The high altitudes of airplane aesthetics

by Yuhei Wada

Aeronautical science has always been a hotbed of innovative technology. Changes in human society, such as improved global networking and an increase in travelers has meant that aircraft design has always been dynamic, improving to meet passengers’ military and others’ expectations and demands.

In this sense, the evolution of the airplane could be seen to symbolize changes in human curiosity and our inquiring minds. The Museum of Aeronautical Sciences, close to Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture, explores this symbolic notion of the airplane in relation to industrial aeronautical design and art.

The Museum of Aeronautical Sciences opened to the public in 1989, 11 years after Narita airport, and has since offered numerous exhibitions on aircraft technology and its history in Japan. Displaying aircraft parts such as engines, tires, cockpits and flight simulators donated by airline companies, its permanent exhibition has attracted both aviation fans and the industrial-design curious. The museum, however, also offers a variety of events and special, temporary air-craft related shows.

The latest of these is Shusuke Ao’s “TRIAL,” for which the artist offers his interpretations of paper airplanes. A fan of aircraft, Ao uses the paper planes to represent the scientific principles of aviation and the beauty behind them.

“My father was a pilot, so airplanes were a part of my life in childhood. And I loved them,” says Ao in a recent interview. “But, I can’t remember what actually triggered my ongoing airplane obsession.”

It is this root of Ao’s obsession that has fueled the exhibition. “The idea that ‘aircraft are cool’ came naturally to me when young,” he says. “Now I am making works to explore the true reasons why I am so interested in them.”

“TRIAL” alludes to the design, production and manufacture of real airplanes by going through a similar process for paper planes. Through experimentation — testing different materials, folding techniques and designs — he created various planes, recorded their performances and calculated adjustments to make improvements. Blueprints, small models and other byproducts of these trials that led to the main exhibits of “PAX-H” and “PAX-L,” are displayed as part of this show.

“PAX-H” and “PAX-L,” the focus of the show, are two 4-meter square corrugated constructions hanging at the museum’s entrance. Each of the works are laser printed with 256 flat-plans of the PAX-H and PAX-L paper airplanes, the best planes to come out of the trials.

“The story line behind PAX (Paper Aircraft Experiment) is that the H and L were created by two competing aircraft companies,” says Ao. “The beauty of an airplane is closely connected to its design concept. As an industrial product, airplanes are well designed when created in competition with others,” he explains. “Like the creation of medical equipment, this involves the use of state-of-the-art technology. However, unlike medical equipment, which is driven by the need to save lives, the development of an aircraft seems to be purely led by human curiosity.”

According to Ao, the industrial features of aircraft therefore reflect “people’s spirit of inquiry.” And this is the reason why aircraft are so attractive to look at.

The plans of H and L, printed on the two hanging paper works, create attractive patterns that make the giant sheets appear like flags or banners, gently swaying in the air. And each of them expresses the pride of the designers to produce a high-performance airplane in the face of hard competition.

W hile the PAX-series of works show Ao’s interpretation of aviation aesthetics, another work in the exhibition approaches the nature of aircraft from a more anthropological point of view. “Watson Crick Maneuver,” which hangs from the ceiling, is an 8-meter long cylindrical object made of carbon rings and wires. Inside the cylinder are hundreds of paper planes that appear to be flying in double-helices.

The flying airplanes, says Ao, consist of four models “A, G, T and C.” The double spirals and the carbon tube are, as is the title, a reference to DNA and life. The spiral vectors of the paper planes also gives the impression of them flying slowly but steadily against strong winds, a reference, says Ao, to the evolution and upward struggle of human existence throughout history.

“TRIAL” is also a trial for the museum, an experiment in showing unique imaginative works.

“Artworks create an unusual atmosphere in a space, and my art pieces are also known for their unique subject matter,” comments Ao. “But the Aeronautical science museum already has an uncommon atmosphere for an exhibition — the combination of the two things (Ao’s art and the museum) creates an interesting chemical-like reaction. I will be glad if visitors discover a new way to look at aircraft after seeing my exhibition.”

Ao’s next airplane-themed exhibition is scheduled for March at the Torrance Art Museum in Los Angeles, where he’ll get the opportunity to show his craftsmanship, design skills and ideas on art and industry to a foreign audience. Though the L.A. exhibition will be featuring new works, now is the best time to appreciate Ao’s paper aircraft design before his ideas take off for overseas.

“Trial” runs till March 31 at the Museum of Aeronautical Sciences, 15 min. bus ride from Narita Airport Station (Narita, JR Sobu lines); admission ¥500; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit
(Japanese only). Ao Shusuke also has an exhibition, “act,” at 3331 Arts Chiyoda from Feb. 26 to March 26. For more information, visit