Friday 6 February 2015


Royal Academy, London
(Yes, yet another art exhibition reviewed long after it's over!)

“Kiefer fights against our illusory belief that we live in the present moment.”

The Indelible Stain

If the acclaimed German artist Anselm Kiefer has had a post-war career, then perhaps that simply fitted with a post-war life. He was born, briefly before the end of hostilities, in a small town in the ruralised, conservative south. Yet while its true all those things would inform his work, and arguably continue to do so, its possible to allow this frame to limit our understanding of his quite expansive art with its near-universal concerns. Nevertheless, let's start at the beginning...

Even today he is perhaps most widely known, if not notorious, for his 'Occupations' series, where he'd be photographed before known European landmarks giving a fascist salute. As Martin Grayford puts it “the point... was of course not to extol Nazism but to force Kiefer and his fellow Germans to confront it”. This act was not just challenging, it would even have been illegal under German law. Part of an attitude Kiefer (and many of his generation) saw as an air-brushing of history, a masking of a bad smell rather than a stemming of its source.

Despite their infamy the show rather sidelines this series, which is probably a wise step. While they're not simply rude gestures, outstretched arm as two raised fingers, they are more provocation than anything else. Kiefer seems influenced by Dadaism at this point; elsewhere in this room are some of his sketchbooks with one page loudly proclaiming “Nothing!” And here he seems indebted to its shock tactics. In this way 'Occupations' also seems strangely prescient of British punk's appropriation of the swastika as a goading implement. They're the work of a young artist, impatiently shouting at the world around him, full of furious and immediate references - and ultimately they're little more than juvenilia.

Moreover, they're not just culturally specific but in a way that doesn't aid us - and certainly doesn't flatter us. Its probably not coincidental that Kiefer began this series in 1969, when the German Student movement was still strong. Though some did misread these photos even then, most would have implicitly understood that a young man taking up such a pose would not be demonstrating Nazi sympathies - so must be making an accusation of some kind. Yet not a decade later British punk's armband-sporting tactics, riffing on a similar theme, would be undermined by a swell in support for the far right. And today similar, sometimes openly fascist, groups operate across Europe, a trend to which Germany is alas not immune. Ironically, when we look at a photo of a man sporting a Nazi uniform we see more liberal times.

However, contemporaneous pieces contain more of the seeds of his mature work. The army uniform he wore in the 'Occupations' photos came from his father, and the series was perhaps aimed at his father's generation. However his artworks are less outward-aimed and less full of certainties. Kiefer has questioned our blithe assumptions that had we been there at that time we would have resisted becoming Nazis, while there's no way we can really know this. In short he reintroduces doubt into what might seem one of life's most certain questions, and as Mark Hudson puts it “expressed a sense of ambiguous unease about [his] country’s past.”

The forest landscape is a frequent setting, which of course doubles as references to Nazi iconography and to Kiefer's own childhood. 'Ice and Blood' (1971, above) seems titled to deliberately reference their slogan “blood and soil”. Again a lone figure gives the infamous salute, only this time over a frozen wintry environment. Though (as we'll come onto) Kiefer would find his medium in oils, here he uses watercolour powerfully to almost saturate the painting with bloodstains. Its as if this is the setting of some Nazi atrocity, the blood from which would never wash away, leaving some barren world behind. The lone soldier returns, or perhaps never left, to obsessively commemorate the bloody scene. (He's placed centrally, but so far back he seems more a reaction to the scene than an instigator of it.) Nazism is shown here not as an aberration, but an indelible stain upon history.

'Man Lying With Branch' (1971, above) is perhaps more ambiguous still. With those jutting angles the branch could be said to be shaped like a swastika. There's no way to tell whether it has somehow stabbed the human figure or is redemptively rising from him. (Though some interpret the dabs of black beneath the stem as blood.) The branch could be murder weapon, headstone-like commemoration or symbol of rebirth. We'll come back to the teasing ambiguity of this later...

Of course these works use much of the imagery and symbolism of German Romanticism. Others refer specifically to Norse mythology such as 'Odin – Ygdraissal' and 'Ragnorak' (both 1976). And throughout this show we'll find that, for an artist working in the modern era, Kiefer was highly influenced by Romanticism. A movement of course often seen as soured by the later Nazi era, any original innocence to it now despoiled. Leading many to fence such symbolism off with the cultural equivalent of police crime scene tape.

