Maybe it’s just the scary black snow clouds looming over the mountains near Santa Fe, but we’re already thinking about ways to spend our summer. A little bit ago we posted five suggestions for strange art and performance attractions on the West Coast. In this article we are picking 7 of our favorite tourist destinations, all of which are right here in New Mexico.
Our home is a place of very strange and wonderful things that often escape people’s notice. The state of New Mexico is vast and populated by visionaries with talents and obsessions that are beyond the pale. There are fascinating things to be found here and we’ll show you a few of them. If you plan on visiting The House of Eternal Return any time in the future, you may want to check out these places as well.
7). Tinkertown (Sandia Park, New Mexico) – If you’ve read my last piece about attractions on the West Coast you’ll see that I mentioned Musée Mécanique in San Francisco, a collection of vintage mechanical carnival attractions. Tinkertown is similar, but with the important distinction that it blurs the boundaries between the attractions and the viewer. Most old carnival amusements are modular, made to fit in a box yea big by yea big, but the mechanical scenes of Tinkertown are vast and sprawling. They’re jam-packed with detail, requiring time to take everything in. My favorite piece from the collection depicts the battle of good and evil, an apocalyptic scene with skeletons, devils and grim reapers crawling all over a graveyard like a folk art version of Hieronymus Bosch. On top of a mountain surrounded by flashing bolts of lightning, God and Satan have a tug of war with a recently departed soul, a distressed-looking old man (What does that say about dualism?). It comes on as endearing and humorous, but there’s also drama and some serious eschatological questions lurking within the piece.
Much of Tinkertown came from the late Ross Ward, who began carving miniatures for a general store in 1962. His museum was never truly finished; Ward just added to it throughout his life. This means that visitors can witness the evolution of one oddball artist’s creative life in the course of one visit, a rare treat.
6). The Dwan Light Sanctuary (Las Vegas, New Mexico) — The United World College houses the Dwan Light Sanctuary, a multicolored rainbow room that exists for the singular purpose of making you chill out. Conceptualized by Virginia Dwan, the sanctuary was built by Laban Wingert in 1996 with light displays by Charles Ross. Natural sunlight passes through six prisms in the building, creating rainbow effects that have been showing up in our friend’s Facebook profile pictures for years. The rainbows move through the whole sanctuary over the course of a day.
It casts a very broad, inclusive net for its purpose. It’s there to give people a space apart where they can relax and reflect in whatever way they need to and I admire that. It exists for service instead of dogma. Even better: the campus sits near the (free!!!) Las Vegas Hot Springs!
The Sanctuary was closed for several months recently due to rainwater damage, but it has reopened. Still, I recommend that people call ahead first in the interest of being good guests.
5). Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977 (Quemado, New Mexico) — Perhaps the best-known work of land artist Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field promises one hell of a show if you’re lucky. Exactly 400 polished stainless steel poles are arranged in a grid covering one mile by one kilometer. The poles are exactly the same diameter and height — 20 feet, 7.5 inches tall and 2 inches in diameter. Their tips create an even horizontal plane across the field.
The Dia art foundation claims that the site stands up on its own as a sculpture and I agree, but the hook is that the poles light up during lightning storms. Seldom do sculptures look this dramatic. People often think of artists as channeling some power beyond themselves to create their work and that idea couldn’t be more explicitly executed than it is here.
An opportunity to view this attraction is both rare and expensive. Reservations must be booked with Dia months in advance and tickets for one night range between $100 to $250. There are accommodations in a tiny cabin nearby. It’s an effort, to be sure, but I imagine seeing this work of art light up would feel like winning the lottery.
4). The Mystery/Decalogue Stone (Los Lunas, NM) — This one hits me right where I live. The Mystery Stone of Los Lunas deserves a place alongside other specimens of New Mexico high strangeness like Roswell and the Taos Hum. A flat stone in the side of Hidden Mountain outside of Los Lunas has cryptic characters scratched on its surface. New Mexico is famous for its ancient petroglyphs, but this appears to be a written message. What it says depends on who reads it, it seems. People aren’t even in agreement as to when it was discovered. Credit typically goes to UNM archeology professor Frank Hibben, but there are reports that the stone was a known quantity as early as 1880.
As for its message: if any of the theories were true it would be cause for some serious rewriting of history. Some claim it’s a version of the Ten Commandments written in a very old version of Hebrew. A still-wilder claim is that the text is ancient Greek and details the story of a sailor who somehow became marooned in the Americas and had to fight for survival in the desert of New Mexico. As is usually the case with odd relics, I don’t care if it’s a hoax or if either strange theory is true. The poetry of such things is that they are inscrutable. They preserve a sense of mystery and otherworldliness that seems to be missing from mundane life. I think the people who perpetuate hoaxes understand this better than most and I’m grateful that no one ever claimed responsibility for it.
