by Bärbel Praun

© Still from the book 'Aeronauts in the Backyard' by Xiaoxiao Xu

For the third time, the Vienna Photobook Festival was held last weekend with its focus on the photobook, initiated by Anzenberger Gallery and Ostlicht.Gallery for Photography. With 80 international booksellers, lectures (e.g. by Colin Pantall, Michael Mack, Nicolo Degiorgis and Ania Nalecka) and exhibitions the event offered a quite overwhelming program. Also, 30 photographers had the chance to show their dummies and unpublished photo books at the Book Review. The ViennaPhotoBookAward’s first prize was won by Mark Duffy with his book ‘Vote No. 1′, the 2nd prize went to ‘Instant Tomorrow’ by Dmitry Lookianov. After their reviews I interviewed three photographers: in an intriguing and personal, yet very different way they tell stories about origin, identity, family and friends, hopes and dreams. Today’s interview is with photographer Xiaoxiao Xu about her book ‘Aeronautics In The Backyard’, 2015. Xiaoxiao Xu, born in China, lives in the Netherlands since 1999. 

For your series ‘Aeronautics In The Backyard’ you travelled to your home country China, documenting people who share a big dream. Can you tell us what the story is about?

Xiaoxiao Xu (XX): All over China, individual farmers started building their own designs of airplanes, most of the time working out on their own backyards. Not every design is equally successful. Some of these amateur planes are very dangerous and hardly functioning, some planes aren’t even meant to work at all, yet some designs work so well that they get recognized by the professional market. Either way, this is not the main goal for these aeronauts. They are not in it for the money, they simply build in search of new alternatives; cheaper, lighter, stranger and better ways to fly. Some of these aeronauts have worked for decades but never achieved to get airborne. Although that might sound like a waste of time, they see it differently. For them, the game is not about how far or high they can fly, it’s about pushing their boundaries in order to achieve the impossible. They call it real-life science-fiction. ‘Aeronautics In the Backyard’ shines a light on what it’s like to live in the service of aeronautics, what it’s like to wake up one day and decide to leave the ground and sail the air, no matter how crazy the neighbors think you are.

© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series ‘Aeronautics In The Backyard’, 2015

Please tell us about your approach turning the series into a book, how did you develop the concept?

XX: Once back from my journey, I began to organize all the materials I collected. I realized soon I needed a medium to order, to show and to unfold the story. A book is a suitable way to do this. I can use different kinds of papers in the book to present and reference different kinds of materials and moods. You can hold the book in your hand like a little treasure, the dream stories from the Chinese farmer-aeronauts are little treasures, and the book allows the viewer to hold the dream in their hands and to have an intimate moment with it.

In your book your photographs go along with drawings, technical documents and text. How important was this combination for you?

XX: Driven by questions of why, of all people, Chinese farmers have the guts and skills to become aeronauts, even though they lack both education and resources, and how they manage to achieve such dazzling goals while working full-time jobs on the side and taking care of their families on a daily basis. I embarked on a road trip that unveiling the hidden world of Chinese aeronauts. In this context, it’s not only their imaginary designs that counts, but rather the story behind the building of their dreams: Why they actually decide to give building aircrafts a try, regardless of the lack of recourses, multiple failures and life-threatening accidents. 

© Still from the book 'Aeronauts in the Backyard' by Xiaoxiao Xu

© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series ‘Aeronautics In The Backyard’, 2015

To fulfill these questions I wanted to know their tales better by interviewing them and collecting their inspirations and original sketches. All these little artifacts are brought together to deepen and broaden the story and build a richer and more complete narrative. For example, I took a portrait of the 40 years old builder Xu Bin and in his archive I found a very old photo whereupon you can see him as a 20 year old young man sitting in his very first self built helicopter with a big smile on his face. Put these two photographs together you can sense the time and his persistency through the years. In his interview you can read his story: How and why he started to build the aircraft and what he has been through all these years. The documents, the photographs and the text complement each other and tell the story in full detail.

© Xiaoxiao Xu from the series ‘Aeronautics In The Backyard’, 2015

© Still from the book 'Aeronauts in the Backyard' by Xiaoxiao Xu

Talking about the Vienna Photobook Festival now: what were your review talks like, have you received any useful advice and feedback? Would you recommend other photographers to attend those events?  

XX: I had reviews with the professionals from the different fields. One is curator, collector, the other is publisher or people from the magazine. It was good to hear different voices from different perspectives. The advices vary from design, content till marketing and promoting. It’s good for photographers to showcase their works here and build up contacts for the future.

Are there any book discoveries you made at the festival you would like to share with us?

XX: I rediscovered the dreamy and poetic book ‘Ametsuchi’ from Rinko Kawauchi at the festival after seeing her great exhibition in Kunst Haus. I was impressed again by her view at the universe, shifted from micro to the macro and perfect in balance.

Xiaoxiao Xu 
© Book designed by Irini Pigaditi