XIAOXIAO XU. AERONAUTICS
by Sheung Yiu



© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'

During the last few years of the booming Chinese economy, we see photographers pointing their lenses towards cities and villages, documenting the country under massive changes brought by the all-mighty invisible hand of the free market. Whether it is one of the biggest migration in human history or the rapid urbanisation happening all over China, photography tends to tell the story about the individual versus the country, the nature versus development. It seems like you can’t look at Chinese photography without deciphering a political message, which begs the question: what else is there about China besides urbanisation, migrant workers and ghost towns?

XiaoXiao Xu is going to tell you a story about dreams. While other Chinese are obsessing over their newly gained wealth, a little-known subculture of DIY aircraft flourishes out in the rural. Farmers from less affluent parts of China began developing their own models of flying machines. They may lack the experience and resources, but they compensate this with even more passion and perseverance, often times spending years perfecting their unique aircraft. One farmer, Su, was paralysed from the waist down due to a flying accident, but even that did not stop him from chasing his dreams. Xiaoxiao Xu captured this underground culture of plane building through his lens and recently published the series in his photo book Aeronauts in the backyard (reviewed on Urbanautica, 2015). An immigrant from China who studies photography in the Netherlands, Xu regularly went back to China for stories, exploring the alienated and the elusive. Through the eyes of this third culture kid, we are able to get a detached yet endearing glimpse of China.

I am really interested in your process of finding stories that you eventually shot in China, especially when there is so many stories and so much interest about China right now? For example, how do you know about these story of amateur aeronauts and love doll factories in rural China?

Xiaoxiao Xu (XX): In 2014 April, I came upon a story in the Dutch newspaper “De Volkskrant” called “Luchtkastelen” (Castles of the Sky). The story depicts a group of farmers in rural China who doubled as amateur aeronautics, building their own aeroplanes. The article also comes with eerie photographs of different inventive and whimsical models of flying machines they made. I was immediately drawn to this fascinating tales of plane-making. I know at that time that that is my next project.

My childhood, culture and background nurture my aesthetics and interest which in turn guide my eyes to certain stories. My curiosity with my roots is entrenched in my background as an immigrant, and thus most of my project revolves around China. Living between two cultures, my ambiguous identity informs my interest in the alienated and the elusive. My stories usually come from books and other online platforms I followed. Instead of actively looking for stories, I think it is truer to say that my background and experience lead me to those stories. They influence my way of seeing.


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'

Now about your series ‘Aeronautics’, I definitely love how the story shows us a very different aspect of rural China, the struggle and the dream to achieve the miracle of flight in these unexpected places. You followed a group of aeronautics aficionados in rural China and end up flying on Xu’s aeroplane. Can you tell us more about the experience? Also, any other anecdotes during shooting?

XX. Yes. I indeed went on a plane with Xu at the end of the project. I had this idea since the beginning of the project. I wanted to know how it is like to fly on their planes. My journey would not be complete without this experience. But looking back, it was pretty scary because the only safety measure we had is a seat belt and a helmet. On the plane, through the window, I could overlook the mountains and rivers beneath. When I was up there, scenes of plane crashes flashed through my mind, but Xu was very calm. He skilfully steered the plane in the front seat with appeasing confidence. The sense of satisfaction on his face is contagious, and I slowly started to relax and enjoy the magnificent view. The propeller was loud, the wind blew vehemently, my hands could not hold the camera still, but at that moment, high up in the sky, I feel an almost zen-like tranquillity.


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'

The visuals of the whole series seem very well-planned, interweaving portraits, videos, texts, blueprints and finally some bird-eyed view photographs you took from the plane ride. Have you already figured out what materials to get before going out to shoot?

XX: The limitless imagination and their romantic conquest of flight despite their poverty make me really want to understand what drives them to pursue their dreams when everybody else is obsessed with material wealth in China’s economic boom. Where do their passion and perseverance come from? How do they overcome technical and safety issues? How do they maintain a balance between reality and their dream? To answer these questions, photography alone is not enough. Text, drawings and found photographs allow me to approach the story in different angles and provide the fuller context to understand the story. For example, I had an old photo of Xu taken when he was twenty, happily sitting in the first helicopter he made. Later, I took a portrait of the 42-year-old Xu. I think the two together create a powerful tension, as if the viewer can sense their undying passion for flying in the torrent of time, throughout two decades of his life.


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'

I believe this is the third monograph you published. How is your editing process? How do you decide what stays in? Can you also tell us about the design and presentation of the photo book?

XX: Editing is a lengthy process, I spent around half a year on it. I started with organising and dividing all my photographs into groups, selecting which to be included in my book. At the same time, besides keeping diversity in mind, I also consider how each photograph contributes to the overall narrative. The second step is sequencing — that is when I decide what story I want to tell and how I am going to tell it. It’s important to develop your own philosophy with editing, once you got your own logic to it, the story will emerge. Then, I will design elements that correspond with the essence of the story. For this story, the aeronauts’ down to earth personality and humble attitude is central to the story, so for the book layout, I keep it simple and leave a lot of space for imagination.

Do you work with a regular publisher/ graphic designer for your book?

XX: I collaborate with different publishers for each project because each publisher is interested in different themes. This time, I work with The Eriskay Connection who is specifically interested in technology and research. I find this independent publisher very fitting to this project.

What are you currently working on? Will you continue to go back to China for more stories?

XX: I will continue exploring stories in China, India is another place I have thought about going.


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'

You have said in a recent interview that the way one photography depends on one’s cultural background. How do you think your upbringing in China has affected the way you approach an image?

XX: Immigrating from China to the Netherlands at a young age was a very interesting and significant event in my life. This substantial change, the leap from the East to the West, had an extensive impact on me, in which my daily routine has transformed into an uncertain, chaotic, and precarious existence. My immigration experience motivated my desire to tell stories and made me learne to observe both China and Europe from a distance. I am as much an insider and an outsider, uprooted, unidentified and estranged from both sides. Photography is the medium in which I can express this feeling the best. By photographing places, people and objects that arouse alienated feelings within me, I am still able to maintain a balance. With each image, I move one step closer to understand my identity and the stories behind the world in which I live.

My roots – the poor existence and oppressive environment that I experienced in China, followed later by my dismal home situation in the Netherlands – added to the culture shocks I went through. All of these experiences have contributed to the sober and observant eye that I have today. It is due to my background that I am able to render myself as invisible as possible while shooting; therefore, the images I created are in a sort of ambience which is poetic and intuitive.

Photography for me is more than a passion or an obsession; it is an instinct and a necessity. Photography allows me to crawl out of my shell, to build a narrative in a tangible and figurative sense. My series has made me more aware of myself and my own position in the world.


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'


© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series 'Aeronautics'

---

LINKS
Xiaoxiao Xu
urbanautica China