Goo Goo September

​The Goo Goo guide is a year long series released monthly written by Jennifer Chen-Su Huang. The Goo Goo Guide follows Jennifer during a year long artist residency in Taiwan through a Fulbright Scholarship. Join us as we follow Jennifer on her journey! The series is released through our Quarterly issues from Autumn 2017-2018, subscribe below for monthly reminders to read the Goo Goo Guide!​

This entry is to begin a monthly series on being wildly and wily goo goo. I’m currently in a hotel room in Taipei; this is the first day of my year long stay in Taiwan, the island where both my parents, and their parents, and their parents’ parents, and their parent’s parents were born and raised.
My fourteen hour flight yesterday consisted of indulging in Jenny Zhang’s new collection of short stories, Sour Heart, from cover to cover. The passengers in our cramped economy seats must have found my alternation between uncontrollable laughter and silent tears rather strange, but these stories capture in narrative form why I’m here in the first place, why I’ve started compiling and writing materials for a Fulbright proposal to study indigenous Taiwanese weaving over a year ago. What resonated with me in these pages was the fearless commitment to illustrate such emotional honesty, the confusion and angst and appreciation, one experiences as the child of immigrants in America. I seek to do the same in my art practice, to embrace this cacophony of mixed and messy feelings, this goo goo.
Goo goo for me is the shapeless identity that I have come to embrace. Goo goo because it adequately describes my multidisciplinary practice as well as my position in this world. Navigating my traditionally patriarchal Confucian and Christian upbringing and this Fulbright opportunity, as a privileged American coming to study indigenous craft, I acknowledge the systems of power based on race, gender, and the lingering effects of colonialism that have produced me and my life experience.
Goo goo is also the sound uttered by a child and in many ways, I claim and take responsibility of that position. Having always felt ashamed of my girlish youth, of being too silly and naive, I want to reclaim these traits as worthy of pursuit, because they are humble, honest, and leave room for discovery. I approach materials with that same child-like wonder — I come to understand the world around me through my hands, whether that be through ceramic or fiber-based processes.

As part of our introductions, on the first day of a fiber workshop this past summer at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft, we were asked, “if you were a textile, what kind of textile would you be?” My immediate response was: Felt. Not only because of the name, though I do love the name, Felt.

​It connotes softness, and being the past tense of feeling, a sensorial and emotional action, and naturally, I gravitate towards the word. But I chose felt because I think of my make-up as such, agitated fibers pressed up against one another in a forceful and seemingly disordered fashion. Though on a molecular level, there is an underlying logic to the compressed fibers which allows for the creation of cloth.

Likewise, I sometimes lose sight of this knowledge and feel that my being is rather chaotic, lacking structure and direction. But I know there is an order to this felt even if I do not always feel that way.

​Some days I think weaving is more accurate of who I want to be; I admire the careful intentionality behind the act of weaving. A pattern signifying much more than itself slowly emerges in the cloth. In the case of the Taiwanese Atayal weavers, these patterns convey a distinct identity, a sense of belonging within a larger community. The gradual accumulation of thread amounts to a story, one that deserves to be told.

​Inspired by cultural critic and scholar Ann Cvetkovich, who writes in Depressiona public feeling, “Like spiritual practice, creative practice – and scholarship as creative practice – involves not knowing, trusting to process and to a holistic intelligence that encompasses body, mind, and senses in order to see what happens, rather than having an answer to writing a dissertation, transforming depression, or planning a life,” I am going into this next year in Taiwan with an open attitude, allowing the experience to shape my research.

Acknowledging the influence of Cvetkovich’s method of memoir as research, I want to make this professional yet personal journey relevant to the public, whether that be through the discussion of indigenous weaving and craft traditions, the role it plays in restoring a person or a community’s sense of identity and belonging, or the general regenerative impact of handicraft. But I also must admit that I am more and more drawn to the aspect of confessional writing despite its bad rap.

​In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison states, “There are many ways to confess and many ways confession can reach beyond itself. If the definition of solipsism is ‘a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only consistent thing,’ then little pushes back against solipsism more forcefully than confession gone public. This kind of confession inevitably creates dialogue.”

As of late, my art practice has been veering towards confession in an effort to create such dialogue. I imagine this series will be written in a similar manner, informative yet confessional, giving insight to how an artist might go about conducting research, how that research is not always quantitative or direct, but can lead one on a meandering, introspective path. Sometimes the data can look like this:

I am somewhat lost. Composed in a certain manner, I may fall into the model minority myth. I am not here to challenge you, but to cause you to behold. Upon second glance, I am all goo – wily, my secrets secrete. I lay my shame down at your feet.

Currently in Taipei, Taiwan. My Mandarin is clumsy. I can observe, eavesdrop, but ask me to speak, and I melt, fragmented phrases uttered in multiple languages. My Mandarin always slips into Taiwanese.

I am the second daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. Born in New York and raised in California, I am aware of the melanin in my skin, how it marks my difference.

I slip into a variety of roles, a rotating closet of assumed identities: the doting daughter, the servile sister, ingrained Bible verses roll off her tongue, the four-eyed nerd, the artist dressed in black, yet another Asian girl dating a white man.

Lost in the sense that I cannot claim my being. Peel each layer off like string cheese. You will not get to a core. Strip by strip, I disappear.

My parents are from the South. My father has a thick accent, so I’m told, in Chinese and English. Like my melanin, his accent assures that he will never belong. He is an outsider, trying to make it in the big city, Taipei. His unpublished poetry and exquisite grades in math and science will eventually bring him to the United States.

My mother is four years younger than her uncle. Her mother was the oldest of twelve siblings. My great-grandmother refused to give up her first child, my grandmother, and she was cursed as a result. Damned, she gave birth to ten daughters before she could conceive of a son. Confucian tradition renders the female life worthless. Daughters were given away to make room for the son. This is what happens when a woman voices her desire.
I am the second daughter who hid in my mother’s womb two weeks past my due date. My grandmother observes, “She is too ashamed to expose her female head.”

My father’s mother was Part Ping-pu. She would marry my grandfather without argument. No outlet for her opinion, for her passion or rage, she witnessed the death of her first child, a daughter. Fingers caressing her wooden beaded gourd, she meditates.

The Ping-pu is an aboriginal tribe in Taiwan, who lived in the Plains. Theirs was a peaceful matriarchal culture that was quickly usurped by the Han Chinese settlers. I could not find much information about the Ping-pu in English, but I found much more information on another Indigenous group, the Atayal, who ferociously resisted assimilation. I wonder hopelessly if violence is the only way to defend and sustain one’s autonomy.

For the Atayal, weaving was a revered feminine craft that a woman must perfect before marriage. When she mastered the skill, she was given facial tattoos that symbolized her social standing – suitable for marriage. In order for men to earn their facial tattoos, they were required to behead a man outside their tribe. The Japanese colonizers were the preferred heads of choice. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the government outlawed weaving, headhunting, and facial tattooing in an effort to exterminate their culture and enslave the Atayal as agricultural laborers.

With this Fulbright opportunity, which I imagine will inevitably include more extended family time than I had written in my academic proposal, I hope to intertwine the personal with the cultural and historical. I want to observe how identity emerges, how craft aids in its formation, and how the function of craft has changed and/or is changing. No longer cherished solely for its use value, I see the weaving of indigenous textiles as a symbolic preservation of one’s identity.

Likewise, in my creative practice, I want to give voice to that which feels like goo goo. This is a guide with no instructions and no preconceived notions. In this series, I thank you in advance for accompanying me in this year of not knowing, in embracing a willingness to trust, to leave knowing in suspension, to make room to for new ways of seeing and thinking.

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