July 21, 2016

Spotlight: Olivia Alonso Gough

Olivia Alonso Gough’s thoughts on Upstate New York winters,  
body image obstacles, and feeling comfortable in your email signature.

Olivia Alonso Gough’s photographs explore the conundrum of the teenage years, nailing the balanced levels of awkward and sheer joy. Her images remind you of your favorite night out, which you soon after recall being a total mess – but that’s where the true beauty of adolescence is hidden. Through her photographs, Alonso Gough captures the teenage appreciation of imperfections and mistakes, instantly making us crave the pimples and all that comes with them, yet again. Read on to hear Olivia Alonso Gough’s thoughts on Upstate New York winters, body image obstacles, and feeling comfortable in your email signature.

The Le Sigh: Your work is based in photography and video. Do you have a preference of medium within your work?

Olivia Alonso Gough: I definitely consider myself a photographer and work mainly with photography, though for the past year or so I’ve been thinking more about installation. Last week I changed my email signature from “Olivia Alonso Gough – Photographer” To “Olivia Alonso Gough – Photographer & Contemporary Artist” and I’m trying to decide whether or not that’s too douchey. I’ll let you know if it sticks.

TLS: It’s awesome that along with your art degree, you also received a degree in Chinese studies! How does this influence your work?

OAG: My Chinese studies degree took me to China, which had a huge impact on both my general being and my work. Living in China and studying its incredible history made me look at art differently and made me aware that not everybody is looking at my (or anybody else’s) work through the same eyes. And that it’s not about personal opinion necessarily – there are thousands of years of history & culture & circumstances & geography & traditions that have made you the person you are and shape the way you read an image. This helped me to step outside of myself and realize that when I’m making work about me & people like me, people will understand it in different ways and maybe not understand it at all.

Also I looked at a lot more Chinese art (contemporary & otherwise). I got to intern for this amazing photographer Danwen Xing and on my first day I was spotting scans of images that she took of famous Chinese artists in the late 80’s and 90’s and she was like “Do you know who this is?? What about him? And her? … you must know her??” and she was totally like scoffing at me because I didn’t know a single one of them. I felt so ignorant and started to look them up, and when I got back home I took a class on Chinese Art History and was totally blown away. I feel like looking at art from specific times kind of nicely wraps up the psyche of the nation and tells you the emotions and feelings that were running through a country, which is something you can’t really read in history books. I wonder what my work will say 15 years from now and 150 years from now that it isn’t saying today.

TLS: Your project, One in 1.3 Billion, showcases the spectrum of lifestyles in China. Some of the images show the serious side of China, while others show moments of joy. What pushed you to photograph specific elements?

OAG: When I was living in China people kept asking me if it was “weird” and asking me essentially to confirm stereotypes. Initially I found it really easy to take photographs of the strangest things I could find to be like “HOLY SHIT CHECK THIS OUT!! CAN YOU BELIEVE THEY DO THIS HERE??” and just harvest likes on Facebook. (I can’t lie, I definitely did this and realize now, with distance, that that was kind of lame and shitty of me).

Despite this, though, I became really defensive of Chinese culture and wanted to dispel these stereotypes, so I started on this project. While my intention was not to, like, white-wash & be blind to the differences between American & Chinese culture, I wanted to sort of be like hey… these are people too. I feel like sometimes in the US we see China as just a huge mass of people and that’s it. I wanted to set a little reminder that said “these people eat and breathe and love, take selfies, and fall asleep at a McDonald’s just like you.” Not really a conceptually deep project at all, but it felt important at the time.

TLS: I was so excited to see an image of people enjoying the hot springs in Iceland in your project Kids These Days! I just recently returned from twelve days there and noticed the contagious appreciation of the nature there – can you tell me the story behind that image?

OAG: Yeah, so when I was in China, I met this Icelandic kid and we became friends. Later, when I was living in Prague, I took advantage of the fact that I had a friend in Iceland and found a cheap plane ticket and made my way over there. He and his friends knew of this small town called Flúðir where there was a hot spring. If I remember correctly it was sort of more of a watering hole/a place where this old guy used to bathe his sheep? I might have made that up, but it definitely wasn’t a “legit” hot spring. It was really rad and we just sat there for hours and smeared mud from the ground on our faces and pretended we were in a fancy spa.

TLS: There’s lots of different cities featured in Kids These Days. Which was your favorite and why?

