The War on the Walls in Yuliya Lanina's Mother/Land
The UT professor processes the personal impact of the Ukrainian invasion in her new multimedia installation
In a corner of the second floor gallery of Austin Central Library, there's a simple black-and-white image of a child's toy. But that innocent image has been purposefully desecrated with a splash of red symbolizing blood splatter. Around the walls, dozens more images of war hang: refugees, burning tanks, barbed wire, crying mothers, prisoners of war. There are protesters with placards, surrounded by photographers, while others stand, menaced by masked police officers, with their mouths sewn shut. These images are part of the outpouring of work that has come from multimedia artist and assistant professor of practice in UT-Austin's Department of Arts and Entertainment Technologies Yuliya Lanina in her new show, Mother/Land.
It took Lanina a while to find that picture, the first she drew for what would become this show. Since Russian Federation forces launched an offensive into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, she's produced over 150 of these images – so many that even as her team hung dozens from the walls, dozens more were still in a box, and more are added as the war roils on.
When the invasion started, Lanina canceled a planned show in Milan. She said, "Like many people, I just couldn't function for a while. I had projects I was supposed to do, but it all became meaningless to me."
This wasn't merely existential angst or empathy, but a matter of personal history for Lanina and her family. "One half is Ukrainian Jew and one half is Russian Jew, and Jews are equally hated in both places," she said. During World War II, her family fled what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic for Moscow, "because that's where Nazis didn't get to."
That's also where Lanina was raised until she left, age 17, but she has family in both Russia and Ukraine. She's lost contact with her relatives in Ukraine, but still gets news from her family in Moscow, where there is different but equally painful news: Her uncle is dying, and she cannot travel there. "There are a lot of casualties who are not even involved in the war," she said.
That idea penetrates that first image, of a cuddly toy flecked with blood. To many who grew up in Eastern Europe, he is instantly recognizable as Cheburashka. Part bear, part monkey, the kindly fuzz ball first appeared in Russian author Eduard Uspensky's 1965 children's book Crocodile Gene and His Friends, and went on to be known as the Russian Mickey Mouse through a series of beloved short films produced between 1969 and 1983. "It was something that we all shared," Lanina said. "It was this unity that was between all these nations living together – Ukraine and Russia – and it was killed. I was crying. That was the beginning, and that's when I decided to draw what I see."
Since the invasion began, imagery of the front line has been a dominating factor in her life. "Through the Telegram channels and the constant news and the images and the talk, I needed a way to process it. So I started making the drawings as I was listening to the news, so I was able to feel at the same time as I was listening."
Mother/Land reflects the panoply of skills and media within which Lanina works. "Sometimes I wish I could stop and focus on one thing and perfect it," she sighed, recalling her time as a grad student at New York's Hunter College. "I had five tables, and on each table was a different project in a completely different medium. I would work on one thing, and then I'd get stuck or bored, and I'd move to the next, and then I'd get stuck or bored of that and move to the next. Maybe that's just how my brain works: As I work on something else, I go, 'Oh, that's what I need to do here.'"
That creative restlessness is reflected in the diversity of Mother/Land. The portraits and pictures take up multiple walls of the gallery, creating a visual cordon around eight gigantic poppies – the symbol of peace. Each flower is covered with automatic writing, with eyeballs at their center. It's a design she used in an earlier work, her 2019 animation "Misread Signs." During her 2023 artist residency at San Antonio's Artpace (where she debuted an earlier version of Mother/Land), Lanina was inspired by an acquaintance who makes floral centerpieces to re-create them, eyes and all, as sculptures. "Eyes are something I use a lot in my work," she said. With the flowers, "they are witnesses. They see, but they see deep."
Amid the poppies stands a mechanical figurine of a woman, arms spread and a drum filled with rattling balls where her belly should be. Spin the handle on her back, and a cacophony ensues. For Lanina, it's an indicator of how external factors can affect the body, with trauma expressed through physical distress. "You think you are yourself, but you are influenced by everything around."
That idea of unseen and unrecognized collateral damage – such a bloodless term – flows throughout Mother/Land. In reconnecting with her family in Moscow, she discovered that her cousin is a wildlife photographer, traveling into the vast expanses of Russia's interior to places filled with life but devoid of humans. "It made me think of how much more there is to the land," Lanina said. "We think of conflict, we think of people, but there is everything else. There are all these animals, and they don't think of boundaries. They just live there."
The true centerpiece of the exhibition, reflecting the seemingly limitless consequences of the war, is a 15-minute animated loop, its images pulled from the portraits. "I don't make drawings for the animation," Lanina explained. "I make drawings, and then I make animation." Unlike her earlier works, "there is no narrative, because the narrative is the war." Powerful as the original images are, through layering them and animating them with Adobe Animate, Premiere Pro, and After Effects, Lanina sought to evoke the sensation of endlessly scrolling through social media posts about the war. "It's just this constant news that just keeps coming."
For now, her energy remains focused on the war, and the pictures that comprise Mother/Land.
"As time goes on, I keep making the drawings." Like the war, she said, "it's not done."
Mother/LandCentral Library Gallery, 710 W. Cesar Chavez, second floor
Through Nov. 5
Closing screening of "Gefilte Fish" Sat., Nov. 4, 1:30pm.
Find more of Yuliya Lanina’s work at yuliyalanina.com.