Yet Kiefer takes the opposite approach, takes the whole thing head-on. He asks, as Daniel Arasse puts it, “how can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture after Auschwitz?” And the ambiguity of 'Man Lying With Branch' acts as a microcosm for this. While continually re-raising the question, Kiefer continually avoids easy answers. We all live upon that bloodstained earth, and none of know whether we will ever clean it. For this reason Michael Gayford described Kiefer's art as Post-Cataclysmic Romanticism. Perhaps not a catchy term, but an effective one...

Out Of the Attic:

And Kiefer's style leaps ahead with his Attic series ('71-'73) as he both takes to oils and to the grander scale which would mark his more developed work. Despite their size they also mark his tendency to work in series form, each individual work however gargantuan a mere piece of a grander plan. Motifs and images recur across and even beyond series. Which gives us a problem, for to pull away one work from all this feels wrenching and diminishing, like isolating a phrase from a piece of music. Like themes within a symphony, you need to let them recur at different times in different combinations. But let's do what we can...

The attics he paints are the actual attic of his then studio, a former schoolhouse. They're not the 'Freudian attics' so beloved of horror films, cluttered crawl spaces stacked with ambush objects, as if teeming with a thousand petty repressions. If we had to give them a name they'd be 'Jungian attics', expansive spaces, the grain of every plank carefully delineated. And that space is made a surround for some great glaring symbol. The lid is lifted on the collective psyche and it turns out to contain one big gleaming thing. The solitary objects gleam white against all those shades of brown, like dream objects or apparitions. Take, for example, 'Parsifal III' (1973, below).

Wagner, of course, wrote an opera around the Parsifal legends so Kiefer is once more taking head on the darker associations of Romanticism. The beams of the attic make it resemble an Anglo-Saxon hall, further rooting the paintings in legend. While the focus on symbols at the expense of human figures make the whole thing seem a set of power objects. This with-holding of the human figure is recurrent in Kiefer's work. It serves to strip away human agency, giving the images an eerie, ominous fatalism.

However, the focus on Parsifal's youth ('Parsifal 1', 1973 displays his cot) also suggests at a more autobiographical reading. After Parsifal's father dies his mother attempts to keep him from war, but he defies this and goes in search for the Grail. It suggests Kiefer finding post-war Germany not just hypocritical but stifling, and striking out on his own.

'Father, Son, Holy Ghost' (1973, above) shows Kiefer's habit of conjoining two works into one. Beneath the now-familiar attic, there's a forest of the trees that make up those planks and chairs. (And if the trees look like pines, then that's the literal meaning of Kiefer's family name.) The three chairs, only sketched in, seat three fires - labelled the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The pink of the pines seems to set up the glow of these fires. The flames sit in chairs, like monarchs on thrones, rather than consume them. It recalls the Bible myth of Moses and the burning bush, a symbol for an eternal force. And let's not forget an earlier work was titled 'Ygdraissal', the trees also represent the one tree which unites all realms. The trinity becomes associated with the more ancient notion of the three realms, our earth between the upper and lower worlds.

Which makes the work a diptych depicting a triptych. What's significant is what's absent – like the human figure earlier, now the main part of the house is cut out like a segment missing from a tree. Remember the old posters “What's missing from this ch**ch? UR!” It suggests we are oblivious to such celestial matters, we've pushed them to the periphery of our vision even as they continue to influence us.

The Muck of Ages:

If in the last room Kiefer switches to his main medium of oils, it's with what follows where his mature style truly emerges. 'Iconoclastic Controversy (Bilderstreit)' (1980) could work as a general title for the next section – perhaps of the whole show. In this period Kiefer became interested in the architecture of the Nazi past, the grand buildings of Speer and Kreis, and in what has become of them now. Let's focus on 'Ash-Flower' (1983/7, above, though its vastness makes it one of those works you really do need to see to get a sense of).

Its of a dwarfing size, more than seven meters across, with what Fisun Güner calls a “theatrical grandiosity”. With its receding perspective you feel yourself almost tumbling into it. (Ben Luke has commented “these are not so much paintings as total environments — they swallow you up.”) Unlike the dwarfed human figures, so commonly used by Romantic artists to evoke scale, there's no human element whatsoever. And somehow that just makes it vaster. That far wall could be a country mile away. The post-apocalyptic in his post-apocalyptic romanticism was never stronger than here. It's almost like seeing a generation starship crashed.

