'The Kipper & The Corpse' exhibition by Stuart Whipps / by Claire Farrell

The Kipper & The Corpse by Stuart Whipps
Text by Anneka French

Stuart Whipps first made work in Longbridge in 2004 while he was studying for a degree in photography at the University of Wolverhampton. He graduated in 2005 and began comprehensively photographing the Longbridge plant following its closure and the loss of 6,500 jobs. His photographs were awarded the Observer Hodge Award in 2006 and this facilitated a trip to China to continue the work. The tools, tracks and intellectual property rights were purchased from Longbridge by the Chinese carmaker Nanjing Automotive and in 2007 Whipps travelled to the new factory in Nanjing to document the site, the workers and the first cars coming off the production line. A selection of photographs from Longbridge and Nanjing were exhibited and published in 2008.

Since 2014 Whipps has been an artist in residence with the Longbridge Public Art Project (LPAP). During this time, the area has been developing from a brown field site into a new town centre with large scale retail, leisure and education facilities. His work for LPAP builds on the legacy of his earlier research through a number of different projects. Conversations with former plant employees and local residents have been vital to the research process and have resulted in a number of public events. These include an open day at Greenlands Select Social Club as well as public discussions about the history of the plant.

One of the largest projects Whipps has undertaken is the restoration of a 1275GT Mini made in Longbridge in 1979. This has been possible with the help of several ex-employees from the plant including Keith Woodfield. Many of the processes of stripping down and replacing or repairing the parts were initially viewable for twelve months in a glass-fronted cabin-come-workshop in the carpark of Bournville College. The car was also exhibited in various galleries across the country as part of Whipps’ participation in the touring British Art Show exhibition. The (dis)assembly of the Mini provides an echo of the changes experienced by Longbridge itself. The display of the car in various states of repair highlights the significance of this part of British manufacturing heritage to a wider audience. For instance, Whipps’ participation in the Staffordshire Mini Fair via an exhibition of the car’s shell has been a further catalyst to develop dialogue with different groups of people.

Archival research has been crucial to Whipps’ working practice. With a desire to understand some of the reasons for the closure of the plant, Whipps began collecting material connected to the factory from 1979, the same year he was born. That year was also a pivotal time for the UK and for Longbridge. Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister in May 1979 and in November came the sacking of the talismanic communist union convener Derrick (red Robbo) Robinson at Longbridge. Whipps has photographed some of the car parts from the Mini with newspaper cartoons about British Leyland in the background. In 1979 alone there were nineteen cartoons in the national press that referenced British Leyland. Looking back now, they serve as a shocking reminder of the negative depiction of workers in the national media in the 1970s. The intention in representing them here at Longbridge in 2017 is to think about the nuanced way that political and social ideologies are formed and the real-world consequences these have. In many ways a newspaper cartoon can tell us more about society than a front page headline.

The title of the exhibition, The Kipper and the Corpse, comes from a Fawlty Towers episode first broadcast in 1979. Amongst the usual calamitous affairs of Basil Fawlty comes a rant in response to a strike at British Leyland. His words continue to resonate with labour conditions in the UK and in many other places. Fawlty attempts to wake a dead man for breakfast in his hotel room and says:

Another car strike. Marvelous, isn't it? The taxpayers pay them millions each year, they get the money, go on strike. It's called socialism. I mean if they don't like making cars, why don't they get themselves another bloody job - designing cathedrals or composing viola concertos? The British Leyland Concerto – in four movements, all of them slow, with a four-hour tea-break in between. I'll tell you why, 'cos they're not interested in anything except lounging about on conveyor belts stuffing themselves with my money.

Whipps describes the photographing of individual car parts as a kind of ‘forensic examination’ of the car. The coloured backdrops to some of the photographs are informed by a research effort to identify the name of every paint colour that has been produced at Longbridge. For the 2016 Longbridge Light Festival, Whipps used this research to make an audio installation ‘Longbridge Colours: Sound’. This listed the colour names in voices local to the area within the tunnel of the A38 bridge. The tunnel is the future location for a number of permanently-sited artworks Whipps has designed that will enhance this new public gateway for pedestrians and cyclists in Longbridge’s town centre. Whipps’ designs will incorporate elements of Longbridge’s past in permanent public artworks close to the site of the glass cabin and these will be installed and opened later in 2017.

Text by Anneka French