“Ming Jue” is Chinese for “Modern Gentleman” – the clue’s in the name. When MG Rover collapsed in 2005 with debts of £1.4 billion and the loss of 6,500 jobs, Nanjing Auto (China’s oldest carmaker) bought the MG brand and set about transferring the main production lines from Longbridge to a new home 6,000 miles away to the east. MG originally stood for “Morris Garages”…but no longer. Re-branded, it now stands for the – oddly anachronistic – Modern Gentleman.
Before the meltdown, Stuart Whipps had begun photographing at Longbridge as part of a project exploring the relationship between the workers, the historic plant and the neighbouring town. Given subsequent developments, it is no surprise that he finished with something very different: a set of pictures documenting both the deserted West Midlands factory, and its successor in the Pukou district of Nanjing. In a sense, the focus of his work became the hiatus in production between the demise of one plant and the establishment of its replacement. There are very few cars to be seen. In fact – this is China, remember – they are outnumbered by bicycles.
Many of the UK pictures have an eerie, interrupted feel. Longbridge’s closure was initially described as a temporary disruption – the suggestion being that work might resume within the week. So there is a Coke bottle still standing on a canteen table; a fading snapshot still stuck to a laboratory fridge; even a jacket, tie and pressed trousers left hanging, like the plant, in limbo. The shells of three vehicles on one of the arrested assembly lines appear stalled rather than abandoned. On top of a filing cabinet someone has left a trophy behind.
Elsewhere, in compositions of austere symmetry, the sense of finality is more palpable: cables hang from ripped ceiling tiles; leaves and newspapers litter a floor; pipes run nowhere; rust and flaking paint make their progress.
However, the book is more than a study in the picturesque opportunities offered by the processes of industrial decay. In Nanjing the pictures are of brightly lit, pristine assembly lines and Chinese workers in new MG uniforms. But still no cars. Judging by several of Whipps’ images, it would appear that the most industrious of the new owner’s staff are employed in the Advertising & Marketing department. Indeed, when a new MG does make an appearance it plays second fiddle in the photograph to a cameraman standing amid the falling confetti and streamers of a heavily trailed launch ceremony photocall. The media re-branding of the car also dominates a view of the Nanjing factory exterior. A huge billboard – topping the plant’s main building – shows an MG speeding along an empty road as the sun sets over an open landscape. On closer inspection the image, and its promise of freedom and leisure, dominates not only the workplace but also the pedestrians – rendered minuscule and barely visible – that pass by the plant.
Well, it’s an ill wind… Whipps missed the chance to complete a local project on Longbridge, its environs and workers. But he gained the opportunity to produce something certainly more ambitious, perhaps more vivid: a body of work that has some purchase on the movements of capital, labour and commodities in the 21st century.