“The sound as an augury of death”
This title is a starting point. I’ve chosen it as it speaks of the anticipation of looking at the new exhibition by Ursula Burke, ‘A False Dawn’. The word anticipation is our expectation ahead of time.
On 31 May 2020 plans were to close the exhibition here in limbo. While we consider time and second waves there is alteration in our vision and it is not only the wounded concerning us but those who have tragically lost their lives in the outbreak of Covid 19. Despite our experiences in the face of a plague it is human nature to consider the methods we employ to understand it and the wider dangers everyday life has in store. By no means a reflection but a catalyst for thought this exhibition currently hidden away from us speaks of many things.
The introductory title photograph I took and titled to head this essay is obviously showing the Lockdown confinement of the exterior that hides (in March/April/May 2020) the exhibition lying behind the 5th floor Upper Gallery wall.
Inside, on the other side, the drip painting lies behind. The wall suddenly becomes a current edition of the angry it leaps from. This present protection the enclosure provides, shields the new work, creating an extraordinary sense of the present as its original conceptual form centuries ago is reinterpreted somewhere we cannot experience in the intended installation. The prescience is un-calculated but if anything, maybe in the mould of prophethising is shockingly realised and the prophet being here, Ursula Burke.
On the 5th level of the Ulster Museum, traditionally the Art being the highest entry to the confines of ours and the museums strata of telling discovery. Augury is a word Ursula Burke fastens onto and it’s emblematic place in the sculpture sends us in several directions. The repurposed fresco with birds is resonant of several contexts across a longer period of time.
In the Artist statement this is said – “Often, I take a Northern Irish context as a critical point of departure from which to generalise my approach outwards to international concerns.”
This work takes in some pieces from previous exhibitions that lend their heft to this particular ascribed process. The following text from those earlier exhibitions, in part description, shows the process of thought employed by Ursula Burke.
“A large proportion of my work at present is made using Parian porcelain, a hard paste porcelain that is famed for emulating Parian marble, the substance used for carving many of the Greek and Roman sculptures from antiquity. Even though Parian is extremely hard after firing, the nature of the material exudes a kind of softness and elasticity, (almost fleshy) which at the same time formally emulates the characteristics of marble. In content, the reference to the classical period that the work allows enables me to make a conceptual bridge between idealised versions of society much in debate during the classical period and the necessity for continually suspended versions of the ideal within a post-conflict society. Northern Ireland as a region is consistently working towards peace; persistently speaking and striving to move towards an indeterminate point in the future where real, meaningful and lasting peace between tribal communities has been realized. The schism between idealized forms of civil society and consistently suspended versions of the ideal in post conflict society is at the heart of this work.” From the troublesarchive.com Art of the Troubles, The Ulster Museum Belfast, 2014; Arafudo Art Annual, Fukushima, Japan 2014; March & June Mostra, British School at Rome, 2014; Spazi Aperti, Romanian Academy, Rome, 2014; Hope for a Better Past, The MAC, Belfast, 2013 & Instances of Agreement, Kao Yuan Art Centre, Taiwan, 2011. They resonate again here.
The vision here
It summons up a thought process on life as seen though the past as a vision of the future. Called ‘A False Dawn’ it supposes also a negative position maybe where we are at, but it covers a lot of ground. The past is seen in the referencing spatial sense of the original fresco and it in part a reconstruction of. It also is a gathering of violence against the person, posing in an array of mediums the entry to the debating chamber, meeting places to discuss differences and forge policies of unity an opposite prevails into the present day and beyond.
The work seems to presuppose the history of humans default to former patterns that negatives will ensue. Far from obvious are the immemorial themes point to the wasteful oblique way we see the environs and world we live in and all its inhabitants. These only appear with scrutiny of the ‘fresco’ with images contained within it. Some local and as I alluded to the wall takes on more genus loci with the wall having in the view hidden our ‘Parliment’ a few miles out the other side having, and it’s very probable Ursula Burke had that symbolic an immovable part of our reckoning or at least a fixture of it.
Further on here I will refer to other works that seek to use art as the countenance for or own debates.
There is a reaction to repression of every kind here in the work and at its core is the politically ardent will that caught out post war worlds. Reconciliation is never over. After these ancient inherent human abstract relations pattern in nature survives beyond us. Made as each are in that miracle of combinations that under the microscope only retain pattern and forms of symmetry our abstract world is incurable evident.
