The Kipper and the Corpse saw Stuart Whipps pay homage to the iconic Longbridge Motor Factory by restoring a classic 1979 Mini Cooper car. The results? A project that reconnected former workers, researchers and a whole community to Longbridge's rich heritage.
- Arts Council England
- William Cadbury Foundation
- Hayward Gallery
- Birmingham City Council
Duration of project: 2014 - 2021
Another car strike. Marvellous, 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.
— Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers, 1979)
The Kipper and the Corpse is a long-running project that emerged from a 2004 series of photographs, produced by Stuart Whipps that were taken at Longbridge based car factory MG Rover.
Reflecting on those photographs, Whipps embarked on exploring how community-based art practice can not only represent the history of the MG Rover factory, but also be a tool to critically engage with the socio-political changes of Britain in the last 40 years.
The Kipper and the Corpse is a socially engaged art project in which members of the Longbridge community, with a connection to car manufacturing, contributed their expertise to the restoration of a 1275GT Mini made in Longbridge in 1979. This was made possible with the help of several ex-employees from the plant, including Keith Woodfield.
The project borrows its title from the fourth episode of the second series of a famous U.K. comedy sitcom Fawlty Towers, released in March 1979.
That year was pivotal for UK manufacturing as a conservative government, sought to undermine unions in the country. Whipps' use of this title refers to the way that the U.K. media portrayed union workers at the time as both lazy and inefficient — a point of contention for many of the project’s subsequent participants.
The Kipper and The Corpse was commissioned by WERK as part of the Longbridge Public Art Project.
Various iterations of the project have been exhibited across Longbridge in non-arts venues. At British Art Show 8, one of the most important surveys of contemporary art at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and will form a key part of the group exhibition ‘Things Things Say’ at Fabra i Coats: Contemporary Art Centre of Barcelona in October 2020.
How has the research been carried out?
The physical element of this project was vital in both its processes and social interactions.
By drawing down on the specific specialist knowledge of the community, Whipps positioned himself as the amateur in this situation.
The usual hierarchy present in community and social art practice—where the artist is often seen as the progenitor—was effectively reversed through this process. This gave people greater confidence to share personal and social histories via recorded and written testimony.
For this small group of ex-workers, this was a rare opportunity to re-examine the personal and community costs of the industrial unrest of the late seventies and beyond.
Among the project’s working group, the work generated further debate about what defines community and identity as related to geopolitical location.
The project was supported by Birmingham City Council via the Longbridge Public Art Project and the Hayward Gallery.
Outcomes and impact
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 car park 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.
Public art is often evaluated in a quantitative way. How many people experienced it and so forth. In this instance the audience was in the 100,000’s but the participant numbers were focused on less than 10 individuals with first-hand knowledge and experience of car manufacturing.
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.
The Kipper and the Corpse is making a case for deeper and more meaningful levels of public engagement rather than an assessment based on larger numbers that operates on a shallower level.
The public outcomes offered an opportunity for contemporary audiences to consider the ways that events from 40 years ago played a part in shaping current political and social ideologies.