Yuliya Lanina is an Austin-based American artist of Ukrainian-Russian-Jewish descent whose wide range of work comprises paintings, animation, animatronic sculptures, performances, and installations. Her art can be surreal, colorful, otherworldly, sexual, and playful, always edged with darkness.
Soon after the pandemic hit, Lanina traveled to Vienna as a Fulbright Scholar, where she began researching artists interned in Theresienstadt — the so-called “model” transit and labor camp that the National Socialists designed to deceive the world — and the art they created while incarcerated. Around this time, her father died, prompting her to delve into her own family’s history during the Holocaust. In 1941 her grandmother’s family was slaughtered by the Nazis, along with all the Jews in Chudnov, their Ukrainian village. The mass shootings in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine are referred to as the Holocaust by Bullets, the first phase of what became the Final Solution.
Lanina’s research helped her understand the ways in which violent upheaval impacted her family members, creating dysfunctions such as avoidance and silence that shaped their lives after the war. Seeking to untangle layers of multigenerational trauma, Lanina created “Gefilte Fish,” an animation made up of hundreds of black-and-white drawings that tells her story and that of Ukraine’s Jews through text and image.
I interviewed Lanina about “Gefilte Fish” on January 31, 2022. Less than one month later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Lanina began combing through first-hand accounts on social media, where Ukrainians were reporting atrocities. The violence addressed in “Gefilte Fish” — torture, murder, rape, and burial in mass graves — was repeating. She began making drawings of what was happening in Ukraine in a series called “My Wailing Wall.”.
This new work will be on view along with “Gefilte Fish” and drawings from the animation in the exhibition “Yuliya Lanina: Guts” at St. Edward’s University Fine Arts Gallery from May 21 to June 11. With the upcoming show in mind, I re-interviewed Lanina on April 24. The following includes excerpts from both interviews, which have been edited for clarity and length.
January 31, 2022
Rebecca Rossen: Your intention when you went to Vienna was to focus on works by artists imprisoned by the Nazis. How did you transition from that topic to one focused on your own family’s Holocaust experiences and the impact they had on subsequent generations?
Yuliya Lanina: While I was researching Theresienstadt, a friend told me about his father, a Holocaust survivor who didn’t go into the camps but went into hiding. All of a sudden, I realized that my father, too, was a Holocaust survivor, because his family was exterminated by the Nazis in Chudnov, Ukraine, for being Jewish. In the Soviet Union, we never talked about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union — the Jews killed in the war were referred to as “Soviet citizens.” I started reading about what actually went on in Ukraine. I don’t think I’ve read anything so horrific; the descriptions of the murder, torture and deception shock the conscience. So, my project shifted from Theresienstadt to Ukraine.
RR: Did you ever talk to your father about being a survivor? Did he ever talk about it, or was there just silence?
YL: Well, silence is a big part of the story. When I was about 20, my grandmother told me what happened in Chudnov. I think she knew that this was the last time she was going to see me, and she wanted me to know. As for my father, we discussed a few things when I started the project. I hoped to learn more from him, but he died before I was able to.
RR: “Gefilte Fish” is such a multilayered, haunting, and painful rendition of transgenerational trauma. During your fellowship year, you were thinking about your family’s fate in Nazi–era Ukraine and how your father was actually a survivor, and you were starting to connect what he and his brother experienced, with your own experiences in the early 1990s, including your mother’s cancer, moving to the U.S. to live with an uncle who abused you, and the eating disorder you developed as a result. When did all these layers of trauma come together for you?
YL: As I read about the Holocaust in Ukraine, I thought about how to visualize what happened to the Jews there. The only thing I could visualize was an endless black hole. And that’s not a good visual for anything. So, I thought if I were to go into my own black hole, maybe I could connect. I cannot speak about the Holocaust. I didn’t live through it. I felt that I couldn’t access it. And at the same time, I had this really bad back pain all last year. So, I started talking to my body about my pain: what do you want to tell me?
RR: I think this is very relevant, the body and pain.
YL: I was asking my pain, what do you want to communicate? Tell me. I couldn’t sit and I couldn’t stand. I knew it was psychosomatic to a degree. So, I just talked to the pain. The memory of the “gefilte fish” meal that I describe [in the animation] was always something that was painful for me, because [my eating disorder at that time prevented me from eating] the food my sick mother had cooked for me that evening. There were just so many layers to it. And one day I just sat down and wrote the story. I was fortunate to have writers whom I trusted edit my story. Sam Lipman, amazing Austin-based composer, whose grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, created a moving soundtrack that adds so much to the story. There was a lot back and forth between us to get it right. Essentially, that’s how the process unraveled. It was not premeditated.
RR: You don’t usually work with pen and ink and paper, that’s not your primary medium.
YL: No, in fact, sketches are something that I never show. Those would be incomplete, private, not good enough. But then I made those drawings. The Holocaust is just black and white. I couldn’t imagine color, couldn’t show color. And there was so much angst. Just scribbling — it was perfect to express the feeling that I had about everything. In style, these new paintings are closer to the earlier artworks I’ve done, painted soon after my mother’s passing.
RR: There’s a lot of movement in your drawings, especially when you get into the depth of the traumas. You can really see the lines and the layering of line-on-top-of-line that almost captures that absence and that too-muchness that you were saying you couldn’t render. I’m curious about the inclusion of Theresienstadt drawings in the middle of the film.