The Italian fresco is a beginning but the core is the restlessness borne of dreadful pain mirrored in the apathy with which fine art beguilingly transports us towards as some judgement or acceptance of the absurd.
Fight with flight
The birds are the only animals seen in the exhibition and they figure in the settled full wall perch of the blue diagraphic take on enterprise. The glory of a fresco is simulated in the form of a testing pseudo deterioration by strands of dripped bud paint, speckled distempered plaster. The appearance is less fecund than any original fresco but holds an arresting scale in the soft light of the Gallery. It is based on the Villa of Livia which has been restored at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome which is, in this iteration, a bit like the https://www.atelier-lumieres.com/en/home Van Gogh simulator without the colour intensity.
The villa was abandoned in the 5th century AD, and subsequently pillaged and looted for antiquities. In 1863, the famous statue of Augustus of Prima Porta was discovered on the site, as well as the birds and trees frescoes in an underground dining area. These were moved to museums in the city to conserve them.
The deterioration as depicted here is arrested and an arresting state of compromise for our satiated souls. Reclaiming it with this mural effect is taking the visitor into a world that is outside the former and is evoking through the use of the flightless birds sorrowful dripping tears of paint and the abundance of natural things an anotherness we cannot see. It goes beyond us. To this Ursula Burke brings a presence of mankind’s intervention and confinement. In today’s compromised world it has wild connections. Nowhere will there be a more relevant juxtaposition in Art installation. The terracotta wilderness is the only comparable example of these themes as this has advanced new infinite interpretations.
The terracotta wilderness of the former is obliterated by the intensity of a blue landscape with grid mesh patterns and inserts of hand held lenses capturing a circle of place, Carson’s Statue or The Stormont Mile.
We are pulled into the wilderness of our transmuted political lives.
The allegories may be there but the tonal qualities of the former fresco as a vehicle are explored as an effect less intensely or otherworldly here as Ursula Burke realises her ‘Augury of the Birds.’ The Villa of Livia is the original title and this alternative is extending the reach of the original due to its pastiche allegory of a beautiful location, even garden of Eden. … “La Villa di Livia a Prima Porta da praedium suburbanum a villa Caesarum”.
The place here, it’s genus loci, is compared to this former mythical imagining which itself is captured in its frozen fall from perpetuity and is a relic of another view of the world. The meaning is placed in either location to be one where we aspire to flourish beyond expectations held across the fence in the fresco. “Livia had a fresco painted on the walls which reproduced the nature outside. In fact there are several types of trees, and there are also 69 different types of birds, like those found in the woods around the villa,” said Biondi.
That illusion is not far from in both the former and Ursula Burke’s own latest interpretation here, one perceived by the Artist know as the old man of Modern Literature, one James Joyce, whose eyesight, with another ironic twist of fate in this context, was about a tenth of normal sight and therefore he was unable to invest in the visual much other than an observant contempt-or, while being in the opposite a master of the language lingual he contritely put a verse to this connection –
Buy a book in brown paper
From Faber and Faber
To see Annie Liffey trip, tumble and caper.
Sevensinns in her singthings,
Plurabelle on her prose
Seashell ebb music wayriver she flows.
His book was of the two shores of the Liffey, on the harbour of people, the brown paper bag the admission it was censored and contained connections with Finnegans Wake..
Not the enigma poetry expected but a blunt instrument of a sales pitch. This is itself a play with words as you are invited to enter a tributary of life where the rawness and morality is cast in metaphors of the rivers proximity to us. The river is carrying away our thoughts. The changes in the tidal flow are stilled only by the momentary galina.
‘What he was doing was leaving a literary ghost mark for a world that was unprepared for it. Anna is both woman and river and “her fluvial maids of honour”, from all corners of the world, constitute 350 river names.’ Edna O’Brien.
This is the same wilderness an author felt able to enter and express while H.G.Wells, Nabokov, DH Lawrence, thought the less of it, TS Eliot was along with Samuel Beckett no stranger to its strangeness as ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ became a morality tale of the river as the conscious being, once entered you cannot return to join in the same place again. The essay by Edna O’Brien is simply a testament to that works genius.
