Cleaning Out the Closet: Yuliya Lanina’s “My Dear Skeleton”

by Barbara Purcell December 7, 2020

Image courtesy of ICOSA Collective’s website.

This past Friday evening, Austin artist Yuliya Lanina live-streamed a performance that aptly sums up 2020.

My Dear Skeleton opens with Lanina hanging out in a fiery inferno alongside her trusty sidekick, the aforementioned skeleton. “Hi, how are you?,” she grins into the camera while giving a thumbs-up. “Good?”

Minus the background of flames, the setup could pass for a Zoom call. Lanina’s bandaged head and blackened eyes exude Day of the Dead chic, with a pair of ram’s horns completing the look. “It’s been a so-so kind of year,” she reflects. “So I thought it’s about time to get some skeletons out of the closet.”

Lanina launches into a grim fairy tale about a girl in a far-away evil empire, who travels across an ocean in search of a potion to cure her ailing mother. In this new land, her uncle gives her this potion but says she must first drink it herself — otherwise her mother will die. She drinks it, and still, her mother dies. 

The girl runs away to the big city, where she meets a cast of characters: a stripper called Sweetie, a bulimic named Sparkles, and an addict who goes by Papi. Each character is presented as an animatronic doll — a deranged puppet show that concludes only when the protagonist hightails it out of there, running and running, until she can no longer run. 

Things suddenly shift into first person: “My back hurts — can’t sit or stand!” Lanina begins reciting an incantation in Russian. Her anguished eyes do the translating. 

Let’s assume the storyteller knows a thing or two about this girl. Lanina was born in Moscow and emigrated to the United States with her family when she was 16. They moved to the suburbs of New York City — later Lanina settled in the city to live and work for many years.

My Dear Skeleton is 20 minutes long — enough time to dive into the protagonist’s subconscious and explore what exactly she’s running from. As the performance winds down, we’re introduced to a theatrical display of hand-painted animations —  Lanina’s signature multimedia dish. A tigress parts her long red skirt like stage curtains, bringing us into a burlesque ballet of corset-clad creatures in thin spike heels. 

Still from Yuliya Lanina’s “Always and Forever.”

The cast of animated characters prance around on stage while a sweet black kitty sits quietly in the foreground. Cue the spidery madame in a gas mask: she is reminiscent of Louis Bourgeois’ signature Maman, a massive spider sculpture made by the artist in memory of her mother who died when Bourgeois was 21. The kitten follows the spider offstage and the ballet dissolves into a kaleidoscope of unconscious impulses. Music by composer Nina Young swirls the whole thing together like taffy. 

Still from Yuliya Lanina’s “Always and Forever.”

“The imagery for the animation came out of the small works on paper I was making for the frontline medical workers,” says Lanina, referencing a series she completed earlier in the pandemic. The project, she says, was a way to give back to the nurses and doctors who saved lives while risking their own. It was also Lanina’s way to cope with her father’s recent diagnosis of terminal cancer from a thousand miles away. She was unable to visit him.

Yuliya Lanina’s ICOSA window installation.

My Dear Skeleton was organized by ICOSA Collective curators Terra Goolsby and Tammie Rubin as part of their current Transmissions exhibition, a series of performances that are “no contact, socially distanced, virtual, projected, & in-person by appointment.” A window installation at ICOSA was on view December 3-5 to accompany Lanina’s online event,; it featured her animation Always and Forever, as well as animatronic dolls and paintings she made 25 years ago. 

The film’s little black kitten protagonist, she tells me, is a recent addition to her own family, and has becomes everyone’s “best companion.” The paintings and imagery on display at ICOSA complemented her live-streamed performance and further conveyed a rawness that not only reflects her personal experiences, but the kind of year this has been.

In August, Lanina’s father passed away, and her on-going back pain became unbearable. No longer able to run, she decided to delve into her pain, both physical and emotional, and make a performance out of it. “I spent days sitting in my studio, asking my back what it has to tell me.”

For more information about Yuliya Lanina, please go here. ICOSA’s Transmissions runs from December 4 to January 3, 2021.

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