Monthly Archives: August 2013

Day by Day in the Studio 14: August 24

August 24, 1976

Mira Schor, Persephone, August 24, 1976. Ink and mixed media on rice paper, two sides, c. 12 x 9 in.

This week I have fallen in love with a word, the word Chthonic. I have often seen it and knew its basic meaning as denoting the underworld, but looking it up again in relation to a work I did on August 24, 1976, Persephone, I found it exactly described the psychic, creative, and also the economic spaces my paintings have sought to delineate in the past year. Chthonic. How do we fall in love with words these days? I clicked on the link in the Wikipedia entry for Persephone, and , at 2AM, having finally torn myself away from gazing at the definition on the screen, I jumped out of bed to go and gaze at the Wikipedia page some more…Chthonic, “it typically refers to the interior of the soil, rather than the living surface of the land.”

This work from 1976, Persephone  indicates that in those early years of my life as an artist, I already was concerned about the patterns of my productivity in the studio, the summer/winter division in my studio practice, and most particularly the desire and the fear of lying fallow.

Mira Schor, page from exhibition catalogue, “Mira Schor: Paintings,” Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1975.

Other resemblances to the mythological character were that I lived in the summer with my mother, in the role of the Demeter of myth, who made art downstairs while I worked upstairs, and under her protection I could immerse myself in my work and in the earth and the sea, and in the winter I lived in the city, the academy, the art world, as good a stand in for Hades as any as we use that name to denote the underworld. I need both, neither one nor the other alone would suffice. I get strength from solitude, from the rhythms of the tides and the simple pleasures of my small back yard and one large English oak tree, but I stride out into the crowded streets of New York City with a passion for the cultural richness and pride in the competitive forces packed into such a compact space, my place of birth and my home.

The duality is cast also as that of dream and wakefulness. The summer work in the chthonic space is the dream, the winter existence is one of wakefulness, of “reality.” But as the first line of the Japanese Noh play Atsumori suggests,

I recopied this line by hand in an annual diary every year for over thirty years until the world pulled away that kind of time

The duality extends to what I want my paintings to contain and express. I would not give up visual pleasure for theory, even this summer when, through this retrospective process of considering works made on specific summer days over decades, I have begun to think of the period during which “theory” most influenced me, from the early 1980s until the turn of this decade, as a period of the sacrifice of one part of my character as an artist, a period that perhaps is over although there is still a professional imperative to “keep up” with wherever the academy wants to apply its methods, language, doxa, and rewards to. But I also know that is ridiculous to claim this was a sacrifice since it was also my character and my desire that drove me. Even in the period I think of now as the dream period, I was involved with a feminist critique of power and the politics of challenging the canon of American modern art. There was never a moment that was not text- and history- based and politically engaged. I have always sought out the artwork and the theory that was seemingly most antithetical to my own practice, because it seemed necessary to keep the work from lapsing into sollipsism and sentimentality. I will not give up the critical and intellectual or the visual and intuitive, so I see that the task ahead is to continue to insist that both ways of being as an artist can and even must exist in the same works and in the same practice. So, like Persephone, I do live in two worlds. Often, as in the 1976 drawing, the duality is born out in the two-sidedness of the drawing, and this summer I have found myself making paintings that are reversible: the space is divided by a horizontal median line where the Chthonic meets the surface of the earth and the air above, but the painting can be viewed with the Chthonic below or above, because, thinking of the opening line of Atsumori, which is the dream world? The country, the ground, the summer? Or the city and winter?

In this case, time is reversible:

And even a painting whose title is Underground Garden, representing the fertility of the chthonic ground,

can also be viewed “upside down” so that the figure falling into the earth can also appear to rise up into it,

This summer my work has followed the line of the earth as a demarcation between sky and ground, austerity and fertility, public and private. I have focused on reversals and reversibility, where ground, and by that I mean underground, the matter of earth itself, the Chthonic, not the line of demarcation upon which we stand, can also be sky and the sky above can become the ground below.

I had started the summer wanting to address in my work the terms of contemporary economic existence I had sketched in a drawing earlier in the year, as the illustrated version of a short text I wrote for the Brooklyn Rail:

Mira Schor, Austerity Utopia, 2013. Sketchbook scan, c. 12 x 17 in.

While keeping the visual premise of maintaining that line of demarcation between earth and air as the common ground linking painting to painting by that line rather than by any standard installation height, I found myself unexpectedly shifting to what seemed to me a more radiant engagement with nature than I had intended when the central theme would be the difficulty of thriving in a time of radical inequality and austerity, again blurring the distinctions between the dream and the real.

*This is most likely the last of my Day by Day in the Studio posts although, for once in a blue moon, I get to spend a few weeks more in the dream of the summer studio. I thank my subscribers and readers for their patience and I look forward to plunging A Year of Positive Thinking back into the world later this fall.

