ITHACA, N.Y.—An unusual sight popped up in Home Dairy Alley during the holidays: three captivating figures, appearing disheveled and wearing tattered clothing, huddled together between Center Ithaca and the former Yellow Deli.

Though they were quickly removed, the exhibit quickly made its way around social media, where users noticed that the figures had popped up elsewhere as well: at the base of Ithaca Falls and under the overpass on Route 13 near the skate park.

The figures turned out to be a public art installation crafted by recent Ithaca College graduate Andrew Lackland. Lackland, who uses they/them pronouns, created the figures for an indoor exhibit but then came up with the idea to spread them throughout the local area in different environments, testing how different contexts would influence the way people perceived them.

“It’s not meant to be aimed [at specific topics] but it’s just an opportunity for people to encounter these figures,” they said. “Generally people react to them with fear or confusion, because it’s a recognizable figure but it’s also foreign and confusing and intimidating.”

The figures started out as a commentary on the precariousness of Earth’s environmental situation, when Lackland was spending months preparing them for an indoor exhibit by utilizing mud and burlap to capture the raggedy, bleak image of the figures. Some of them are simply in standing poses, while others are more intricately fashioned, like the one at Ithaca Falls cupping its hands for water.

(Photo provided by Andrew Lackland)

Once Lackland’s plans to move away from Ithaca started to materialize, Lackland decided instead of lugging the figures during the move, they would deploy them around the area and see how people interpreted each different installation. Watching the reaction on social media was an intriguing side benefit of the work, solidifying Lackland’s thought that the figures would evoke different feelings based on their surroundings and who came upon them.

“When I initially made the figures, the aim was climate change issues and the problems of individualization in terms of how people address these problems,” Lackland said. “In moments of limited resources, it pits people against one another. That was the relationship I was intending on highlighting in that initial gallery installation. But what’s so great about the figures is that the circumstance of their placement and how they’re arranged, and who comes to it, it can be recontextualized.”

The figures are supposed to interact with one another, theoretically, in a gallery setting. But, in Lackland’s words, they decided to “cast them out in the world” and see what the reaction would be then.

Lackland went to school at Ithaca College to study visual art, which they said opened up some more avenues for creativity. They track their artistic roots back to high school, when they began keeping a notebook of designs that serve as the foundation for their current work. Previous work Lackland is proud of has focused on ideas of relief and the stressors that lead people to the eventual feelings of relief.

Having spent time in and around downtown Ithaca, Lackland knows about the city’s increasingly visible issue with people experiencing homelessness. They considered the figures in Home Dairy Alley to be the most intentional of the various locations the figures were placed; Lackland said they were fairly certain those figures would be interpreted as a commentary on neglect of the homeless population, whereas the other figures were open to a wider range of perceptions.

“Especially somewhere like the Commons, where it’s public space but if you’re someone who doesn’t appear to be a consumer, someone who’s going to be stimulating the economy of that space in some way, then it’s no longer public space to you,” Lackland said.

Now that they have moved on from Ithaca, Lackland will be traveling out to where some of the other figures are, in Los Angeles, where they were on display since October in a gallery. Once Lackland has collected the figures, they plan on leaving them out there in a similar fashion, perhaps in the desert.

“It’s sort of fitting that I can’t just take care of you forever, that’s not actually how this works,” Lackland said of abandoning the figures. “It’s very fitting for them to be abandoned. If someone comes down to the street and beats the hell out of the figures, that’s part of the intention, that’s part of the reality of their existence, of all of our existence. It is informed by what else happens and what other people choose to do to us. That’s probably why the varied reactions are satisfying in their own way.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com