Bleakness lies before the precious and it is not recreational, recreation is a simile after all and it is an escape while being present. What appears is the thought Ursula Burke is in contest with the world as seen. That she attests to other consciousnesses and parts and gives here a very formative tale to investigate. Along with Joyce she is a companion to the diversity and is gathering in throwing porcelain of her own concepts in bruised and battered allegories which for a long time have proven solid and robust conquests of authorative voice.
The wonderful new book by Colm McCann ‘Apeirogon’ which he snatches a story of combatants he met as lives witnessed in the Middle East to convey the union of ordinary people through the common loss of a child, is illustrated in physical existing metaphors wherein the entry points A,B,C, in the occupied areas are under surveillance of drones cameras and watchtowers the lines of movement that must be adhered to. Gate A is to a Palestinian area, it is illegal for Israelis to enter it. There reasons might be collaboration and assistance? Gate B is to an Israeli held area which Palestinians can enter with adherence to the areas rules as they provide services to the area. Gate C is a settlement occupied only by Israelis. Only Israelis are allowed in. This is the real manifestation of a global human malaise. To take it to another level is the containment of the rooms, a truth, an encounter then a reflection. The broad scope is a problematic one in this confined space. Later I suggest reasons for this opinion.
Just as another fine line of connection there is a review in Los Angeles of the novel being also about birds. ‘Also About Birds: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ in Colum McCann’s “Apeirogon” by Ben Libman
Beyond malaise is the witnessing of such division and conflict and Ursula Burke has produced in the area of the 5th floor something akin to the separate rooms, at least for my purposes of analysing what I’d seen within its pictorial walls that similar guise. Akin is the name VSO call their volunteer magazine which centres on the junctions of family and repair. This is also a part within the scope of Ursula Burke’s vision here. The many pieces of sculptured heads themselves are displayed on trestles and Dias as types of singular grief and fortitude.
The typed imprint sometimes seen in Ursulas work, of tattoos and messages is again used but less dominantly. The tattoos are in fact the bruises and broken defaced, literally heads full of self image and identity harmed but unbowed. Each forms a art of the same collective. The ‘rooms’ – Gates I eluded to – are usefully given mapping in the accompanying exhibition booklet.
The collective is known as ‘The Wounding’. In the same room, the point of entry are two smaller pieces, Blue – The Sphinx greeting you as you enter and the foremost image identifying what the exhibition is taking you toward. Due to the limitations of space there is only a small explation of the aims and it is immeasurable how much can be taken away or witnessed in calculations of meaning and the exploration of the work.
It is brutally beautiful from the onset. Delivering a coruscating abundance of tales in principle using humans at its core. Natures supremacy is also our configuration. The birds are in an evolutionary state, as we happen to have common migratory processes instilled within us. The flight as opposed to flightlessness is adjudicated in poetry, Seamus Heaney’s works are peppered with birds. As local artist Jefferey Morgan has often in his paintings, his fellow Artist in words, Michael Longley has himself a fascination with birds and their flight. Even in this same space (RUA 2019) birds were appropriated in Jeremy Morgan’s painting of Wiggenstien, as a perch for birds, his trusted companions placing context to philosophy in the edges of Connemara.
The Sphinx is an art subject since it’s earliest embrace. In essence power is anthropomorphic with this creature a heraldic peaceful force showing control, the complete opposite of ourselves of its innate image of pure evolution. This is no Tutankhamen (another tomb is believed to exist beyond the famous Egyptian find) but it is emblematic of faith, virtue, spirit and soul all equated with blue and light blue is associated with the Throat Chakra in eastern mysticism. The element of ether belongs with this and the bruise signals I am here, a human, both the yellow and red absent from blue transition to the physical take it to a stage statues do not have.
It is hard to speak of the delicate forms the world takes without seeing the contrasts presented. They are a dialogue of themselves. The hanging head ‘Augury’ in the third room is a synthesis of a beam, a pressure treated, well selected, worn railway sleeper of a crossbeam, a bodyof woolen torso. Who am I? – it seeks an answer to. Both of itself and the visitor under its presence. The stainless steel grille of the sixties ventilation above and behind it is brought into it in my view, with its rational place occupying the space also and filtering away the august air of the solemn interior in which we invent time and thought.
Inherited. A congress of anger.
