There’s a distance between understanding how a plane works and designing an airplane, and a distance again to building an aircraft that can transport a human pilot. Xiaoxiao Xu’s Aeronautics in the Backyard is a collection of photographs and interviews with eight Chinese “aeronauts.” These largely self-trained tinkerers, many from poor agricultural backgrounds and all obsessed with flight, worked independently to build and fly small personal aircraft, often from original designs. Some were very successful, resourcefully solving problems to build unique craft that could reliably be flown repeatedly. Others persisted after repeated failures to get their self-built craft airborne. All put themselves at personal, financial and physical risk: one aeronaut was practically disowned by his family; another was paralyzed in a crash.
Aeronautics in the Backyard’s fantastic quality derives from the tensions between textual and visual voicings, the contrast between simple straightforward interview narratives and evocative yet sometimes oblique visual statements. Both of these sit alongside archival photographs, video captures, images of drawings, and reproductions of aeronautics-related print material. Each aeronaut’s profile is preceded by a data profile: name, aircraft and type, location, construction time and cost, length and impetus, desired and actual flight altitude, and this profile quickly reveals itself as wholly inadequate for accounting for the aeronaut’s aspirations to fly. It’s Xu’s streamlined interviews that describe the aeronauts’ paths towards realizing this impulse – not only to pilot a plane, but to a pilot a plane that the aeronaut has himself constructed. The stories read like testaments, beginning with the aeronauts’ realization that they wanted to fly - a strong personal need that in many cases defined each man’s life - and the challenges that they then faced. The narratives clearly valorize an against-all-odds individualism in the face of social expectations and commitments.
The photographs, however, tell another, parallel story, inviting the reader to empathize with the condition of wanting to be free of the ground and what it represents. There are photographs of the aeronauts and their designs, aircraft in parts and whole. There are also photographs that flesh out the stories with texture and metaphor, lyrical pictures that speak to the loneliness of being earthbound, and to the childlike fascination that Xu attributes to her subjects. The photographs find grace in details but also paint a portrait of cities of concrete, dirt, and grime, plain white walls, and sterile new construction. Subtly they tell a story of a built environment that inspires the desire to defy both gravity and social convention, to escape this dreariness and fly away, under one’s own power.
Many of the aeronauts’ planes look so fragile, with no obvious steering mechanisms; the accounts of building planes out of scrap metal, of scaling up plans for model airplanes to human proportions, seemed so unlikely, that initially I found the stories difficult to believe, as, despite the many photographs of vehicles, there are no photographs of aeronauts actually airborne. But as the book proceeds, a larger, more nuanced story emerges, extending beyond the act of flight. We learn that there exists a large community of aeronauts, and that while many of the aeronauts describe themselves as coming from peasant backgrounds, they are not all farmers (one is involved in a business selling diy helicopter kits and another worked in IT). By the time I got to the end, when Xu herself takes flight as a passenger in a two-seat autogyro, I feel as though I am entirely on board with her. Throughout the book her photographs have been crisp, tonally subtle, and carefully composed, but from the plane, the pictures are blurry with movement and vibration, and one senses how precarious and exhilarating it is for her to be off the ground.
The interviews in Aeronautics in the Backyard lionize the aeronauts with the romantic image of a farmer working alone in a shed building a flying machine. The narrative valorizes the aeronauts’ perseverance and ingenuity, their thrift, sacrifice, and commitment. As such it resonates with a particular modern Chinese characterization of self-reliant farmers overcoming hardship with persistence and ingenuity. But at another level, the book is about people who experience the desire to fly as a passion, as something that has happened to them. These aeronauts have no choice; arguably, some have had their lives destroyed by their obsession. They have imagined the pleasure of a certain kind of freedom and they understand that no one will help them get there, that their aim is not even seen as a particularly realistic or useful objective. This bittersweet aspect reveals itself in the intertwined narratives of the book, and Xu’s flight at the end feels like both a resolution and, briefly, an escape.