A short essay by Olena Shmahalo

Here is another short piece from the VCS Senior Essay Workshop. This one is by Olena Shmahalo, and presents another take on the relationship between art and world at large.


During High School I read a lot of new-age self-help lit, mostly because my mother got into it and handed me her leftovers, and because I was always curious about philosophy, psychology, and methods of understanding. I never felt satisfied or at ease perceiving this world as it is readily given. In these readings I found solace in the degree of control that the concept of creating-one’s-future-through-intention offered, and great interest in the science; I wasn’t aware of those authors’ gross misinterpretations when it came to bolstering their thoughts with anything about quanta or strings. For “the power of intention”¹ to have results in one’s life, it requires a muting of skepticism so that the latter does not interact with and thereby alter the positive course of the former. However, because I was so interested in the physics that kept being mentioned, I ended up becoming increasingly skeptical.

By that time I was at least a year into college, so it may have been a side effect of moving to New York and becoming a liberal “Godless heathen” (as a friend of mine once suggested). This meant that, over the course of four years or so, the focus of my thoughts and work began to take a turn away from my Catholic upbringing, Western idealizing of “Eastern” thought, and commonplace, bite-sized issues, to encompassing an ever larger universe in every direction — the human, the cosmic, the sub-atomic…

As well, I reached out to science because art school wouldn’t allow me Art anymore. Here, nothing can be held too dear because it’s always flipped around and torn apart — it has to be strong enough to withstand that. And here, the word “art” is mentioned in all its forms at least a googol a day, like a white noise soundtrack. It’s funny because I thought this would be an auspicious environment in contrast with what public education had presented to me as “math”, “chemistry”, and other horrific requirements, but it ended up being just enough of a vacuum that it inspired a necessary breakthrough. Constantly I’d think, “God damn, there are other things in the world that are interesting and relevant. Why aren’t they being included?” and so I’d quietly rebel in a nerdy way and set Heidegger, the Chelsea district, and Claes Oldenburg aside (really, running desperately away from the latter) in favor of Gell-Mann, Hawking, and Greene. They offered me a “candle in the dark”²: a broader understanding allowing for a kind of “self-obliteration”³, thereby the ability to find comfort in the world by imagining its in-visible forms and from points of reference I couldn’t previously imagine, and to ask ever-propagating questions about the nature of our being. The perceptive state coming from that understanding is an enticing form of escapism because of its promise of unambiguous truth: something to hold on to in a time-space where one is otherwise democratically floating around.

It’s also a new kind of sublime; subjective though this may be, I cried when I saw Journey to the Stars at AMNH’s Rose Center. It’s amazing because there’s little that garners such or any reaction lately, what with senses dulled by decades of exposure to the shocking and awesome via various capable media. That Space Show isn’t considered art in the traditional sense, but the creators’ effective mixture of comprehension, talent, and ability to share their excitement about the subject (as teachers like Feynman and Sagan did) is something I aspire to in my work.

In leaning away from art, I’ve found much more to bring back to it — if I can be a scientist, an inventor, a polymath, and a “crocodile” the next day,⁴ it’s a vastly richer experience. Why is “richer” important? I would guess that it’s closer to being life-like, which means to be more active on a most basic physical level, and so I digress, skipping entire flights in between here and there, to the currently haunting question, “why motion?” I don’t know, but there’s little more exhilarating or seemingly pertinent than asking and searching.

1. Wayne Dyer, The Power of Intention
2. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
3. Yayoi Kusama, “By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe.”
4. Swiss artists Gerda Steiner & Jorg Lenzlinger’s response to an interview question, “What do you love about being an artist?: That we can be crocodiles if we like.”

Visual & Critical Studies