An actual sunflower is hung, withered and upside-down, before it in a manner than recalls crucifixion. (Hanging actual objects off his paintings is a trademark feature of Kiefler. In so doing, we are sometimes told, “he invents a compelling third space between painting and sculpture”. Which may be laying it on a bit thick, but it does add an intriguing new element to his works.)

There's little tonal variety, the way painting is supposed to work, it's greys and browns containing only the odd flecks of white. Instead there's textural variety, we tell the ceiling from the walls partly because the paint is less worked there. It's, to quote Alastair Sooke, “more in the manner of relief sculpture than painting”.

It's so encrusted you imagine that rather than be painted into place by the guiding hand of an artist it accrued, built itself up in layers. Crucially, it looks less like a painting of a ruin, like those neatly detailed Victorian Gothic depictions of ruined follies, than it does a ruined painting. It looks like it might have been painted when those halls were gleaming new, then left there facing them. To rot alongside the place it depicted, the portrait of Dorian Grey which failed to fulfil its promise. (I later read Kiefer does sometimes deliberately weather works.) And this evocation of temporal scale is what really matters. In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones comments:

“For all it’s vast physical scale, [it's] just as vast on the scale of time. It feels almost impossible to look into it and think back to when that building was gleaming new. The painting seems to span epochs. It is ancient. Kiefer includes time in his art ... His tangled, archaeological surfaces... are mirrors of time itself.”

The indicia mentions Hitler's delusionally hubristic command for buildings to be made from stone, not just to evoke the necessary Classicism but “so as to make beautiful ruins”. An attitude described by Owen Hatherley as “the psychotic, suicidal notion of building with the ruins already in mind: a death-driven architecture... the corpse has been designed before the living body”. Kiefer is partly depicting this, the theory that inside the Nazi lust to conquer lay the death drive, domination as a route to submission.

Alternately we could be looking at the ashes of Modernism. Perhaps those greys were once the purest whites, but all those high hopes for a transformed world turned into this wreck of a Corbusian palace. And of course this allows us to combine the two notions, like Modernist idealism could never truly be uncoupled from those fevered fascist dreams. What they had in common was the hubris, the assumption they'd remake rather than be remade, and the results were gross in every sense of the word.

Yet Ozymandian notions, however applied, seem inadequate. I'm tempted to say its both those things and more, however much like luvvie speak that sounds. The work seems so vast that any such explanation virtually shrivels before it, seems too parochial, too human in scale. It's clearly not an allegorical painting, there to be pinned to a single meaning. But at the same time I'm temped to argue the scale is its meaning. Culture always becomes nature in the end. We live in the residue of the past even as we live outside its context. It becomes as strange to and imposing upon us as any lake or mountain range.

This notion recurs in an instillation piece Kiefer created specially for this show, 'Ages of the World' (2014, above). It's composed of a teetering pile of discarded canvases, littered with rubble and detritus, dead sunflower heads emerging from the mulch as if still valiantly hoping to sprout. It's messy, haphazard, seemingly thrown together. Yet wall posters give it a key, as if its a cross-section of the earth. The indicia describe it as “speak[ing] of a geological time frame so long it is almost beyond our comprehension – part totem, part funeral pyre”. It's not, truth to tell, one of Kiefer's best works. It feels like a bit of a meta-text, a key to his work rather than a work in itself. Yet if we're being handed a key, let's use it.

In Marx's famous quote, society requires revolution in “ridding itself of the muck of ages”. Countless artists of Kiefer's generation set themselves the task of capturing and defining that revolution. It might even be argued as the very definition of Modernism, the impetus to break tradition, the desire to begin again. Whereas Kiefer contrarily but quite definitely chose to depict the muck of ages, his huge canvases weighted down by layered agglomerations of thick paint. Representing, in the show's words, “the weight of human history” - history as sediment.