I understand that visitors to the site are required to pay a $25 land use fee. I suggest checking in with the rangers ahead of any trip into the wilderness.
3). Zozobra (Santa Fe, NM) — Will Schuster’s anarchic flaming puppet from 1924 is one of the staples of our summer. It’s such a simple concept, but in many ways it’s the beating heart of what makes Santa Fe such a strange and wonderful place to call home. Zozobra is the manifestation of gloom. A 50-foot tall, ghastly white, howling monstrosity; he’s the representation of every lousy thing that’s happened to us over the last year.
And we burn him alive.
Grim? Maybe. Fun? You have no idea. Imagine thousands of people crowding in the field around Zozobra, all of them in on the gag as they chant “Burn him!” The theater surrounding Zozo is earnestly absurd. Someone comes out with a long scroll and reads the charges against Zozobra. There are dancers. Someone dressed in flaming reds and oranges acts as Zozobra’s executioner. A member of the Kiwanis club takes a microphone backstage and acts as the “voice” of Zozobra (I hear this is a coveted job), growling and howling as the fire travels up two long fuses and catches the marionette on fire. Zozobra burns over the course of several minutes, his head collapses to the ground in a pile of ash, we cheer and go home.
That’s the main event, anyway. At least half of the fun can be found outside of Zozobra at friendly gatherings, backyard barbecues and dance parties both before and after the event. It’s an unofficial holiday for Santa Fe, the day the entire city pats itself on the back. The artists of Meow Wolf, especially those of us who grew up in Santa Fe, owe a debt to Zozobra for showing us how squishy and permeable reality becomes when confronted with a large-scale art project.
2). The Carved Caves of Ra Paulette (Various Locations around Northern New Mexico) — This is a difficult one to reccommend for practical reasons, but let me get to that later while I talk some sugar about sculptor Ra Paulette.
You may have heard about Paulette in the numerous news reports about him in the wake of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Cave Digger (2013). Paulette dedicates years of his life to carving intricate, beautiful sculptures into sandstone caves in Northern New Mexico. His caves have an organic look, like you’re walking inside a living space. People have compared them to cathedrals, but to me they look like a more wholesome version of the bio-tech spaceships in the Alien films.
Paulette definitely qualifies as an agent of the Anomaly. He lives to sculpt, and that’s about all. He walks away from his works once he’s finished with them and simply moves on to the next project. He appears to have no interest in selling them, though that hasn’t stopped other people from trying. If you have a spare $600 grand lying around, you can buy property with his work on site.
Which leads me to the difficulty I mentioned earlier. There is no (to my knowledge, anyway. Please correct me if I’m wrong) “official” Ra Paulette experience out there. In fact, many of his works are on private land that is off-limits to tourists. This is compounded by the fact that we’re talking about rural NM where it can be difficult to find one’s way around various dirt and gravel backroads. It’s art you have to earn and that makes it all the more romantic.
I did come across a guided tour of one of Paulette’s caves. Origin LLC offers trips that start at about $25.
1). Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return (Santa Fe, New Mexico) — Of course I’m going to close out this piece with HOER! In 2016 a succession of miracles led to my 150 friends and I opening our first permanent art exhibition. Santa Fe geek culture hero George R.R. Martin supplied us with a bowling alley, which we used to tell the story of the Seligs, a family gifted with supernatural creative powers. The centerpiece of the exhibit is their Victorian mansion, which is under quarantine by a shadowy organization known as The Charter.
By exploring the home, visitors learn more about the family and why The Charter considers them a threat. It could have something to do with the portals to other dimensions that are connected to the home. The different portals follow dream logic. The fireplace links to a cave system with a Mastodon skeleton. The path from the upstairs leads to tree houses in the canopy of a neon forest. The refrigerator (perhaps the most photographed one on Earth) takes guests to an interplanetary travel resort.
While critics and art writers scratch their heads trying to describe what we’re up to, I’ll end with what I consider to be the themes of the House: Mundane reality seems rigid and dull, but that’s not the truth. Through our applied creative efforts we can change reality and open portals to any conceivable way of being. There is no auteur, no one person you can call the mastermind of the work. There is only creative chaos as dozens of people follow their artistic obsessions and, through collaboration and mutual respect, build a better world. The coolest part is that everyone has this gift. Everyone has creative chaos; it’s the most powerful force humanity possesses. Use yours and see where the portal takes you.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it! I’ll be back again in a few with a follow-up to our Western Road Trip piece.
— Billiam Rodgers