YL: I was reading a collection of memoirs written by survivors, and one of the entries was by an artist about the eyes of the people she saw. So hungry. So in pain. It really like struck me. When someone is skin and bones, all you see is the eyes. My father used to say this to me because I was very underweight. I started “Gefilte Fish” by focusing on eyes. In reference to victims of the camps, I didn’t want to make my own drawings, because there was nothing for me to draw, as I hadn’t lived through that experience. I didn’t want to draw people from the photographs, because I didn’t know who these people were, or if they had consented [to being photographed]. But I thought I could draw artworks made by artists in concentration camps, their experiences and how they expressed them. I also wanted to bring attention to these people and their lives because so many of them were just completely forgotten.
RR: Can we talk about the images of fish?
YL: First, it’s the meal that I love but cannot eat when my mother serves it. At the same time, it represents the Holocaust victims, their inability to speak about it. It also represents me. The idea of the fish came when my husband and children joined me in Vienna, and we went to an aquarium [housed in buildings constructed for] Nazis by prisoners. These indestructible [flak tower] structures are still in the middle of the city. Some are abandoned, but one was turned into The Haus des Meeres Aquarium. So, we were walking around the aquarium and there was this fish that looked like it was talking. I filmed it. Its face was very expressive. I thought here we are in a structure built by Jews who didn’t survive. They can no longer talk. And it’s filled with all this aquatic life that is pretty much imprisoned inside the structure. We’re looking at them for our entertainment. They don’t want to be here. They cannot talk either. So, I drew the fish.
RR: That’s a really fascinating story, the fish who can’t speak in the middle of a structure that’s indestructible and built by now-dead Jews.
YL: Yes. The fish looked like it was talking, screaming, but we could not hear it. The silent scream. That’s what the Holocaust represents, screaming bodies that no one hears.
RR: Was the process of making this cathartic or painful or both?
YL: Well, my back pain is gone, so that’s amazing. But it was very nerve-wracking. It’s weird for me to make work about something that is not public knowledge, my family history and my personal history. I had to go into a dark place while working on it. It was not cathartic. But I felt it was necessary. I felt that I needed to speak for the people who cannot speak for themselves, you know, both the victims and their children who carry the trauma but who are overlooked. This includes incest survivors who are silenced. The traumas are so deep that you don’t talk about them. I wanted to break the silence. I always knew that at some point this was going to happen. And I think it took my father dying for me to gain the resolve.
April 22, 2022
RR: Given what’s happening in Ukraine right now, how are you putting together the Soviet suppression of what happened there during the Holocaust with what’s happening right now?
YL: What’s happening now to Ukraine is in large part due to silence about the past. About the mass killing of Jews, about starving the Ukrainian population, about Stalin’s terror, about the crimes committed by the Soviet Army. Nobody wanted to talk about it, and now Russia has completely shut down freedom of speech. Meanwhile, government-controlled media are coming out with the most outrageous antisemitic rhetoric. Putin’s regime is trying to erase an entire nation and its unique culture. So much for “never again.”
RR: Has your approach to the exhibit changed?
YL: Originally it was going to be all about “Gefilte Fish.” But I feel with what’s happening in Ukraine, I cannot speak about one thing and not speak about the other. To process the current tragedy and not get deeply depressed, I started making these new drawings. They’re about what’s happening in Ukraine right now, including the bombing of the Babi Yar memorial [to the 33,771 Jews massacred there by the Nazis in September 1941]. Just seeing how the Nazi machinery of sadism and looting are being repeated, now in the name of the great Russian nation. And the sexual violence. It’s always been there, but now people actually talk about it, and they speak about the gravity of the crime and how it is used as a weapon of war.
RR: I’m interested in your drawing method in “Gefilte Fish” and in the new work.
YL: The drawings I am making now are a continuation of the same style, except now there’s red for obvious reasons: there’s so much blood, and it’s a color of rage. I also use a blade to scrape off the color. This cutting, the scraping, the splashing can express how I feel the most. There are so many images that are coming so fast [from the media]. One is more powerful than the next. I don’t draw dead people, just as I choose not to draw from the photos of victims in the concentration camp, because these people didn’t give consent to what happened to their bodies. But I draw the artifacts, the toys, or the people demonstrating in Moscow, St Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and end up in jail. It’s their choice to be there, they choose an expression of public action. So, I draw the people that I feel would want to be drawn or seen, and the artifacts of war. When the war started, I went into shock. Instead of keeping the war in my brain, I started putting it on the page.
RR: What do you hope this newer work on Ukraine will do? What do you want people to get from it?
YL: When something so horrific is going on that is too painful to comprehend or to see, still one must see. I think through seeing it, processing it, and understanding it, we can move forward. I hope that people will be able to find the strength to speak up about and to deal with things within themselves, within their families, communities, and societies, and to really be able to address the painful truths, so we don’t have to continue the violence, domination and destruction.
“Yuliya Lanina: Guts” opens May 21 with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. After the opening, the gallery will open 12 noon-6pm Saturdays, with Lanina in attendance, through June 11. Admission is free. St. Edward’s University Art Gallery, Fine Arts Center, 3001 S. Congress Ave. stedwards.edu/fine-arts-gallery