In ‘Augury of the Birds’ is a context which is as I recently reminded a commentator having a pop at a geographer in a political context, of the animal having a locale and no borders – pinemartins. One of the Irish animals that possess enough guile as to be from even further away. These common carnivores are found in Scotland and the species mustelid have been around a long time. They are not confined by fences while birds are even less confined. They find a way to cross boundaries.
Here there is a joy alongside a trying contest with hope in this display and conceptual world. By creating, and arches sanctity of place, light and stillness take the visitor to a similar room or series of spaces as the La Villa di Livia a Prima Porta. No longer a place of restful pastoral solitude here there are cast relics or people. The heads and bruised elegance given to the new born is cast with its brethren’s burden. The baby is a clear embodiment of this veil of sorrows already inhabited by the person. James Joyce spent years developing a new dialogue and who is Finnegan? Who is the wanderer? The point from one place to another is taken by allowing seeing places symbolising your existence. A habitat or vantage point like the Martello Tower.
The man-made is like a Seán Hillen postcard montage/collage sustained with images taken in combinations and gathered. Like a rickshaw on the canal towpath incongruous and accepted. The allegory of Birds is one which goes beyond our eight mile, for most experiences of that scale, vision unlike the birds whose flight allows them elevation and survey. Often looking at horizons it is observed or intuition tells us, why would you look for meaning in it, what is meaning and why would it have to have meaning.
Library of Congress
Like Joyces work this Gallery is a ‘book’ of ideas subverting the ordinary scroll of everyday blindness. Joyce’s tenth of normal eyesight comes with the baggage of having to find other ways to create. Recently I have been discovering how common the impairment in sight is found in art. Locally the colour blindness encroaching in degrees and in severity was occurring with Paul Henry and Basil Blackshaw. Ursula Burke is using the head as the all seeing self and its variances are dispersed with degrees of damage and all physical with the awareness there is damage within always.
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ Kafka. In the current ‘Democrat’ debate a commentator pointed out – literally – if Elizabeth Warren had an axe/sword at the discussion Bloomberg was all over the place, he would be ‘shish kebab’. Perhaps those words should be removed from any political context. There is a plethora of subjects in political debate for violence which Ursula Burke has brought to this and it is a wild card I throw into the cannibalism of political discourse. Discursive not constructive. The view being, it is present in chambers of supposed governance.
There is another oblique observation which I throw in as it comes from the family of ‘The Origin of the Species.’ Gwen Raveret, a very quick mind and Artist when a boarder at school in France wrote when returning to the comfort of the Darwin household this.
‘In all that time there is only one vision that I keep: a flash, seen through the garden hedge, of some sheep in the next field, with the frosty, winter light running along their backs. It seemed like something from another world: the real world, to which I should escape again some day. It kept me alive.’ Gwen Raveret. (A Cambridge Childhood)
In that clear mind the outside vision is seen through nature. People happen to inhabit that world along with the animals she recalls. The words are extraordinary well in keeping with the Darwin insights.
With the tenderness of porcelain Ursula Burke is calling out “the company of self-obsessed fuck-offs who squandered and destroyed the world …..” Gabriel Tallent. Except they continue to preside over the collapse. As in Dresden the mercurial pliability of the material as manipulated in the Dachau Concentration camps is once again primordial in its fragile solidity. These works are combined and brought from each singularity of a human entity, to become the assembly of The Wounded. The scene graceful and stark. Each head has a four cornered timber dias and they rest on the flat top at eye level. The combined display’s each suppose a human scale though they are at times not at the human scale but either or above or below. The child’s head for instance is larger than its normal size as is The Sphinx – Blue. As Colin Davison has in his Lives series and as is his practice the energy of a person is advanced beyond the know parameters thus confronting another aspect, that of an outside deliberate context. Apathy, hurt, fortune, fortitude, resilience, absence, they are all there and more besides. That is the gift art brings, as the lie Picasso referred to. The False Dawn maybe is presaged in the baby at the beginning of life consumed by applied identity.
There is an ever more disturbing connection to be made and it is with regard to that pliability of the Parian Porcelain. In a tragic irony it became a fixation of Himmler as in the Edward de Waal book ‘Figurines in Dachau’, of The extraordinary story of Porzellan Manufaktur Allac as it is further testified, the delicacy was a fine art beloved by Himmler and Hitler. Himmler called porcelain ‘one of the few things that give me pleasure’ and Hitler gave it as gifts. That skill advanced in Dachau a violation of human life.
