The American supermarket is over 100 years old. The Piggly Wiggly, our modern supermarket’s progenitor, first established in 1916 in Tennessee, began a new wave in consumerism. From there, Michael J. Cullen created King Kullen, the first official supermarket, in 1930 in a 6,000 square-foot garage in Queens. Since then, the supermarket has mutated larger, more terrifying, ever encroaching on modern life. To engage in the experience of an American megamart is to entagle oneself in the fabric of our deepest-held notions of collective identity in these United States.
The Megamart is so culturally important that the celebrated arts collective Meow Wolf has decided to take on this subject in … Las Vegas. If you don’t know what Meow Wolf is, I will quote the words of their marketing team: “Meow Wolf is an arts and entertainment company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We create immersive and interactive experiences that transport audiences of all ages into fantastic realms of story and exploration.”
Beginning in 2008, a loose collective of “outsider” artists in Santa Fe began collaborating to make immersive experiences in their little desert town. By 2016, with funding from Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, they had created a permanent space in a former bowling alley dubbed the House of Eternal Return. Their work was considered groundbreaking in the way it merged myriad creative practices with psychedelic aesthetics and performance-based engagement. The founders managed to eschew the distancing nature that institutions like museums create around art and serve it up to the public in a more populous manner.
Meow Wolf has since expanded to Denver and Las Vegas. Omega Mart, its permanent, supermarket-themed installation, opened at Area 15 in February.
The Omega Mart experience is commendable on several levels. It feels complete and works cohesively enough to draw audiences in as much as any theme park. The visitor is initially met by “employees” (paid performers) who welcome you to the space. (If you are playing a role as an Omega Mart employee, I personally celebrate you for finding a job that pays more than $12 an hour in the arts.)
Omega Mart is saturated with maximalist aesthetics, soaking in a shallow pool of psychedelia. In true supermarket fashion, we find imitations of any number of everyday products—tattooed chickens, Warhol soup cans, boxes of cereal, t-shirts, even gum, all amusingly packaged with ironic nods to consumer culture. Although the products are fake, most of them are actually for sale.
After entering through the supermarket, my date and I passed through one of the many hidden passageways into the larger space. The back of Omega Mart is where most of the action is. It’s two stories, 52,000 square feet, filled with many ways to amuse oneself. On a Tuesday night, the space was overfilled with visitors. Guests walked, climbed and crawled over most of the available free surfaces, inspecting all of the mysteries that they provided.
The throng of bodies in a pandemic added an unnecessary tension. Besides that though, I must admit it was fun. We looked through all of the spaces but avoided the four slides. What’s with all of the slides? They appear both dangerous and cheap. We climbed through cave passages and stairwells. There was giggling and dancing.
Omega Mart’s painted desert, extraterrestrial gas station, and neon-decorated factory contain an overwhelming number of sensations and sounds. Oversaturation is the point of such an attraction, but the number of rooms, slides, and actors interacting with us piled it a bit too high. My best advice is to pick the one or two rooms that really speak to you and sit with them as pleasantly as possible.
You will be prompted to explore the story of Omega Mart, mostly through televisions, pamphlets, and computer screens involving captivating video art pieces that would have appealed to my 25-year-old-stoner-Adult-Swim-watching self. The amount of time the story asks you to spend in front of screens is a special kind of disappointing, considering how much time and effort was dedicated to designing such a large, intricate IRL space.
What I find most unsettling is the clear dearth of imagination surrounding Omega Mart’s narrative. It’s pretty basic, y’all. An evil corporation is synthesizing a mystical substance from sacred lands into its products, making said products more addictive. This, of course, is having detrimental effects on both the consumers and the environment. OMG so meta. Did I mention the presence of aliens as an easy proxy for Indigenous peoples? I’m almost certain I watched this Saturday morning cartoon in 1985.
The simplistic nods to corporate indoctrination and easy jabs at mass marketing are backed with the ever-watered-down spiritual materialism of artists like Alex Grey. Omega Mart is a post-intellectual grab-bag of psychedelic light displays; lush, tactile gratification; and interactive tech that engages the visitor at the same dynamic level as a children’s museum. It would be simple to write off the efforts of an incredible number of creative minds as rote or pandering, but inevitably Omega Mart is an amusement park for adults on psychedelics and a massive selfie station with extra glitter, not so much a bastion of groundbreaking art practices. This is Kitsch—an oversimplified imitation of art in order to make a buck.
I also question the organization’s commitment to Las Vegas artists.
“I was incredibly proud of and impressed by the team we were able [to form] locally,” Spencer Olsen, Meow Wolf’s Las Vegas artistic director, told KNPR. “It was almost too good to be true. Everyone was wonderfully talented and so inspired to be working on it.” Yet he never manages to credit any specific local artist when he’s singing their praises. While hundreds are listed on the credits page and in a small circle in the hallway that leads to Omega Mart, each actual installation is presented anonymously. You couldn’t put a name to a piece if you tried.
I fully understand that we all must survive capitalism, that this is the strategy that the Meow Wolf collective has built for itself. It remains discouraging that with so many dexterous hands and hardworking minds, we have simply received yet another facile addition to what popular culture gets to call art.
Conceptually, Omega Mart plays like a bad boxing match. A self-proclaimed outsider art organization steps into the ring against consumerist culture, only to find out the fight is fixed and you can buy your own championship belt for pennies on the dollar at the gift shop.
Omega Mart is located at Area 15, 3215 S. Rancho Drive, Las Vegas. It’s open daily from 10 am-midnight. Tickets and info here.