The Alchemy of Materials:

Kiefer is wont to use not just non-standard paints such as emulsion but incorporate non-art materials - straw, clay, ash, earth, polystyrene, cardboard, silver leaf, plaster and what the indicia described as “scorch marks”. (I have most likely missed some from that list.) Which is when he isn't hanging discrete objects from the front of his paintings, such as the afore-mentioned sunflower. Rather than merely being gimmicky there is something alchemical, almost animistic about this.

He comments "for me ideas aren’t up in the sky and materials down in the earth. Materials have a spirit that is evoked by the physical presence, which can be accessed and opened up. In the Romantic tradition everything is connected in a kind of universal underground."

But while talking about the symbolic function of materials, we need to note Kiefer very frequently uses a literal one. Rather than depict objects in paint wood can be used to represent wood, clay stand for clay and sand sand. With Kiefer, contrary to everything semiotics tried to tell us about language, the signifier very often is the signified. Almost entirely self-taught, Kiefer in many ways resembles an outsider artist – the grand scale, the obsessiveness, the recurring private image bank, and this literal use of materials suggests at naïve art. And yet, as ever with Kiefer, it's double-edged. We're so used to seeing painted branches that to come across actual wood placed inside a picture frame becomes almost jarring. Paradoxically, this adds to Ann Christopher's comments that “Kiefer's works, even his paintings, exude a strong feeling of being made”.

Yet, while Kiefer is happy to use straw as straw, he'll use lead in the most counter-intuitive ways. He makes books from lead, pages curling like they've been read in some furnace-hot bath. In vitrines in the courtyard outside, lead submarines lie like beached fish on cracked earth. Kiefer has commented that lead is the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history, and yet at the same time for a metal it is highly malleable. Lead's the metal that can bend, the solid that can become a liquid and, perhaps above all, the earthly substance that can alchemically become gold - and thereby heavenly. Lead is always something transformed or in the act of transformation with Kiefer, to the point where you start to assume it represents transformation to him. And he has said “what interests me is the transformation, not the monument”.

And all of this seems to go hand-in-hand with his willingness to weather works, or transform them after completion via electrolysis. The dubstep artist Burial once said his first attempts to make music sounded too limited, too circumscribed, too much like something he had done. But when he started to mix in natural sounds such as rainfall, the uncontrollable, unpredictable new element recast everything around it and created something more compelling. Kiefer seems to be doing something similar with these practises - ensuring he doesn't have the final say in how his own works look.

To the Architecture of Antiquity

In 1992, Kiefer chose to make France his centre of operations. This seems to have underlined an already present shift in his subject matter from an interest in German history to more universal concerns. In particular he progressed from a fascination with Speer's ruined megalomania to the architecture of antiquity. If his paintings of ruins themselves looked like ruins, his paintings of ancient monuments look like... well, I expect you're ahead of me. They loom out of the canvas, inscrutably strange yet inescapable. And the depictions of an indelible past come to be replaced by his much-heralded “cyclic view of time”, in works such as 'Osiris & Isis' (1985/7, above).

Broken pieces of pottery are scattered around the base of pyramid (needless to say with Kiefer, these are actual bits of pottery), as if hurled from its apex. These are joined by wires, attached to a strange and somewhat incongruous block. (Actually part of an old TV set.) The pieces are numbered, as if found and catalogued by an archeologist. The title suggests the legend of Isis literally re-membering Osiris, gathering his body parts from the corners of the realm where there'd been thrown and bringing them back to life. Its a myth is associated with the inter-relationship between life and death, order and disorder. That dashed pot will reassemble, re-climb the steps of the pyramid, only to be dashed again and then again. As the indicia put it: “In Kiefer's cosmology the universe is an immense alchemical oven in which spirit and matter find themselves in a continuous process of creation and destruction.”

Notably, the pyramid shape was also seen in 'Ages of the World', as a metaphor for the weight of history. And those narrowing, hierarchical levels make the pyramid the ultimate power symbol, appearing even on dollar bills. If pot is Osiris, and the block hauling him back is Isis, perhaps Set, his murderer, is the pyramid itself.

From Words to Stubble

Next, Kiefer revisits both the landscape setting and themes of his earlier watercolours such as 'Ice and Blood', but now in oil and at his characteristically huge scale. In 'Black Flakes' (2006, above) the furrowed field is the size of some nations, pulling to some impossibly distant vanishing point, the raised horizon allowing only for a grey slither of sky.

