years ago.

    1. Christ Eli, You can’t circus honestly expect anyone to offer all ages family fun for less than a building, 2.5 M, and $18 a head. It would come off as 501c3 playground art museum installation. Who can really get a bank loan to compete with Screams Halloween Theme Parks without a St. Peter disembowelment to techno with blacklights by gasmask dreadlocked ravers? In hooker boots?

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      1. You’re right Justin. Artists should be focusing on getting that sweet, sweet fantasy money instead of trying to infiltrate the institutions.

        I think what Rainey is proposing is that progressive, young Texas artists should find opportunities elsewhere. Real, blue-collar places like Santa Fe. Because the type of institutional alternative models that the art world needs right now could never be found here.

  2. Kamin

    Great article about a great project cum institution.. Can’t wait to make a pilgrimage from NOLA and touch everything.

  3. PTW

    I visited this last weekend… while interesting, my daughter (who was a history major) found it much more engaging. I found it somewhat amateurish. If you want to see a truly immersive, wonderful artful project, try visiting the City Museum in St. Louis. http://www.citymuseum.org/ A far broader vision that is a delightful expression of artful play at a huge scale.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      A fair criticism. I heard about City Museum earlier this year from the same colleague who told me about Meow Wolf. I guess I need to make (my first) trip to St. Louis sometime…

  4. Anastasia Goldberg

    I gotta admit, this is pretty gimmicky art school kind of stuff if you ask me. A stack of TVs, really bad murals galore, blacklight paint on some dead trees, neon lights, an arcade, strategically placed xmas lights, glitter, glitter, and glitter. I see the group as individuals who would never make it on their own in the art world and have pulled together and formed an egalitarian collective that is only as good as its last man. Rather than work at leaving a lasting impression on the high end art world that you criticize in this article, they have catered to the lack of taste and the lack of intelligence inherent in the swarming masses. Naturally, I could be wrong and soon we will see the emergence of new art collectives and the construction of new immersive installations of similar magnitude that will compete with Meow Wolf for dominance in the BIG FUN ART game. BIG FUN ART could be the next big thing and places like the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Tate, and so on, may soon have BIG FUN ART shows. Meow Wolf may actually be on the cutting edge with this BIG FUN ART thing. It will be sorted out in the annals of art history eventually I am sure.

      1. Gawd Michael, didn’t you read the article? It’s this NEW thing where individual artist form some kind of a collective in order to operate outside of the institutional model by employing DIY attitudes to their own environments.
        I believe it’s called the Honesty Circus.

        1. Justin Hunter Allen

          WTF Eli, get with the times. @honestycircus, the new Non Collecting Collectives Union (C), DM’d (TM) me like 3 days ago and Dropbox’d (TM) their CC BY-ND 4.0 (TM) Collectives Starter Pak (TM). You basically only need food trucks. I can’t even that you haven’t heard, like… We should really get in on this. The Collectives Expanded Deluxxxe (C) is only like $17 PayPal (TM).

          1. Michael A. Morris

            But like what’s the real difference between the Dead White Zombies occupying illegal warehouses and the white walkers getting past the Wall and the Night’s Watch? The fire marshall is just protecting us from the walking death of broke artists making themselves too busy to make money and pay back their loans guys.

            And Meow Wolf or something.

  5. Rainey, as an art gallery owner who lives and works in Albuquerque, New Mexico (I also lived in Houston for 3 years), I am disappointed in and frustrated by your generalizations and contradictions about one project in one town of what you’ve dubbed “weird old New Mexico.” Your narrow perspective on Meow Wolf, its participating artists, and the supposed “vital glimpse of a path forward for art” add to the neutralizing of complicated economic, social, and cultural issues at play in the project. If you return to New Mexico, please do be in touch. I hope you would be interested in meeting a few people here who can offer deeper insights.

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