Meow Wolf’s “The Real Unreal”

Entryway into the contemporary sensory experience of Meow Wolf: The Real Unreal. (Photo credit: Joe Gruberman)
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A while back, I interviewed avant garde producer Dom Brown in a review of his Artopia pop-up installation. During that conversation, Mr. Brown made several references to “Meow Wolf”. I am embarrassed to say that, at the time, I had never heard of “Meow Wolf”. So, when I recently found myself traveling in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I felt compelled to drop in on Meow Wolf’s installation of “The Real Unreal”, located within the Grapevine Mills Mall in Grapevine, TX.

“The Real Unreal” is the fourth permanent installation of Meow Wolf, the original project having been created in 2008 by a small collective of Santa Fe artists. The Santa Fe installation can be seen in an expansive adobe-style structure just southwest of the center of town. The Grapevine location, by comparison, lives in the popular indoor mall north of Dallas/Fort Worth. Its modest welcome portal looks every bit like a small movie theater entrance. The similarity pretty much ends there.

A fantasy courtyard of lights and colors, made even more astounding when seen through 3D glasses. (Photo credit: Joe Gruberman)

An unassuming docent with a third eye in the center of his forehead greets us on the ticketed side of the portal. He invites us to explore the world of The Real Unreal, and to touch everything, and venture through every closed door — save for the ones that are locked or labeled “Emergency Exit Only”. Instructions are simple enough. He ushers us in through a neon-lit tunnel and we’re on our own.

There are two distinct ways to experience The Real Unreal. The first is to explore every nook and cranny, taking in each tiny detail of the floor-to-ceiling — and sometimes, ground-to-sky — artwork that adorns the exhibit. It is a mixed-media cornucopia of sights and sounds that are designed to be viewed, touched, stepped through, interpreted, and challenged. This method of exploration takes about 90 minutes to complete, assuming you do a thorough job of finding all of the cleverly hidden goodies.

On the surface, an octagonal room of refrigerator doors. In reality, multiple portals to other realms to explore. (Photo credit: Joe Gruberman)
Many pass-throughs, such as this one, provide multiple vantage points into the exhibits. (Photo credit: Joe Gruberman)

The second way to experience the exhibit is to approach it with the understanding that there is an underlying story that more or less ties everything together. The story is told in scenes, clues, suggestions, and games. It is even more of an interactive experience than simply exploring the space. Now we are piecing together a puzzle and scrutinizing every aspect of each object, each article of clothing, each book, each cryptic message.

The centerpiece of The Real Unreal is the Delaney House. It is an abrupt introduction into the world we have just entered; a portal, as our guide had previously told us, almost as a casual aside. Suddenly, we find ourselves outdoors at some late night hour, where minutes ago we had entered the exhibit through a hallway in an indoor mall in the middle of the day. We step up from the porch into the living room, passing a posted flyer with the face of Jared, the youngest of the family, who has gone missing. The interior of the house is a work of art in itself, being a realistic rendition of a middle class family home.

An ingenious inversion of space and time puts this nighttime exterior scene inside a mall in the middle of the day. (Photo credit: Joe Gruberman)

The details go beyond the thin veneer of a well-designed Hollywood set. Open any closet, any drawer. Examine every photograph, every sticky note. Everything you would expect to find is there. There are neither facades nor facsimiles, or at least none that can be detected. There is a sense of discomfort that we’re snooping around in someone else’s actual house. Other visitors roam around quietly, almost reverently, giving the added sensation of being at a wake or a family watch, waiting for news of little Jared’s return. But soon enough, this vivid reality is disrupted, if not entirely destroyed, when we chance to open the refrigerator door.

Behind that door, and in fact behind nearly every door that is not intentionally locked, is an unexpected surprise. Like a doorway into another dimension, the confining portal gives way to a cavernous space of incongruous collections of figures, structures, and artwork. Some are utterly grotesque, others are stunningly beautiful. Your 3D glasses further enhance the experience, adding a level of depth that does not otherwise exist.

You never know what you might encounter, such as this fanciful wall of cartoonish heads. (Photo credit: Joe Gruberman)
A multi-faced abstract sculpture, as seen through one of many peek-through walls. (Photo credit: Joe Gruberman)

Here is where the experience really diverges. Children can spend the entire day at Meow Wolf, exploring every nook and cranny, opening every door, and peeking through every crevice. There’s even an artsy, retro game room. Diehard Meow Wolf fans scrutinize every aspect of the environment, looking for clues to the puzzle that forms the subtle, yet overarching, theme of the exhibit, which is the mystery of Jared’s disappearance. Mature older folks (like myself) would be content to leisurely stroll through this real/unreal world, admiring the creativity of design, the patient effort it must have taken to build this multi-level labyrinth of paintings, sculptures, architecture, and meticulous set design. Younger folks will encounter more selfie opportunities than they will know what to do with. The Real Unreal is truly an experience for everyone.

Meow Wolf has three additional permanent exhibitions: Convergence Station in Denver, CO, Omega Mart in Las Vegas, and the original experience, House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, NM.


About Joe Gruberman 47 Articles
I'm a writer/producer/filmmaker/teacher based in Phoenix, AZ.

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