Documentary Review — “Meow Wolf: Origin Story”

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The people in the artists’ collective known as Meow Wolf, and the filmmakers charged with making “Meow Wolf” Origin Story” and for that matter anyone writing about or reporting on them, run head-on into the same semantic dilemma. How do you describe the nearly indescribable?

They’re something like 200 in number — visual artists, video artists, conceptual artists, even performance artists, and the installations they mount are immersive, psychedelic, experiential, a riot of color, interactivity, movement, tactile (Touch me, please.) and sound.

It’s like Burning Man — the Permanent Fringe Festival Experience, as scripted by George R.R. Martin and installed in the most dazzling Children’s Museum you’ve ever visited.

These days, they have a permanent, profitable “high tech amusement park for people who don’t think Disney is nearly weird enough,” experience in Sante Fe, New Mexico, where they were founded. They have traveling exhibits and are franchising into other cities — the Cirque du Soleil of art.

But in the beginning, as any “origin story” promises, they were just young, idealistic somewhat anarchic Sante Fe artists “on the outside looking in” with unlimited imaginations, no backing, no reputation and little chance at cracking “the third largest art market in the United States.”

Emily Montoya, Benji Geary, Vince Kudlabek, Caity Kennedy, Matt King, Benji Geary and Sean Di Ianni were among those who found themselves struggling artists, trapped in a tourist town of 70,000, with almost as many art galleries (300, actually), none of which they could get their work into.

With no room for avante garde, experimental or genre-bending art, they commiserated and partied and made their own fun and noise. Then one day, Sante Fe native Vince Kudlabek, hoping to “agitate” and “shake up the culture I was born and raised in,” hot on the idea of a bunch of them renting a space, creating their own art and making a splash that day.

“We can’t wait for others to invite us to be part of THEIR world. It’s time for us to DO.”

What began with ten or so artists collecting garbage and turning it into this 900 square foot space of dazzling color, form, lights and noise grew, over the course of a decade, into an outfit that could sell out shows in huge warehouses, and eventually take over a closed bowling alley for a permanent exhibition that is the “theme park” Uproxx described above.

That the alley was purchased and rented back to them by Sante Fe’s “Game of Thrones” tycoon George R.R. Martin just made their big splash that much bigger.

We get a taste of the “herding cats” nature of mounting shows by the ever-growing group, an experiment in near anarchy where the organized and driven (principally Kudlabek, Montoya and Geary) forever butt heads with the vast majority, who are too “punk” to sell out. The art form? “Maximalism” is one way to describe it.

“Maximalism is way more stuff than you’d think would be comfortable” in a single space, in a single exhibit.

Their shows — GeoDecadent, The Due Return (a giant maze of a wooden ship, complete with pieces to read or play with, and bunks for naps mid-visit) and Omega Mart, a wholly self-contained “store” of colorful, conceptual weird objects — “Special today on Whale Song…” — culminate in the vast permanent bowling alley makeover.

There, you “open the door into another world, an interdimensional travel agency” via a Queen Anne home called “The House of Eternal Return,” which has passageways that take one to alternate dimensions, realities in time and space, fancifully realized with video, neon, plush this or collage that.

“Origin Story” lets us see them morph from artists or “ideas” people into Imagineers who don’t work for Disney, “creating a hyper event horizon.”

The writer Martin recalls the pitch for him to buy that bowling alley, with phrases like “interdimensional” and “different space and time pushing my buttons, being a sci-fi/fantasy guy.” Buttons pushed, he was all in.

The film tracks the group from “zygote” to full-blown success, from the days when “the cops thought we were a cult” to internal squabbles over who gets credit for what,” from throwing together stuff in the name of art to dealing with “being up to Code” and having to hire electrical contractors to keep them from burning their patrons to death with one flight of fancy too many.

Two big themes run through “Meow Wolf: Origin Story.” One is “inclusivity.” Even people who get into tiffs and storm off find themselves invited back in, “a lot more like a family than friends,” Caity Kennedy says. The other is uncompromising idealism.

That’s the most impressive thing about Meow Wolf — all this money changing hands, all this work donated, created collectively, all these clashing agendas and egos, and they’re still sharing, still pitching in to help others realize their visions, looking to new cities and more “outsiders looking in” artists to replicate their own level of success.

Whatever rough edges were shaved off their group persona for the film (and we hear about conflict but never see it), whatever you think of the eye candy they’re creating, that’s inspiring to see.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: George R.R. Martin, Emily Montoya, Benji Geary, Vince Kudlabek, Caity Kennedy

Credits: Directed by Morgan Capps, Jilann Spitzmiller . A Meow Wokf release.

Running time: 1:29

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