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Courtesy Atlas Media

Inside Grapevine Mills is a house. Inside that house is a refrigerator. Inside that fridge is a room full of more fridges. And inside those fridges are … well, to say any more would be to spoil the experience, because Meow Wolf has come to Texas. The famed Santa Fe art collective has enlisted national and local artists to take viewers on a fantastical trip of art, story, and experience. Opening last week in what was once a Bed Bath & Beyond, The Real Unreal is a brand-new permanent installation that follows similar pieces in Denver and Las Vegas.

Beginning with entry into what looks like any suburban home, Unreal’s narrative follows young Jared Fuqua and mother LaVerne, who have recently relocated to the home of family friends the Delaneys. However, Jared has gone missing, and viewers will be taken on a journey from places such as fairy tale-like forests to time-stuck laboratories to discover what happened to him, enjoying and analyzing paintings and sculptures along the way.

Unreal begins with viewers guided by employees called “portal keepers” into what seems like an everyday suburban home that just happens to be inside a mall. Further exploration leads to things that shouldn’t be there. An apiary contains what looks like the eggs of some eldritch abomination. A cupboard crawls with ants making sculptures out of sugar. Paintings of paletas with monster faces adorn entire walls. All are works of art by artists from around the country, more than 30 of them from Texas.

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However, the story can be completely ignored, and viewers can experience the art for themselves as they travel the largely nonlinear, and sometimes disorienting, layout of the installation. The narrative’s “child lost in a fantasyland” feeling doesn’t just pull from places like Stranger Things and Alice in Wonderland. It makes the viewer feel as if they’re lost in entirely different worlds. The Front Yard and the Delaney House seem normal enough, with tidbits of story laid out in journals and on computers, but they quickly give way to places like the Glowquarium, an installation that’s like if an aquarium did too much acid, and the Lamp Shop Alley, a standout location that recalls the dystopian storefronts of Blade Runner mixed with the Troll Market from Hellboy 2. Thankfully, there are plenty of portal keepers around to provide hints for the story or to guide weary viewers toward the exit. It’s also obvious that a lot of keepers are having the time of their lives working there, at least so far.

And the art filling each location fits the location’s theme well and goes a long way toward adding to the overall story. “Macrodose,” a massive sculpture from Dallas’ Dan Lam that can best be described as a gorgeous melting rainbow, occupies an entire segment of the Glowquarium, feeling like both a living segment of another reality dropped in ours as well as something from dreams made solid, perfectly fitting within the installation’s title. Then there are the more interactive elements, such as “Payphone” by Meow Wolf artist Maxwell Cohn. Looking like a once-ordinary payphone, albeit with a multitude of various wires connecting it to who knows where, it actually can connect to a phone inside the house, allowing viewers to relay tips and information on the story to one another, or you can dial one of the many phone numbers on advertisements and graffiti, allowing you to, say, dial up public-domain karaoke songs from the 1910s.

As for how the story integrates with the surroundings and how the art fits into a unified theme, it can feel a little disjointed at times if viewers aren’t paying attention to how the works relate to Jared and his family’s journey. Viewers will get a lot from just the sheer extreme gorgeousness and creativity of the installations and pieces, but they’ll also get more the more they look into the story and the more they think on what each piece means to its location. In that regard, it is much like a museum, or even an open-world video game, where the amount of joy one gets is relative to the amount of work put in. In that way, a simple two-hour viewing will provide a dazzling excursion, but a three- to four-hour analysis will prove far more memorable.

The Real Unreal, despite its “throw everything at the wall” initial appearance, reveals a deep, beautiful experience for those willing to take the journey. And even for those who just want to walk around and see some crazy art, it’s more than worth the price of admission.

Meow Wolf: The Real Unreal
Grapevine Mills, 3000 Grapevine Mills Pkwy, Grapevine. Starting at $45 per person. 866-636-9969.
Courtesy Atlas Media
Courtesy Atlas Media
Courtesy Atlas Media
Courtesy Atlas Media
Courtesy Atlas Media

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