Stuart Whipps’ art project The Kipper and the Corpse has seen him highlight the iconic Longbridge car factory, formerly one of the most successful in the country and the last British-owned volume car manufacturer.
Research background – A cyclical history
Birmingham-born Whipps has enjoyed an acclaimed career as both a lecturer and artist.
He has exhibited across the globe as both a solo artist and in group exhibitions, winning the Observer Hodge Photography Prize in 2005 and the joint recipient of the East International Prize in 2009.
Stuart began the project while the Longbridge car factory was still open, photographing and documenting the site. To focus his aims, he concentrated on a particularly notable year, 1979, that saw Margaret Thatcher elected as Prime Minister and Longbridge’s trade unionist Derek Robinson sacked.
“The events of 1979, such as the erosions of the unions, the Conservatives in power, etc, are mirroring the present day,” Stuart explains.
“Great Britain leaving the European Union is a prime example. I believe looking to the past will help us to understand the attitudes and thoughts happening in the present day.”
Research background – Combining community with art
Stuart called his project The Kipper and the Corpse after an episode of the comedy Fawlty Towers, which sees Basil Fawlty lambast British Leyland workers. “1979 was a unique time and the comedic ramblings of Basil showed certain attitudes towards car manufacturers,” Stuart explains.
In 2014, WERK commissioned Stuart to create an art project for the Longbridge Public Art Project (LPAP).
LPAP aimed to celebrate the incredible history of the town through a commissioning model of artists-in-residencies. The goal of the LPAP was to create projects that combined public art, heritage, open space and community development.
Focusing on the Longbridge car plant, which had once employed more than 6,000 people and dominated the local landscape, was a no-brainer.
Outcomes and impact – Reconnecting to a cultural landmark
Stuart’s exhibition has seen him restore a 1979 Mini Cooper car with the assistance of former British Leyland workers.
The conversations Stuart had with those ex-employees helped shape his project further.
“I didn’t want nostalgic comments, I wanted them to speak about the place that helped form their identity,” he explains. “Luckily, working with them for such a long time meant I enjoyed some really insightful conversations about the good and bad of factory life.”
Stuart and co often worked on the project in the public eye, working in a glass cabin in Longbridge town centre. Seeing the car at various stages of repair showcased to the region how significant car manufacturing had been to the town.
Outcomes and impact – Highlighting history
The renovated Mini enjoyed exhibitions across the country, as part of Stuart’s participation in the British Art Show exhibition.
“I like the idea that a Mini would sit in an art gallery in a traditional setting,” says Stuart. “It’s not trying to make it sculptural in an artful way through the subversion of materials, it’s through this straight presentation of here’s this object and here are the narratives that relate to it.”
The Mini featured alongside photography, texts and archival material from the period, providing a rich cultural and political backdrop to the landmark automobile.
It came to Birmingham’s IKON Gallery in September 2019.