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The décor recalls the 1970s, with faux-wood paneling and afghan-covered beds and a hamster cage in a child’s bedroom. You follow various passageways—through the fireplace, the refrigerator, a closet—and find yourself in fantastical worlds that cling to the periphery of the house like moss. There’s a forest of neon trees. A mobile home plunked down in the middle of a desert. The 22,000-square-foot installation is a haunted house without the monsters, an amusement park without the rides, an acid trip without the drugs.
It is embedded with clues about the mysterious fate of a family who lived there. You can choose to simply steep yourself in the abstract visual stimuli, or you can attempt to piece the narrative together. Anna, a blond 16-year-old, said with teenage earnestness. Sabrina, an 18-year-old with a pixie cut who was flipping through a legal pad like an extra in a crime show.
Though it’s nothing like the soothing pastels and bright landscape paintings on display at Santa Fe’s many galleries and museums, visitors have flocked to it. Collectors from all over the world travel to buy at its internationally renowned summer fairs: the Traditional Spanish Market, the Santa Fe Indian Market, and the International Folk Art Market. Santa Fe also has more than 200 galleries and a dozen museums. Much of the work is characterized by an overwhelming Southwesternness. More than a million tourists come each year in search of this Southwestern aesthetic.
Buddy Mays that I picked up in the gift shop of the New Mexico History Museum, explains that the town’s quaint image was deliberately crafted as a means of driving tourism. Beginning around 1912, the year New Mexico was granted statehood, civic leaders sought to define Santa Fe’s architectural style, set restrictions on signage, and draw attention to Hispanic and Native American arts. The idea was to give the city a historic regional identity and the patina of an exotic travel destination. Too well, some would argue. For years, Santa Fe has been trapped inside its own successful branding. Besides the art, there’s the ubiquitous turquoise jewelry and the inescapable red and green chiles.
There’s the low-slung, mud-brown adobe architecture, the result of a strict zoning ordinance passed in 1957 that remains in effect today. There’s the pervasive undercurrent of New Age spiritualism. Left: the Mallplex at the House of Eternal Return. Right: the Victorian exterior of the House of Eternal Return. Santa Fe—or the idea of it, anyway—has been entrenched in the popular consciousness.