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Five Cents a Can: Making Visible the Invisible

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Five Cents a Can: Making Visible the Invisible
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“Five Cents A Can: Making Visible the Invisible" is a visual arts exhibition (“Exhibition”) that raises questions about migration, inequality, and aging while poor.


Five Cents A Can: Making Visible the Invisible

An art exhiition by Siyan Wong

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The paintings and video arts in this project aims to open up conversations about the cans and bottles redemption industry. It also specifically aims to address the plight of working people through the current experience of Chinese immigrant women in their 50s or older who found themselves without the job opportunities in the garment industry that their predecessors had when garment productions relocated to countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam. 

Through my oil paintings, my observations of canners who are often ignored or invisible on our streets are transformed into important questions of human existence and survival. As such my paintings play with perceptions of what is real versus distorted perspectives of our own realities. While people generally work everyday for the comforts of a nice home and good food, canners toil just to survive. Their very existence shows the reality facing all working people - their work can vanish and their livelihood gone because working people are only numbers on a profit and loss spreadsheet that knows no humanity. Many canners were once garment factory workers who earned a regular income. Survival for the employed is actually the chain that locks us all in place. In fact, the canners’ reality in my paintings offers a contrast to the illusion of wealth for the rest of us. As I make the canners seen through my paintings, I also make our own reality visible. 

While my paintings hold the viewers’ attention beyond the mere seconds that are normally accorded the canners, the visual installations draw connections and lessons from the past. For example, a mountain built with gold cans draws from the time of the California gold rush when Chinese workers were lured to mine gold. But the Chinese arrived with no gold to mine but only debts to repay for their long voyage. At that time, Chinese were seen as inferior beings with no rights. They found themselves building the railroads to survive while discriminated against in wages and working conditions. Moreover, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the Chinese were excluded from the commemoration photo even though the Chinese were two thirds of the workers who built it. The gold cans mock the minuscule value of these five-cent cans, and confront the dream that when we work hard, we will be rewarded. This Exhibition explores a recent community experience to raise many questions, among them: What is the value of work? How do we protect communities and the people? 

Through oil paintings and a collaborated short documentary film with filmmaker Alvin Tsang about the elderly and low wage workers who must survive by collecting cans, I hope to start conversations about the system that marginalize them and inspire change. I hope to tour this exhibition in cultural institutions in NYC and other major U.S. cities. 


Project Status

From now through July 2021, I am making contacts with cultural institutions to secure interest and partnership in showing this Exhibition. Targeted cultural institutions include New York Public Libraries, the New Museum, the Queens Museum, and the Brooklyn Library. They will be provided with a highlight video of the November 2019 Exhibition at NYAC, and information about artist talks and workshops that can be planned. The Exhibition can be scheduled from about October 2020 through December 2022, from two to 10 weeks. 

From now through July 2021, I will be working on new paintings to add to my current collection on the canners. Also, from now through June 2021, I'll be collaborating with filmmaker Alvin Tsang to continue filming interactions with canners, Stuyvesant High School students who were inspired by the November 2019 exhibition to take up the “Make it 10 Cents” campaign to change the NYS bottling law, and stakeholders and community leaders. This short film will explore facts in the cans and bottles redemption industry. The goal is to have this short film completed sometime in 2021 so it can accompany the Exhibition for educational purposes in the 2021-2022 school year. The current pandemic has pushed the time frame but this will not be time wasted. Rather, the inspirations for paintings and the footages of canners' flight through the pandemic will only add more depth to the content of this project.


Target Audience

The targeted audience are the general public as well as secondary school students. Teachers, current and retired, who saw the November 2019 exhibition have expressed interest in class trips so that students can learn about a current social concern through art. Once a cultural venue is secured, I will be connecting with teachers and schools informing them of the Exhibitiion and workshops. 


Siyan Wong, Painter and Project Director

Siyan Wong is a Chinese American visual artist whose socially-engaged art practice invites reflections and conversations into the contradictions present in the everyday. Since 2018, she has shown her paintings at the Equity Gallery of the New York Artists Equity Association, New York Arts Center. She has spoken at a solo workshop about her art and paintings at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MOCA) and at local independent radio shows. As a workers' rights lawyer, her contact with everyday working people informs her empathy and artistic vision. Her current projects include "Five Cents A Can: Making Visible the Invisible.”

Siyan acquired her art fundamentals at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts. Though she went on to study history and economics in college, and then attended law school, she always took art classes alongside her academic studies. In 2000, she began working as a workers' rights lawyer. Since 2001, she continued her art studies with semester and weekend classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the New York Art Academy and Cooper Union. Currently, she studies at the Art Students League. Privately, she spends her time studying the works of great painters and paints in her home studio late into the night. She is inspired by the colors of Paul Cezanne; the confidence in Alice Neel's lines; and the passion of Isidre Nonell to paint the socially ostracized at a time when they were invisible. 


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