The Concentration Camps became a crucible, some surviving it is presumed due to their skills and competency with the material, within Dachau. The factory in Allach became too small, and at the end of 1940 it moved to Dachau concentration camp. There were many advantages of having the factory here. There was the immediate gain of using the prisoners. The Allach porcelain company – as with the porcelain manufactory in Meissen – was losing skilled workers to the eastern front, and here they could draw on the talents of inmates. The few prisoners brought in from the camp in 1941 grew to over a hundred by 1943.
Geography and Boundaries
While a heaviness of subject is somewhat eased by the actual area of the exhibition in what is a very large space within the Museum in the three parts of the 5th floor it has a difficulty. This is so large a subject the confinement of it is problematic. The particular and evident use as much is possible of minimal presentation by exhibiting one piece on one wall emerges as a tentative approach. There is little room for reflection.
Embroidery is a dominant presence which it is possible to approach as well as view from afar. This is seen as a hanging of an image created with the softness of thread while being the concord of hate in the image as people assailants each other or defend themselves. Blood is threads dripping in tapestry. The Politicians piece is given largesse and prominence and the wooden star frame is accentuating the methodology. The piece is however crowded in the sense it has companions in the room and they are not linear. If only the pace was larger and it were possible as would happen in a linear Gallery or Circular, Getty type space, lead you through from a piece to another piece. Instead it is a conflict of images and though the earnest use of light and separations is used effectively as much as is possible it seems a narrative is lost.
Despite my ‘eulogy’ on certain aspects and being able to draw interpretations from it on a vast scale at times, it torments by not being a story developing as it could. This is evident in seeing it with others and hearing responses and the quickness of a journey does not help. Would it be better were The Wounded be confined to their own room and reflection be removed from the other works? It is difficult to imagine. Another thing I found was not being able to describe its arc to an artist before they visited and it is not entirely obvious where the story begins and what the nature of the fresco analogy is. Is it important to read the ‘fence/bird’ metaphor as the original had foreseen? Is it suffice to take the fresco for what it is by long objective observation? It was long silent before being revealed.
This is a unique reconstruction and was delivered by work on many levels by a number of people under the artists instruction. It is formed with architectural references also in the entry point and the articulation the Gallery, a modern sixties space with delights of formation and detail familiar and a shift in art presentation in itself. Now sans Pirelli Black Rubber Floor unfortunately.
Embroidery is a method deployed as an invocation of political abuse. Comparisons for me are to be made with the work often carried out by local artist Brendan Jameson. It was not long ago he replicated a war picture with plastic bricks and fired pellets at the pixelated plastic image and it showed the connection of a bombing and burnt presentation in a soft caricature the hardness of violence. Often Brendan Jameson produces work similarly contextualised of hard subjects developed with soft materials, sugar cubes towers, cranes and wool is often employed. It is a demographic pluralised by many in art.
Often troubling images are significantly made impactive by use of colour and texture. All art is a combination of the signatures, symbolic, icon, index. The hardness softness is a vocabulary which will last long and be emotive.
The use of tapestry is often seen as belonging to Power bases but that is long gone as a means of expression except the clothes and dress attire is often still predicated on status and power. By creating this soft expression of the subjects it is a dynamic pushing us to new collections of ideas. There is a thought of the location becoming a debating chamber itself, of the aftermath of debate being scrutinised by us. This is part of the envelope of any art project, to transmit and alter and show a way of seeing which is the converse and opposite of normal perceptions of the same thing or realised in an alternative shocking or engaging way.
Our familiarity of the discourses is of course a point to hold and it is also capable for other universal viewpoints to arrive at much the same thought processes.
Of all art work with a narrative centred on human conflict and Guernica apart, I found the ballet ‘The Green Table’ by performed by The Bathsheva Dance Company of Israel the most powerful I have ever witnessed. As our own ‘troubles’ spiralled and became a proximity of human harm visited on many taking away lives and their future this recoiled as a parallel depiction performed as a ballet, it arrived without warning as acts of violence do. Other forms of art could provide similar responses, it so happened to commit totally to the horror of war and human disagreements being at the core.
