Mihir – On Explanation and Art. Initial thoughts

After visiting the Andy Warhol’s solo show at the Stable Gallery in 1964 Arthur Danto famously declared it was “the end of western art”. It was such a shock for him to see such work in a gallery. I heard him talk in London over 10 years ago. He was an eminent Warhol academic and during the talk shared the moment he came across Brillo box sculptures by Andy Warhol. 

The talk recounted how art critics responded to the piece, how it was like stepping into the gallery, where the gallery was located in New York and his subsequent encounters with the sculptures. I think at that time I was caught up in the excitement of his explanation and thought it would’ve been amazing to be there. To see the Brillo boxes stacked in the gallery looking pristine, not distinguishable from the boxes used at supermarkets. With such iconic works it’s hard to recapture a particular moment in art history, see it with fresh eyes and recreate that experience. The Brillo boxes are now reproduced on shirts (which I have one), postcards, books and countless of other places.

I was 22 at the time listening to the Danto and I thought about how I would react seeing the Brillo boxes if I was in New York at that time. Andy Warhol was already displaying work in galleries, silk screens and prints which reflected his background as a fashion illustrator. The subject wasn’t unusual – it was a readymade object. It was how it was displayed as art that was shocking.

What Danto took away from his encounter with the Brillo boxes was a questioning of the ‘thingness’ of art. The Brillo boxes were presented in gallery space as art but were treated as commercial objects:- subject to issues of copyright, commercial tax, questions of ownership of the boxes and disputes with the company Brillo. 

Schooled in Western art I like to think iconic and groundbreaking art works reveal themselves once they are made. Once you step into a gallery you would know that you’re witnessing something important. I wouldn’t think that this moment would come along an IG post in the end of 2020, the year of the pandemic. A promotional video of a collection to be launched for a month-long creative programme. A shaky 24 second video of a garbage truck taken on Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Highway with light text revealing, ‘The Mihir Collection’ by Hana Zine’.

While a conversation on Reddit sparked debate, it moved onto Instagram and Twitter. The contested idea was whether this promotional work needed explanation since the online backlash against the video was that it was derogatory, and further to that whether art needs explanation. 

Those questioning Hanazine had their arguments resting on the foundations that the promotional video is art, and following from that all art needs explanation. These two arguments are found in parts in Danto’s awe of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. The art critic reflected: Are the Brillo Boxes art, and if it is does need explanation? 

The desire to have explanations in the local context is none more apparent in logo designs where the most symbolic, packed illustrations are picked by the public. The reasoning is down to having straightforward explanations and symbolism that take a sentence (no more or less) to understand. 

The first foundation of the argument that was posited online that the video is art is a testament to the maturation of work in the past year by the sibling duo Hanazine. It speaks to the elevation of their practice to art, it’s now an indisputable fact. IG posts, installations, video, Zine spreads move across commercial, fashion and art boundaries. There is no debate among Reddit, IG or Twitter that the video is art, although I would add that it’s a promotional video for a commercial release.

The contestation that art needs explanation relates to the notion that art is for the elite, ‘it’s not for me’, that creators are too arrogant to share their explanation to the masses. This feeling is heightened as the subject in question is a garbage truck and a singular word, ‘Mihir’. Two themes are are not usually associated with art. The critics of the ‘Mihir Collection’ release also pointed out that surely it needs further context, even if the caption hinted at release of merchandise in the future.

I don’t think this will be the end of my reflection of this moment. The subsequent conversation saw the overlap of disparate interest groups on Reddit and Instagram. Those professing not understanding art clashing with those who don’t get what the fuss is about. It’s a heightened moment for creatives in Brunei. Self-awareness of goals and objectives. Self-labelling of objectives and aims. It’s a moment to further develop art appreciation, art criticism and education.