I’m pretty open about my vices.
Readers of my reviews have probably collected that I like to drink more than is strictly healthy for a tiny woman with a family history of heart problems. Then there’s horror movies--the viler and meaner the better. Mutilations, gougings, severed limbs--that and a cup of coffee are all I need to feel alive some days. Then there’s my love of fast food and all the shame filled nights slinking through the McDonald’s drive-thru, scraping together change for dollar menu burgers, no pickles, no onions. But today I want to talk about my most shameful vice.
Bullshit modern art.
I am quite literally like a kid in a candy store whenever I get to go to a modern art museum. My friends, my family, even my poor husband has had to endure outings with me where I stare at minimalist black rectangles, contemplate looped videos of naked ice skaters, or elbow my way through frantic crowds to watch pretty frilled umbrellas open and close by a magical little mechanical switch.
I love it all, and the more esoteric, pompous, and self-important the better. But here’s the thing about love: devotion without realism is infatuation, a quick burning, unsteady thing. When you really love something, when you’re an aficionado, a devotee, a hopeless fool for something, you can’t really take things to the next level until you’ve found all its flaws, examined them, and decided, “Fuck it. I love it anyway.”
So, while I’ll be the first in line to look at the newest installation at whatever art space in whatever city I’m in, I have to admit, the art world can be narrow-minded, stifling, and all-too-exclusive.
Which is why the art collective Meow Wolf and the documentary they inspired are such a vibrant, welcome addition to the art world.
Meow Wolf: Origin Story, which I caught at a deliriously well-attended screening at the Oak Cliff Film Festival, thrillingly addresses the collective’s building fame, its place in the ever-shifting, ever-fickle world of art, and the stressful joy of collaboration.
Origin Story begins in an appropriate enough place for something with this title, the early, disconnected days of the collective’s founding members as they struggle separately to make it in Santa Fe’s polarized art scene. Caught between the lucrative kitschy art that defines the tourist industry and the high falutin, snobby world of fine art, Meow Wolf is formed when outsiders looking for community band together to achieve miraculously weird, deeply personal, interactive art installations.
The film does a beautiful job of throwing the audience into the frenzy of creative compulsion, and the scenes detailing the creation of the 2011 installation, The Due Return, a massive pirate ship that encouraged viewers to fully explore its every nook and cranny, are nothing short of exhilarating. Despite being a documentary, there’s an addictive, joyful tone to the first half of the film as the artists chronicled work themselves to exhaustion and the point of frenzy to finish the ambitious project on time. The payoff of getting to wander via the camera through the completed installation has all the wonder and childlike whimsy of a funhouse.
Of course, the fame gained from this achievement is both a boon and source of conflict for the collective as they struggle to find their next project. But when George R.R. Martin steps in to give the group a financial boost, they center their attention on The House of Eternal Return, a complex, maze-like installation housed in an abandoned bowling alley. But the stress of mounting another massive show causes fractures within the group, leading to tragedy, separation but ultimate success.
As someone shamelessly in thrall to the sometimes shallow, sometimes patronizingly trendy world of modern art, seeing the genuine passion that goes into the collective’s works makes me fall in love with art all over again. But even if you’re not sold on all the attendant bullshit in the contemporary arts scene, Meow Wolf: Origin Story is a must view for anyone interested in the creative process, self-expression, or group dynamics. This warts-and-all documentary brilliantly captures all of the magic and misery of working with other creatives. Whether you’re a fan of the collective’s work or you’ve just now heard of them, this film is an engaging, kaleidoscopic ode to the creative spirit.