Xiaoxiao Xu: Aeronautics in the Backyard


Eriskay Connection continue to publish elegant photo books with Xiaoxiao Xu’s Aeronautics in the Backyard. Throughout this detailed volume we see flight objects and designs, aviators’ personal memories and stories examining the world of backyard aviation in rural China. Aeronautics reveals the persistence, focus and fascinating mindset of those dedicated to pursuing these intricate and often precarious modes of flight, resulting in an intimate and captivating photography study.

The experience of air travel in the current age pertains mostly to commercial airlines, posing a strange dichotomy to both the persistent and not-so-frequent flier. The act of flying is permeated with an underlying fear, while also framed by both the industry and some of its travelers as glamorous, exciting, and luxurious. While flying, no matter what ‘class,’ one has to accept the fact that their fate is to the wind, we shall say or out of one’s hands. One is just a passenger on an airship, and you must remain calm in public, despite the fact that we live in a global climate in which planes go missing or shot down amongst conspiracy theories and claims of accidental warfare. The 1950’s constructed consumerist dream of the aviation holiday has, in the modern era been somewhat misplaced.

Aeronautics takes us back to a sense of wonder that early aviation envisaged, as an emerging and new discipline, marked with a sense of the unknown and of discovery. This sentiment is characterised by Nevil Shute in the aviation memoir “Slide Rule,” which looks at the emerging aviation industry in Britain throughout the 1920s and 30’s. It is this underworld and optimistic culture of ingenuity and innovation that is at the crux of Xu’s interest.

In Australia, any Recreational Aviation Australia member can “design their own aeroplane, fabricate and assemble it at home (some have done it in the lounge room but most do it in a garage or shed), then fly it; all without need for either the design or the construction to meet any certification standard.” Interestingly it appears with the Aeronauts that Xu presents to us – the same applies. The aircraft plan, construct and attempt to fly is developed at one’s own pace, consideration and standard with wildly varying results. Such attempts to do so elicit combinations of learned skill, persistence and luck. We learn through Xu’s sensitively crafted oral narratives that the positives of such an endeavor result in feelings of immense satisfaction and purpose, and when flying, unparalleled freedom.

Xu’s oeuvre as a photographer is concerned with envisioning a world outside the everyday, by extending our conception of everyday things – objects, people, places and nature. This work is optimistic in the sense it portrays a sense of the power of the individual in a world dominated by large industries. The sheer concept of self-made flying machines undermines the rigid domination of government and privatised transport. The citizens in this book are taking transport into their own hands – culminating in a sense of adventure and discovery emanated in Stevenson and Crusoe and other children’s adventure fables where the universe seemed to be both infinite and yours alone.

The Right to Fly by Felix Nadar (1866) captures this essence of persistence and excitement seen through Xu’s subjects as a photographer and aviator. Nadar was a French photographer who in 1858 became the first person to take an aerial photograph, also pioneering the use of artificial lighting in photographs utilized in his photographic studies of Paris’s catacombs. In 1863 he built his own air balloon, titled  Le Géant (“The Giant”) and inspired Jules Verne’s story Five Weeks in a Balloon. His literary work exclaims the fundamental human quest to fly, to ascend and to bypass physical restraints. Nadar: “The weight of man is the eternal obstacle to the flight of man” says the Academy; ‘and against this weight the force of man must forever remain powerless!’ But the Academy ought to tell us first of all what is the maximum it has decreed for human force. In our opinion, human force is human intelligence…”

The concept of flight permeates across so many cultures and geographies in this day and age, amongst cultures of underground ‘everything’ – music, art, dance, therapy. Xu’s choice to include the Aeronaut’s plans, drawings and early stage (pre-build) diagrams is an indicator of the fact that the quest to better one’s life, through persistence, ingenuity and a small amount of luck is a universal trait. What is revealed through the experiences of the subjects is that a great personal glory can be achieved through the construction of an aircraft that can succeed. But there is a fine line that can be crossed very quickly, and many of the aviators pictured have experienced sky falls, permanent injury, disfigurement and or immense disappointment.

Experience of this kind of flying is like no other – and perhaps the danger is part of the exhilaration once you have taken flight, felt the wind and open air on your while you are in the sky and once again landed on the ground safely. Xu reflects on her own experience in the sky amongst a homemade machine, documenting this trip of flight through bird’s eye photographs of the ground, with nothing separating her from sky and ground except open air.

There is a fine line between success and extreme failure, seen perhaps through ‘Crackpot’ inventors that waver between degrees of ‘genius’ arguably skirting towards strange obsessions. This can be seen in the peculiar examples of failed inventions such as Alexander Graham Bell’s’ attempt to breed a six nippled sheep and Thomas Edison’s obsessed with concrete, culminating in his attempts to create a working concrete piano. Edison’s Concrete Piano never properly eventuated – concrete as a ready made medium for household object elicited slightly more interest, with his concrete houses gaining some traction, now signified in the small poured concrete pre-fab houses that remain standing.

Xu reflects on a sense of searching through her artistic practice, and the photography documents that remain leave questions for viewers to consider about what is around us and within. These photographs are but humble explorations, but leave us with an overarching sense of the infiniteness of life.

—  Angela Garrick

  1. 1. Recreational Flying, “Homebuilt aircraft: building your own” Accessed 2nd Febuary, 2017;  recreationalflying.com/tutorials/constructors/index.html
  2. 2. Felix Nadar The Right to Fly (London, Pushkin Press, 2016)
  3. 3. publicdomainreview.org/collections/photographs-of-the-famous-by-felix-nadar
  4. 4. publicdomainreview.org/collections/photographs-of-the-famous-by-felix-nadar
  5. 5. Felix Nadar The Right to Fly (London, Pushkin Press, 2016)
  6. 6. www.concreteconstruction.net/projects/residential/thomas-edisons-concrete-house_o