Before we begin, a strobe light disclaimer. Those prone to seizures or acid flashbacks should not proceed. Those uncertain about uncertainty should venture on with caution. The world we are about to enter, Meow Wolf’s newest location in the Grapevine Mills Mall, is not for the bland of heart. Instead, it is a realm of nonstop maximalism, a dimension where no nook or cranny is overlooked and no silence is tolerated.
Meow Wolf, maker of hypnotic, enveloping exhibits, opened its doors in Santa Fe in 2008 with the first of its large-scale immersive art installations. In each of its three subsequent locations—Denver, Las Vegas, and now Grapevine—the company built a permanent maze of otherworldly art installations and world-building sets, each organized around a loose storyline. (A fifth location will launch in Houston next year.) For the latest iteration of the art empire’s otherworldly brand, Meow Wolf has chosen an exotic locale: a suburban Texas mall.
A shopping center may seem a staid place to host a stimulus bonanza in the present day, but Meow Wolf chose the location to appeal to the nostalgia of our hangout spot of yesteryear. And Grapevine Mills, hip to the declining fortunes of brick-and-mortar retailers, has created an experiential smorgasbord for visitors to enjoy. Meow Wolf Grapevine joins Peppa Pig World of Play, Fieldhouse USA, and a Rainforest Cafe in entertaining the masses.
The Grapevine exhibit, titled “The Real Unreal” and housed in a former Bed Bath & Beyond, features a mesmerizing labyrinth of seventy-plus interlocking rooms of bright art, imaginative sculptural creatures, and fantastical storylines and concepts crafted by a team of more than 150 full-time artists and an additional 40 or so North Texas–area muralists, painters, and sculptors. A café and gift shop round out the gallery experience, though the museum is pricier than most, with tickets starting at $45.
Guests enter unreality through a “sensory deprivation” hallway, a short stretch of blackened wall space and the only area in the exhibit painted one solid color. After that sober trip, the world-building sets quickly devolve into a surreal, Willy Wonka–esque explosion: color, light, sound, and texture mix and merge and blur to distort a visitor’s sense of perception and time and tap into their inherent imagination. (It’s no coincidence that Meow Wolf’s second location was in Las Vegas, the town that perfected the art of overstimulation.) Guests are told that a story lies within the exhibit and are encouraged to find their own clues within each artwork. The plot begins in a house, where photos, mail, and books hint at the inhabitants’ disappearance; the story and the exhibit proceed from there. And because the installation unfolds along a choose-your-own-adventure path—much like an escape room—no two visitors will have quite the same experience.
While the exhibit can feel like a hodgepodge, “The Real Unreal” represents the brand’s first attempt to weave together the storylines of its four disparate locations. Like the original Santa Fe exhibit, the Grapevine experience begins in a home, with a storyline centering on a boy who goes missing after he discovers an otherworldly creature. As in Santa Fe, the home’s washing machine and refrigerator become portals to other worlds with names such as Neon Kingdom and Glowquarium, remixes of spaces that originally appeared in “House of Eternal Return.” Easter eggs abound for Meow Wolf fans who have visited both locations. Such a Marvel-esque commodification of artwork, while at times thrilling, has the sheen of a money ploy, especially in the hands of a multimillion-dollar company that’s now fifteen years out from its DIY roots. And indeed, other immersive art installations, like the nationwide Van Gogh exhibit, or the Instagram-friendly Museum of Ice Cream, have been criticized for their commercial varnish.
But in the hands of Meow Wolf’s multitude of creators, who seem to delight in the artful inclusion of clues and references, the creation of a multiverse feels like an earnest extension of the brand’s storytelling-as-art ethos, as well as a play on its recurring themes of perception and reality. The company says it will soon venture out into virtual reality games, apps, and graphic novels.
Despite the specter of brand strategy hanging over the place, there’s an overwhelming amount of novelty to scavenge. Somehow, despite the scale of the space—in which my tour guide repeatedly got lost—the most minute details are gleefully executed. In the Midwestern-style home, where the main storyline begins, a TV is loaded with countless shows and music relevant to the fictional characters; a random jazz album included therein is one recorded, in part, by local artists. In a constructed alleyway, a graffitied image of four numbers in sign language belies the code to a nearby ATM, which is itself connected to a light-up piano elsewhere in the exhibit. An arcade features original and inventive games designed by indie developers from Texas, as well as an anthropomorphized vending machine that has beef with the aforementioned ATM.
Throughout the exhibit, you’ll also find a lush two-story jungle with music-making mushrooms; an outsized refrigerator interior; a Cold War–era bunker; a people-sized, pillow-filled petri dish; an underwater transborder desert; an electric gingerbread fiefdom; and more. It’s an onslaught of all-out eyeball candy. Of course, it’s all eminently Instagrammable.
Some of the most compelling moments in the exhibits are the nooks carved out for local artists. Dallas artist Dan Lam’s Macrodose, a giant gob of rainbow goop, slops over an entire wall as her original soundtrack, set at the allegedly healing frequency of 528 hertz, goads the mind into gentle reflection. Dallas’s Ricardo Paniagua’s Alter Space, a cathedral of geometric shapes and simple light patterns, mesmerizes and awes. And Lance McGoldrick’s Crystal Cloud Cave—a room filled with an expansive sunset scene and piles of rock-like cubed mirrors—feels like the calm, thoughtless epicenter of smooth brain. North Texas artists, including Lam and Paniagua, began conceiving of their pieces two years ago, after Meow Wolf liaisons found their work on Instagram or through the Dallas art scene.
A critical mind might compare Grapevine Mills Mall’s newest resident to its other amusements. And while yes, Meow Wolf Grapevine does feature at least one simulated thunderstorm like its neighbor the Rainforest Cafe, its maximalist neon beating heart feels pure. Here, at least, art is a portal to another dimension.