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08.02.2017 | Words by: Mathis Neuhaus.

There are many ways to achieve freedom – even if it is only for a while. Some scream, some dance, some run. Some, as in the case of the so-called Aeronauts in rural China, fly. Or, to be more precise, aspire to fly. All over the country people try to build their own aircrafts, assembled from recycled scrap metal and without professional tools. The Chinese-born and Netherlands-based artist XiaoXiao Xu documents their longing to fly in self-build aircrafts in her work Aeronauts which is going to be shown in De School’s hallway from the 3rd February onwards. 

I spoke to Xiaoxiao about her work as a photographer, the state of in-between in her work and the meaning of freedom. 

You moved to the Netherlands from China when you were 14 – is photography a way for you to keep in touch with your native country?
Immigrating from China to the Netherlands at a very 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 and precarious existence. Due to this emigration experience, my will to tell stories has grown and I have learned to observe both East and West from a distance. I am as much an insider as an outsider, uprooted, unidentified and estranged by both sides. Photography is the medium in which I can express this feeling of alienation the best.  

When you discovered photography, was it immediately clear for you what you wanted to photograph and do with the medium?
For my graduation work I went back to my hometown in China for the first time in ten years. For me, it was a natural step to go back and try to discover the missing part of my biography, but it was not clear back then what photography meant to me. It became gradually clearer as time was progressing. Throughout the years, I learned what interested me the most and how I would be able to execute the ideas through the medium of photography: 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.  

Said observing and calm quality of your photography while still being quite poetic is striking, I find. Have you ever been tempted by stronger abstraction in your images?
I definitely do like abstracting images. I do not think that things always need to be clear and certain. The undefinable leaves space for one’s imagination and I think this is one of the most magical aspects in photography. 

Please, correct me if I am wrong, but besides your commissioned works, it seems like almost all of the others are shot in China. Do you think you will ever look at the Netherlands the way you are looking at China through your work?
You are right. Most of my works are shot in China. As I mentioned before, the moment of being in-between is what interests me the most and therefore also every image through which an alienated feeling arouses within me. I think my way of observing things stays the same, either in China or somewhere else in the world. But in China I found the most places, people and objects that triggered this feeling. 

Your work Aeronautics, that is going to be shown in De School, is observing a very distinctive group of people. How did you find out about this, for lack of a better term, movement?
In April 2014, I read an article in De Volkskrant which was titled Air Castles. The article told the story of Chinese people that spend quite a bit of money to build their own aircrafts. Through this article my interest in the so-called Aeronauts arose. All over the country, in the most unexpected of places, farmers rise up to build their own aircrafts. They do not work in fancy or professional hangars with all the right equipment one could wish for. They simply play around in their backyards, recycling scrap metal and using household tools. 

Why is this happening in rural China?
The group of people has a few things in common: they are all very simple, down to earth and they dare to dream. Maybe these characteristics contribute to their passion building aircrafts. But maybe it is also because in rural China things are a little less materialistic and the environment is less stuffy. The farmers stand with their feet in the soil and dare to dream to fly in the sky. 

You quote one Aeronaut with “To make an aircraft, first I need my wife’s permission, then my mother-in-law’s, lastly my father-in-law’s. But luckily my family is quite supportive.” – I understand that you leave the interpretation of your work to the viewer, but do you think building an aircraft, for them, is a form of escapism? 
I do not feel like they are aspiring to fly to be able to escape. It is more like they are driven by an inexplicable primal need to fly. In order to do so, they need to overcome certain obstacles – in this case getting the permission of their families. In other cases, finding the right materials for their aircrafts.  

“One is never too old to fly” – is one ever too free to fly though?
I don’t know. I think being able to fly is a possible and very real way of experiencing the feeling of freedom. But then again, everyone has their own interpretation about what freedom is.

Xiaoxiao Xu's photo series 'Aeronautics in the backyard' can be visited in the hallway behind Restaurant DS.
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