Walking into a Story in Santa Fe

Inside an old bowling alley in Santa Fe lives a multi-dimensional work of art. The House of Eternal Return blends written word, video, sculpture, paintings, textiles, and architectural space to immerse visitors in a mysterious story. When you go through the doors of a Victorian house built inside the former bowling alley, you find evidence of a family’s seemingly ordinary life, but as you explore you find that something strange has happened to the people, and to nature of time and space and reality. The characters and their story have to be discovered through the artifacts in the house, ranging from photographs to drawings to journals. For example, if you open the pages of a diary in a child’s room, you learn more about the mystery. If you don’t, you find clues elsewhere.

Behind the refrigerator is another world. If you open the fridge, you leave ordinary reality. Or you might exit another way. The upstairs goes in and out of altered worlds. Some are serene, some adventurous, some disturbing though not terrifying, just intensely strange. The psychedelic nature of this art installation is hard to describe. There’s so much to explore, so many aspects to the story—moving, transcendent, bizarre—that I can see why people buy a year’s pass. One visit isn’t enough for a full discovery. I crawled through a hole in a closet to find a piano under a glass ceiling like a starry sky. I clambered down a winding narrow staircase to a mystical cave full of music and crystal-like forms. Much of the art is interactive. You can play pianos and unique percussion instruments built into the sculptural walls; you can turn pages and decide if you’ll leave that journal open or closed; and you can press buttons to get sound and light effects. There are hidden nooks with video screens showing episodes of the residents’ past. Some videos only start if you choose to sit in the chair in front of them, and they seem to react when you get up to leave.

I recommend this art space to anyone who loves to play with reality, and who will not be overwhelmed by occasional flashing lights, moments of chaotic sound, tight narrow spaces, spiral staircases, and a general sense of being unmoored, floating in a sea of dreams. After spending a few hours in it, I found that meditation after my yoga practice was deep and blissfully silent. The chains of thought-to-thought busyness had been broken and my inner space was open wide.

Later, when my left brain came back online, I reflected on the story-telling genius of The House of Eternal Return. The objects in the normal-time-and-space rooms hint at the inner life of the characters and at the events that happened to them, and visitors end up collaborating at uncovering clues. One person notices a document and reads it. Another discovers a crawl space. Another emerges from an unexpected place—like the refrigerator. It’s like sharing a 3-D novel—part science fiction, part mystery—with other readers.

When I write a book, I can improvise the plot as I go. More often, I know where it ends and then try out different routes to get there. Free-flowing as the initial process is, however, the end product is a linear narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The story in The House of Eternal Return is told in a nonlinear way, with multiple options for how visitors experience it, but the process of creating this vast, multi-chambered work of art had to be as precise as the design of an aircraft. If you’re a story-teller, this aspect of it may intrigue you as much as the interactive masterpiece itself.

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