As earlier the field is barren but ploughed, never primeval, never de-cultured. The blackened stubble (actually protruding wood) resembles war graves, as if nature's one vast cemetery. In Paul Celan's post-holocaust poetry, always an influence on Kiefer, the veiling presence of snow is a frequent metaphor for forgetting. And yet a lead book is set on the painting. With this extra element the snow-white field starts to resemble a giant page, the stubble fragments of letters. Lines of poetry by Celan are written in the receding furrows of the field. And let's note from an early point Kiefer has been writing on his artworks. (He once made a series based on the letters of the Kabbalah, not included in this exhibition.) And books are a common metaphor for remembering. (A companion work, 'For Paul Celan – Ash Flower', 2006, features burnt books.)

So are we looking at a barren field doubling as a war grave, or at a visual metaphor for a book? That's probably the point. If 'Ice and Blood' portrayed an indelible past seeping through to the present and 'Isis and Osiris' time in a perpetual cycle, this work hints at a transformation without delivering it. Books are like seeds, planting ideas. Will even the immense bleakness of this scene yield to Spring, the embryonic letters assert themselves through the snow? For all it's size, the painting's like a coin about to be tossed. It could bloom. Or it could as easily fall back into frozen tails again.

Beyond Human Scale

There's a rough but noticeable increase in scale to Kiefer's work throughout this exhibition, from attics to grand ruins to cosmological scenes. But while the gargantuan buildings were on the edge of human scale, these constellations and cosmic pieces perhaps tip over into a place beyond it. They don't dizzify you in the same way, for they don't engage you to the same degree. The all important (to quote the show) “link between the celestial and the earthly” becomes stretched if not broken. Notably, in 'The Secret Life Of Plants, For Robert Fludd' (1987/2014), the proportions of 'Black Flakes' are inverted; there's a caking of earth right at the painting's base, like the ground barely clinging on.

The best work in this series is best explored by comparison to an earlier piece - 'For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night' (1998/2013) to 'The Orders of the Night' (1996, both above). Though, as is typical with Kiefer, the earlier picture itself recalls the afore-mentioned 'Man Lying With Branch'. Though 'Orders' is still more a funereal picture, the single branch replaced by the multiple black 'faces' of the sunflowers bearing down on the recumbent figure like anti-suns. We saw earlier how Kiefer used the image of the one tree uniting the realms, from its lofty leaves in the upperworld to its roots digging into the underworld. Replacing the branch with sunflowers suggests they can represent the same unifying concept in his work. But Kiefer is also interested in the Seventeenth century cosmologist Robert Fludd, as we've seen dedicating another work in this room to him. And one of Fludd's conceptions was that every plant on the earth had a parallel star. So those sunflower heads are also associated with stars.

In 'Stalks of the Night' the piercing branch is back, and the sunflowers fallen away to reveal an almost abstract blackened canvas. The human figure is less individuated than before, slashing downward strokes making up his ribcage. We tend to use the term 'diagramatic' critically in art, for works which are merely schematic. But with Kiefer these negative connotations seem to drop away. This is almost like the cosmological maps of the Medieval era; gold leaf adheres to the top of the work as if representing heaven, while below tree and torso are reunited. The domed line performs a similar function as the join in his earlier conjoined paintings, a formal separation standing for an actual connection. Notably, while heaven is gold, the line is in silver. Though only barely realised, the figure is thought to be a self-portrait. Mortality may rule in our middleworld, but this does not stop it being connected to grander realms.

The Earth Breaks All Teeth

As if not overwhelming enough, this exhibition came with something of a scoop – the first British showing of Kiefer's most recent series, Morgenthau. These works are given a room of their own, like an instillation piece. And with their break from the the sombre muted palettes of the wintry landscapes, with their copper greens, aqua blues and golds, they become an arresting sight. After the waning of interest in the cosmological scenes, they kick the show back into life.

Their title comes from the Morgenthau Plan, an American proposal for the “industrial disarmament” of post-war Germany. In this almost 'Hunger Games' scenario of calculated impoverishment she would have been stripped of her capacity to wage further wars by being stripped of her capacity to do very much of anything. She would have become a “pastoral state”, essentially a nation of farmers. Though of course never implemented, it was for a while seriously considered at high levels.