OAG: God, I feel so incredibly privileged to have been able to travel to all these places. Something I became really aware of when I was installing “Kids These Days” is that I was trying to create an honest portrait of adolescence, but essentially failed in that I created an honest-ish portrait of MY adolescence. I didn’t create a story about every kid growing up, but a portrait of kids that have been as fortunate as I have been.

ANYWAY, that being said, my favorite city was & is absolutely Madrid. I’m probably biased because that’s where my dad is from and I have spent such a significant chunk of my life there. It feels more like home than DC – where I grew up – ever has. When I was younger, I would visit Spain with my parents frequently, but it wasn’t until the summer that I lived there for four months that I was like “oh holy shit, this is where I belong.” It feels really nice to have a place you consider home, and I didn’t really realize I was missing that until I lived there.

TLS: Syracuse is known for their long and intense winters. How did the gloomy weather effect the art you created while at school?

OAG: So, my freshman year the winter was totally manageable, my sophomore year I was in Beijing, and my junior year I was in Prague. It wasn’t until my senior year that I had to survive a Syracuse winter. I feel like it definitely forced me to be much more productive. I worked in the Digital Lab & had 24 hour access, so after it would close at 11 PM, I would frequently shoot in the studio until 3AM, print from 3AM to 6AM and then sleep on the couch in the basement of the art building until I had class at 8:30 AM. This work ethic was definitely inspired by not wanting to going outside.

TLS: Your art spotlights the honesty and natural beauty that society typically pushes away. What advice can you give to those who feel self conscious about their bodies?

OAG: Haha, when you find out let me know!

But seriously, I guess the most important thing is realizing how absolutely insane the standards we have for body image are. That’s a lot easier said than done, though.

TLS: In your project I Shaved For Nothing, you explore the angst and simultaneous authenticity of adolescence. Being a teenager is hard, because you transition between wanting to grow up as fast as possible, but then there are those moments that you want to permanently live in. What was your favorite part of being a teenager?

OAG: You know, that’s something I’ve thought a lot about recently and I’m sort of struggling with. I was looking at a photo the other day thinking “man, those were the days,” and then I had this moment where I was like… “no, holy shit, I was miserable that night... that boy I liked ignored me, I felt fat, my skin was terrible, I was on my period, and I went home crying.” Looking at the image, you’d never know this. What I chose to leave out of the image isn’t glamorous, so I understand why I ignored it, but it’s through this selective memory that we create this totally fake past for ourselves. We forget the parts that weren’t in the picture and rely on the image to tell us what was happening and how we felt. We become nostalgic towards a feeling & a night that never actually happened. I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that adolescence – or the way that we picture it – is a myth.

So, if you look at my pictures, my favorite part of being a teenager was spray painting my name on the sides of people’s houses, running around a field wearing juuust the right dress that I bought from Urban Outfitters and smoking cigarettes and sitting on stoops with cute boys and girls. That was such a small percentage of my daily life, though, and even though I enjoyed all those things, it seems a bit dishonest to portray it as my norm. Maybe it isn’t “wrong,” maybe it’s just a form of escapism – I’m still trying to figure that out.

TLS: I absolutely love your observation on our desire for a night that “never actually happened.” We tend to feel that way after watching movies or listening to our favorite album. So, what movies and/or music is inspiring you most these days?

OAG: Kanye West everything. I even have fake Yeezys.

TLS: What upcoming projects can you tell us about?

OAG: So I’m part of this really amazing female art collective called Girl on Girl that started a few years back in Syracuse, and since graduation we have branched out to LA (where we just had a show at Junior High) and NYC. Me and the NYC babes that I hang out with are planning a newsstand installation that will be up from September 17th-25th in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The installation is going to look like a typical newsstand, but everything in it will be an art object created by a female-identifying artist (we are hoping to include up to 150 artists from all over the world!). The really cool part about all of this is that nothing is for sale, so if somebody wants to walk away with an object they have to enter into conversation with one of the girls running the newsstand. We can tell you yes, no, to text the artist, come back later, etc, etc. My friend Kati Rehbeck summed it up really well, saying: “In doing this we replace a market of supply and demand with a system of connection and consent.” Also, we just really really believe in all of the artists we are featuring and want to build a stage for these incredible art babes to scream their amazing ideas from the top of their lungs.

We are open to submissions until July 31st and want as many people involved as possible so please please submit! You can email us at girlongirlcollective@gmail.com or slide into our DMs @girlongirlcollective.

Check out Olivia Alonso Gough's work on her website.

Virginia Croft just wants to eat waffles with Stephen Colbert. When she’s not daydreaming about that, she’s documenting cole slaws here and tweeting over here.