If we go back to the original and the notion earlier, ‘this Gallery is a ‘book’ of ideas subverting the ordinary scroll of everyday blindness. Joyce’s tenth of normal eyesight comes with the baggage of having to find other ways to create.’ it presupposes a normality in that the original was designed as a dining area. Imagine what discussions might have fed those at the table. The outside is perceived as harmful while dining is a convivial and discursive learning rewarding essential social norm. While dining there is withdraw to a safe refuge to take in the harvest of all they survey.
‘The Green Table’ is that place of discourse and it is used not for dining but as a place to reflect and act out positions of difference and the meaning is held all are equal while a temporary lapse in normal hostilities are replaced by conversation. It seldom works as conversation is held among people as they swamp agreements or common purposes while energising other equations as a test among their piers. So the table is a mediator on levelling out. The people are of course ardently different holding outside ideas they must attend to, adhere to and visit so they are not confronted once they’ve left of change. That is also a spiral of centrifugal force. Like a satellite of thoughts much as the reverence held by the construction of Newgrange and other core layline driven spaces. These rooms are a place of discovery in the most part. They reflect on what is. They also offer food as the dining room is destroyed and in limbo while we navigate the pieces while discovering thoughts fresh and recalled.
Paucity in Religion
As the work is attempting to take on a huge subject and our lack of mediation among nations it races toward the singularity of existence seen focused on individual choices and from the sign of the baby holding a flag on entering the world it is apparent this is individuality with context. The onrush of societal norms are that contagion it is difficult to remove ideas away from.
Predicated by the notions and practices instilled since birth it is rare that independent thought perseveres without some identity context. None more so than religion. I can see the argument and that is a toxic word in some places is that our times have always been trapped by war and conflict with Northern Ireland a place known primarily through its troubles near past. So I have found the following story from a pioneer going to another place, taking with them no doubt their own societal convictions, some puritanical and conflicted with the freedoms of others, to be very tangible.
The aspect of faith or belief, in which peace is a foundation sought through religious positions is brought through in the context of the USA sate of Montana a narrative which is brought by necessity into the thinking of a pioneer. I have not seen a clearer statement on the examination of religion as seen through the individual and their own choices and the fundamental need to be observant of their own actions and place it in context of a worlds mission. Progress through peace. The exhibition alarms us and covers this – Religion – Passage – without having the place to display it.
James Fergus – Montana
“I said religion often had something to do with the fate of nations… the Christian religion brought about a long period of ignorance still known to us as the dark ages, during which thought was curbed, common education banished, and conscience given over to a rude, vulgar and ignoranat priesthood.
"And whatever good Christianity may have done since, much of the degeneracy of mankind during this period must be laid at its door... Christianity alone was left to darken and degrade the masses of Europe with only an occasional flash of independent thought, until the 14th century when we gradually see the flicking lights of a coming dawn. Gallieo, Bacon, Luther.
James Fergus as many pioneers sought a new dawn to live a life somewhere identity was not fixed but hindsight brought those words spoken above. In a nation never conscious of the Indian belonging to their lands and the desolation of a form of life caused by the migration into their lands it became, evokes another false dawn.
Another analogy I find in the film The Ghost Story by David Lowry which in this context unravels life backwards in a place revealing a past and positioning a future.
….walks over to to one of the pressure treated beams that line the road. She sits down.
This essay has taken many turns and has remained unpublished for a few months as the nature of the exhibition takes on more relevance and meaning. Now published 01 06 2020 I have settled on a degree of understanding and interpretation and as this world shows there is every truth in the individual having their own view in this compellingly complex world.
To finish I have noticed another reality. The Wuhan ‘origin’ of Coronavirus 19 was from dead bats. Bats it is pointed out in another book ‘Quarantine’ by John Grace, hang from caves upside down and their ‘eyes’ having limited vision in the conventional ‘sense’ are fixed as they hang on the ground, not the heavens above. The Bible uses the ‘quarantine’ of forty days in the desert to get across the story of ‘human examination’ where prayer expresses inner most thoughts. The daylight fasting contrasts with the bat and it’s lack of sight, no need for daylight and living a life in darkness without a canopy of exterior wonder as colour, our use of vision, gives us so much apparent contrasts that ultimately are illusions.
01 June 2020
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