Review: Meow Wolf Denver is eerie, but is it art?

Meow Wolf trades on the dark side of American popular culture, in cults and conspiracies, in supernatural beings, extraterrestrials and unsolvable conundrums. The chain of oversize immersive art installations teases visitors who wander through its dimly lit environments by dropping hints about nefarious mysteries they could spend a lifetime — not to mention multiple $45 admission charges — trying to work out.

That spooky stuff feels right at home in Meow Wolf’s first two locations, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, desert cities located in the paranormal heartland. If your goal is to create narratives about underground evildoers, each worthy of their own “X-Files” episode, it helps to set them in places where alien sightings are routine and where the government actually has established secret military test sites. Northern New Mexico and Southern Nevada were creepy long before Meow Wolf arrived.

It is a different story in central Colorado, where Meow Wolf opened its third location last week. Fans of the popular attraction will find its special effects familiar: cavernous rooms pumped up with pulsing lights and sound; post-apocalyptic dioramas; steampunk scenery meant to be touched, clicked, climbed over and gawked at. Anyone looking to get their mind blown and then blown again will deem Meow Wolf a thrilling fun house.

If you go

Meow Wolf: Convergence Station; 1338 First St., Denver, (720) 792-1200; meowwolf.com.

Still, I found its ominous themes an awkward fit in Denver, a good-mood city founded on American optimism and sustained by Western exuberance, thanks to abundant sunshine, decent traffic flow and the country’s third lowest property taxes. In a land of Rocky Mountain highs, Meow Wolf’s eerie aura feels a little out of this world. I was hoping for something more connected to place, less corporate.

That has not deterred crowds, who are thrilled just to get inside. Denverites waited five years as the company planned and constructed its latest location: a five-story installation built ground-up in the industrial Sun Valley neighborhood for more than $60 million. Fate positioned Meow Wolf to represent all the fun and freedom possible as the coronavirus pandemic ebbed and buyers snatched up 35,000 tickets in the first 24 hours of sales this month.

On Sept. 18, when I arrived for the opening weekend, lines were long and parking sparse, though there were few signs of frustration over the mandatory face coverings or the inevitable bumping into one another that comes with a maxed-out venue. Denver Meow Wolf, despite itself, is a happy place.

That is due, in part, to the staff members, who dress in hooded cloaks and glow-in-the dark fashion accessories and keep the mythology rolling — not an easy task when visitors walk through perplexing areas, like a hall of whispers with chattering walls, a psychic’s den offering live readings, and a laundromat where marbles spin inside dryer windows.

Visitors can sit behind the wheel of futuristic cars, flip through books in a pretend library, wander into a neon cathedral with a playable pipe organ or enter a beauty salon, pizzeria or grocery store, each with its own surreal twist.

Somehow these elements come together as Convergence Station, an interplanetary transit hub where different worlds connect but where “Earthers” remain outsiders. There are subnarratives that explain it all — if you can add up the clues. One story, for example, involves a bus driver named Pam, who once steered her vehicle into Convergence Station and vanished.

If I don’t have the story arc correct, it is not for a lack of trying. I explored secret corridors, read text, watched animations and asked the actors/workers for help. I paid $3 for a wallet-size Q Pass that activated digital screens dispensing clues. I spent close to three hours.

In the end, I spent another $9.50 in the gift shop for a slim paperback that got me nearer to understanding Eemia, Numina, Ossuary and the other peoples and places that make up this scenario. It is possible that I tried too hard; the real thrill of Meow Wolf comes not in wrapping your mind around its enigmas but in letting its 90,000 square feet of enigmas wrap themselves around you.

Immersive installations like Meow Wolf bill themselves as art, but they fit better into the category of entertainment venue, more like Disney World than MoMA. The company involved 110 Colorado artists in this project, giving each a bit of real estate to show their wares and paying them for their efforts. And I did recognize contributions from respected local names — a light sculpture by Collin Parson, a mural by Jaime Molina, an inflatable by Nicole Banowetz — but couldn’t find any signs on site crediting their efforts.

As a result, their pieces are swallowed up by the overall bigness of the theme park and, in effect, rebranded to fit the dark and spooky Meow Wolf mode. Work by those and other artists whose creations I’ve always found hopeful, vital and connected to community felt invisible here.

That anonymity is a choice on the part of Meow Wolf, which emphasizes collaboration and resists breaking the fourth wall, and maybe it’s the right one when it comes to giving customers what they truly want or need right now to escape a particularly stressful world. There are plenty of places to contemplate fine art in a city like Denver but few offering the retreat Meow Wolf provides, and maybe individual recognition is something artists and critics value more than the public does.

But letting the local work and the intention of the artist who made it stand out might have been the thing that gave Convergence Station its own identity, a purpose beyond simply offering shock and awe, and distinguish it from the other Meow Wolf sites.

Instead, it is the brand’s trademark spookiness that defines the place. If Meow Wolf actually is art, I struggle to find meaning in it.

Immersive art can feel new because it is trendy now, but it has a rich past, going back to early work by perceptual artists like James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama (her “Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field” was in 1965) or by adventurous theater companies like Punchdrunk, whose 2011 interactive “Macbeth” adaptation, “Sleep No More,” challenged ideas of what a play could be.

Those creators never matched the level of public interest Meow Wolf set off like a firecracker when it opened in a former bowling alley in Santa Fe in 2016. That place caught on fast, attracting 1 million visitors in less than two years and inspiring scores of imitators.

But the earlier pioneers showed that immersive art could be mind-blowing and, at the same time, strive to say something about the human condition — that thing we expect art to aspire to. It’s a standard and a purpose that Meow Wolf, with its millions of dollars and millions of visitors, might aim for.

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