Last weekend we took a post-birthday trip to Las Vegas, and it turned out to be fantastic. I’m not a particularly big fan of Vegas, and I hadn’t visited in at least fifteen years, so we had a few specific things on the agenda: I wanted to see the Neon Museum, the Cirque du Soleil Beatles show1Watch this blog for updates!, and Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart.
Since I’m possibly the last person among my friends, coworkers, and general peer group to see Omega Mart, I’d seen quite a bit about it beforehand. The premise seemed like something I’d be into — a weird supermarket hiding tons of secrets behind its shelves. This is a location-based entertainment/art installation. I know this!
As it turns out, I had no idea. I’ve been hearing for years how neat Omega Mart is, and I still went away thinking that all of that praise was actually under-selling it.
I’ve gotten pretty cynical about art installations that never nail the tone between “satirical” and “self-important,” so I admit I expected Omega Mart to be a bunch of Banksy-esque bullshit with secret doors into Burning Man-esque bullshit2I’ve never been and will never go to Burning Man, so that shouldn’t be taken as the same kind of value judgment I’m making about Banksy.. You see, the grocery store represents corporate consumerism, it would proudly announce, to make sure that we all get it.3To be fair to me: I’d just recently visited the Hirshhorn museum in Washington, DC, which I thought was full of pieces with that tone.
So it was a very nice surprise to explore Omega Mart and see that it was clever, funny, weird, beautiful, and possibly most surprising of all: fun. And all with the confidence that people would get as much or as little as they wanted to get out of it.
And even better: that confidence was working. The place was packed full of people, and everybody seemed to be exploring every corner of the place, looking for secrets, watching videos, reading “secret” documents, and most of all, playing. It didn’t have the feel of a modern art museum or even an art installation, but was more like a theme park.
In fact, my one complaint about Omega Mart is that there were too many people enjoying it! There are several terminals throughout the attraction, and all of them were occupied by guests poring through all the details, enjoying the story and looking for clues to the next section.
Over the past few months, I’ve been realizing more and more that I need to reconsider my outdated, compartmentalized perception of how arts and entertainment work. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that the first step to understanding a work is to identify and categorize it. This is comedy, this is drama. This is earnest, while that is satirical. These artists are in on the joke, these artists are clumsy but well-intentioned, these artists are deserving of ridicule. And as I’ve said before, what’s always been most important is that I get it.
The relentless playfulness of Omega Mart defies all of that compartmentalization. Yeah, it is undoubtedly an indictment of consumerism, but the exhibition itself is a store in which they sell a lot of the art pieces. It does have an opinion about American corporate empires, but instead of having shallow villains, its characters are mostly goofy, or sympathetic, or both.
In fact, I got an overwhelming sense of kind-heartedness from the entire thing. It has a social conscience that is very evident throughout, but it didn’t feel like an accusation, or a political rallying cry. I got the sense that the people who made this wanted us to have fun with it and leave with a reminder to be kind to each other.
There’s a wonderful scene where part of the story is told through the mirror of a teenage girl’s vanity. And instead of being “realistic,” they made the genius choice to film it as a 1980s-style music video4Or at least, that’s how I saw it from my particular frame of reference. I loved it because instead of just being focused on the lore and storytelling, the style puts all the focus on the heightened emotions of someone at that age. You get it all wordlessly.
It was great to see the space not only crowded, but with a wide range of people. It wasn’t “puzzle enthusiasts,” or “fans of interactive theater,” or “modern art aficionados,” but simply “Las Vegas tourists.” People of all different ages, some wanting to go deep on the storytelling, some wanting to play with all of the interactive installations, and some just wanting to take selfies. It seemed like Meow Wolf’s commitment to fun and accessibility5And, let’s be honest, aggressive marketing! was making all of this art available to an audience that would never see it otherwise.
I’m so used to seeing people insist on the dichotomy between “artistic integrity” and “selling out.” The idea has always been that you make compromises to popularity or to commercial success in order to fund the art that you really want to make. That whole notion has been feeling more and more outdated as we creep farther into the 21st century, as people seem better able to grasp stuff that is simultaneously crass and sincere, earnest and commercial. I feel like the success and popularity of Omega Mart is a great example of how mashing it all together — art and commerce, satire and sentimentality — can mean that you don’t have to make compromises.
- 1Watch this blog for updates!
- 2I’ve never been and will never go to Burning Man, so that shouldn’t be taken as the same kind of value judgment I’m making about Banksy.
- 3To be fair to me: I’d just recently visited the Hirshhorn museum in Washington, DC, which I thought was full of pieces with that tone.
- 4Or at least, that’s how I saw it from my particular frame of reference
- 5And, let’s be honest, aggressive marketing!