One way of framing this aesthetically would be to see Germany as taken home again, reduced to resembling one of its own old Romantic paintings. German Romanticism has always liked to imagine life sprang from some timeless country idyll and always kept its heart there. And these rural works are once more indebted to Romanticism, particularly Van Gogh. (Let's not quibble over whether he was late Romantic or early Modern, Kiefer's interest seems precisely in this interchange point.) But we perhaps get to their essence quicker by not comparing but contrasting them. Wheat is about as kitsch a subject in art as sunflowers. We see it on cereal packets or in Soviet Realist posters – arranged in neat yellow rectangles, obligingly awaiting felling by armies of jolly peasants, so harvestable you can even sing a song while you're doing it (see below).

Whereas Kiefer transforms wheat as much as he did sunflowers. (See 'Morgenthau Plan', 2012, above). He paints a nature, cultivated in theory, yet untamed. They're no neat lines but a thicket, an impenetrable mass of jutting angles. Hung before them are farming implements, archaic and rusty, traps tooth-broken on heavy rocks. One contains an actual pair of muddy boots, as if defeated by the clogging earth and discarded there like a solider lost to battle. You'll struggle to feed your impoverished belly by dragging your blunted plough across these pitiless stones. If the Romantics found the overpowering force of nature in mountains and mighty rivers, Kiefer finds it in a farmer's field.

Kiefer could conceivably have grown up in this alternate history, where it was the Marshall Plan which was the footnote and Kraftwerk were an acoustic folk act. And perhaps this series stems from him envisaging such a fate. But that seems to describe the works' inception rather than their nature. As ever there's a political dimension to Kiefer, but to reduce his work to a narrow capital-P political would be to unecessarily diminish it.

The most common theory of the prevalence of hunting scenes in cave paintings is that they worked as a form of sympathetic magic – by spearing an auroch in symbolic form you empowered yourself against the actual auroch. The tangled crops of the Morgenthau series seem the farming equivalent of those hunting scenes, humanity locked in a symbiotic war with nature.

From Ashes to Diamonds:

Kiefer seems to divide opinion into enthralled devotees and those who find it all just ostentation, prog rock for the eyes. I am normally suspicious of vast canvases and grand statements in art. Artists often get big and lofty when they run out of things to actually say, the equivalent of shouting instead of speaking. Yet seeing this show has firmly made me into another of Kiefer's devotees.

Perhaps the ideal way to view is work would be to visit the two environments he's built for his artwork, as featured in the recent BBC 'Arena' special. Part studio part instillation piece, they seem less a place to look at his work than a way to climb inside it. But alas they're not open to the public. (Perhaps because of what seems a somewhat permissive approach to health and safety.) But this show's a decent substitute. I suspect it will be one of those memorable events people later claim to have attended, whether they did or not.

And perhaps we even need someone like Kiefer right now... As our culture as a whole becomes more visually oriented (interactive web sites replacing magazines, comics becoming more accepted as a medium and so on), this has led to an irony - rather than enhancing visual art itself it seems to have stripped it of its special status. A century ago, Modernism seemed the very tip of the cutting edge. While contemporary art now can often feel mired in post-modernism, a burnt-out fire with all the illumination coming from elsewhere - in Dubuffet’s description “like a dead language that no longer has anything in common with the language of the street”. The artists who remain well known often feel like celebrities and scandal-mongers, sometimes dabbling in a bit of art to perpetuate the figleaf for their fame.

Yet, as the Telegraph's Mark Hudson puts it: “At a time when most art is only about itself and its relationship to the market, his work challenges the past and his own role and, by extension, our role within it”. Kiefer is invigorating, enthralling and overwhelming – but not necessarily in that order. You come across his works the way you would ruins in the desert; they look unforgettable at the very same time they look beyond any scale or context, gargantuan new facts to rearrange everything else around. I've probably only scratched at those rich thick surfaces, traced the faintest of paths through those dense forests. Several sections I've simply skipped over. But it will have to do for now.

Except its even more than this. Perhaps befitting an artist with such a cyclic view of time, this exhibition is less retrospective than summary to date. It demonstrates not an artist able to keep doing it, but one embarking on directions quite new for him. Its not even that he’s still at the top of his game. Its more like his star is still in ascent.

Here's some sample pictures at a more fitting scale.

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