The act of creation is frequently described as something that the artist doesn’t want to do, but something they must do. There’s an undeniable pull which the artist much acknowledge or they will be driven to torment. At least, that’s the sexy version of it. The truth is, many artists can only dream of making the projects they imagine because art is funded by money and an artist without money cannot create. This truth didn’t stop a self-forming DIY anarchistic collective from making art, nor did it stop them from impacting the art world at large. What it did do is change the course of their lives – for better or worse – forever. This collective, known as Meow Wolf, began as a small group of desperate to create individuals working together to make works of absolute madness in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Meow Wolf: Origin Story is a hyperkinetic documentary providing an unflinching look at the madcap minds – past and present – behind the wondrous creations and digs into the origins of this unlikely organization while exploring the constant push-pull struggle of artistic expression against capitalist gains.
None do this as much as the installation which put them on the global stage − “The Due Return,” an installation whose form is an interdimensional pirate ship – built from the ground up – where each room offers a completely different experience. A physical manifestation of Meow Wolf, “The Due Return” feels at once like its comprised of smaller pieces contained within the shell of a larger piece. Each one independent and unique, yet in service of the larger idea. As explained in the doc, this installation required the artists to go beyond their comfort zones as creatives, but also to begin to see the value in adopting aspects of structure the organization largely rails against. This internal conflict among the members, especially as they ponder and celebrate their successes, grows to be an unignorable philosophical conundrum. As a group of anarchists, at what point is the risk of becoming The Man worth it if it provides the means of feeding the metaphysical entity they jokingly refer to as “The Beast,” something the collective believe is the source from which all of their art manifests. Pulling away from the art to examine the artists, that’s where Meow Wolf: Origin Story really shows its teeth.
Unlike some documentaries which attempt to bolster support or rip apart their subject, filmmakers Morgan Capps and Jilann Spitzmiller seek to do neither. Instead, what they offer is an unflinching behind-the-scenes look at the artists making up Meow Wolf, whose deep love of art is the only thing that seems to keep them together at all. Individually, their artistic views within the organization are discordant, as are their approaches to sharing that art. Frequently, the styles of creation overlap in ways that would appear, to the casual observer, to overtake one another in the struggle for a shot at taking the limelight. Yet, as each member of the collective is given a chance to discuss their journey, it’s very clear that for all of their opposing views, they all see their work as improved by the additions of another. That, if art is to be about expression, their work must change as it engages the work of another. As demonstrated through interviews of members past and present and with footage from old documentaries, projects, and self-made videos, Art – that’s with a capital “A” – is the thing the members service and, by working together, constantly rejuvenate their artistic process resulting in their work constantly evolving. This, the members say, is all in service to Meow Wolf; not the organization, mind you, but “The Beast.” But here’s the thing, joke or not, they all say it, and the work they create is frequently so jaw-droppingly challenging and inventive, that whether or not their work is born out of a mythical creature from an alternate plane of existence funneling its creative forces into a group of artists, it’s clear that within each member of the collective – past, present, or future – there exists an unquenchable desire to create.
And do they create. Though they had worked on smaller projects together – shows, music videos, physical installations of varying sizes and directions – their anarchistic view frequently got in their way of working in harmony to create pieces beyond the works of a few artists. When an opportunity for them to do something different arises, for them to pull together as one true unit to create “The Due Return,” that’s when things began to change. Considering the documentary makes it clear from the beginning that the story is one of ups-and-downs, there’s an expectation of some falling out and back in again, but to hear the members talk about what each dip and crest did to them individually, is frequently heart-breaking. To their credit, none of the interviewees shy away from opening up about how much Meow Wolf, as a result from the creation process, drained them or how badly some of them wanted to walk away. These sobering moments of uncompromising honesty make the art the audience observes them struggle to create all the more wondrous.
Much like the art they create, Meow Wolf: Origin Story is not for a populist audience. While it may track in the standard three-act structure involving birth, a fall, and a rebirth which is synchronously painfully sad and hypnotically cool, there’s a deep undercurrent examining that kind of conflict that all struggling artists engage in: is my art devalued when people crave it or should I enjoy an increased sense of opportunity notoriety brings? In this regard, Origin Story not only seems like the most appropriate title, but the only one that would do. Even after ten years, Meow Wolf is only getting started. “The Due Return” made an enormous splash, but it’s their on-going installation in Santa Fe “House of Eternal Return,” which Origin Story begins and ends upon, that really showed the world what Meow Wolf is capable of. Taking their global renown outside of Santa Fe, Meow Wolf’s been able to expand and grow into a more formal company with new spaces in Denver, Colorado, and Las Vegas, Nevada, creating works of untold imagination in a Sisyphean effort to feed The Beast. If Capps and Spitzmiller’s portrayal of Meow Wolf is correct, though, their complexity and conflict will no doubt continue to fuel their creative spirit and never weaken their ideals.
Tickets for the one-night only Fathom Event on Thursday, November 29, 2018 can be found here.
For more information on art collective Meow Wolf, head to their official website.
Review Update 12/6/18:
Meow Wolf: Origin Story is now available via digital stream to either rent (4.99) or purchase (9.99) via the documentary website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.