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Day by Day in the Studio 13: August 15

Tomorrow August 16, the exhibition Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor opens at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. This exhibition brings to fruition a project I first thought of about five years ago. People have suggested to me that this will be a very emotional experience for me. Of necessity, in order to function, I have tried to discount this and see it simply as work to be done, but, as the works are installed, I am overwhelmed.

I wonder if people who look at art or who look at the artworld, and that includes young artists at the beginning of their life as an artist, know how much, practically speaking, it takes to get anything, however modest, done as or for an artist, how much psychic energy it takes to believe in artworks and to make others believe in them, particularly the degree of intensity of belief that at least one person must feel for artwork in order for it to survive after an artist’s death.

It is hard enough to maintain that belief in yourself as an artist and to act upon it in the face of the many rejections that most artists encounter, but to maintain that belief in artists who have died is even more difficult. You have to surmount the stasis their oeuvre and reputation fall into: as in a game of musical chairs or spin the bottle, the person’s reputation at their death is set at a mark, and then, unless the artist was already world famous and iconic and even if that is the case, the oeuvre is as much a burden as it may be a joy to the heirs and the reputation generally begins to recede from that mark achieved in lifetime. If the mark is slight, no matter the quality of the work, the person left with the responsibility of the work must go against the tide of history and of the market to maintain the work and bring the reputation back to the mark or forward to transform the recognition of the work. It is very hard to do. You become the custodian not just of the artist’s qualities and talents but also of that artist’s doubts and even the verities of their reputation. It’s hard enough for the artists to do in their life and harder to do for those who continue.

Several of my friends are artists whose parents were artists: like me they carry the double burden of belief, in their own work and in their parents’ work. Mimi Gross has done an incredible job developing The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, Susan Bee has curated exhibitions of the work of her father Sigmund Laufer and her mother Miriam Laufer. I spent several years editing The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov. Tworkov’s wife Wally and then his daughters Hermine Ford and Helen Tworkov had worked for over twenty years to have these writings edited and published. Jack died in 1982. Selections from his writings were included in the catalogue of Jack Tworkov: Paintings, 1928-1982, held in 1987 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. I began serious work on the texts in around 2003, The Extreme of the Middle was published by Yale University Press in June 2009. I did the work because I loved Jack and believed fiercely in his work and his writing.

My father died in 1961. My mother did everything she could to keep his work secure and his name in the world. She died in 2006. Included in Abstract Marriage are works by my father that were last exhibited in the retrospective of his work held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1965 and that are unknown relative to other aspects of his work and works by my mother that have never been exhibited before.

In the next few days I hope to write a post about my parents’ show, but today I mark Jack’s memory with a drawing I did on his birthday, August 15, in the summer of 1982, as he lay dying at his home in Provincetown. The drawing is called For Jack’s Leaving. Jack loved the bay of Provincetown, the sand flats, the daily swim. In the drawing, I depicted that moment when the outgoing tide pulls water out of the bay through shallow channels, rivers two or three inches deep running out through the sand flats. The figure goes through a narrow channel towards the open sea, like a reverse of birth.

In his diaries, Jack wrote on his birthday August 15, 1953

August 15, 1953

Technically my birthday. The idea had crossed my mind today that I am in every way a self-made man. Even my name and my birthday are self-made. To be fair, I simply mean that my birthday was only a rough approximation like my name.

Typically scrupulous, he later corrected himself, he had written that entry into his journal a couple of days early. But then, on August 22, 1953, he reflected on the great cultural leap he and his sister Janice Biala made after they were brought to America as children.

Janice and I are the first in our line. Our parents are as distinct from us, as the American Indians. It is impossible to convey to a western mind what my mother is. The distance between her and me can only be counted in centuries. But not only time stands between us but differences in adaptation as vital as that between sea and land animals. In fact I think of Janice and me as having become land animals in one jump. As if our parents had been utterly sea animals. Yet we are only land animals of one generation with all the weaknesses that implies. I was brought up to regard timidity as if it were the first rule of life. And the cancer of indolence was planted in me in the cheder. I was brought up the first ten years of my life for another environment. My mother is to this day sealed in that environment, and she has no crack, no window, to look out upon the world. My own distinct situation, the inner break from my mother, did not become apparent to me till so late in life. Did I become aware too late? If I were willing to take all the risks could my life still become vigorous? Or is that question itself a sign of my still unsolved problem? Should a man dream to change the caste of his life when he is past fifty. Does maturity mean to live with one self whatever the self is?

The summer my father died, the Tworkovs invited my mother and me to spend a month with them in their house in Provincetown. Jack wrote in his journal of my father’s death but also of how the work of the artist lives on after his death:

August 8, 1961, P’town.

No place in this notebook have I so far noticed the death of my beloved friend Ilya. His image hovers in my mind. His lovely gayety, the sparkle, the aliveness of his eyes, the humor that played on his lips like honeybees on flowers. Now Resia is here and Mira. We sat long over our coffee this morning talking about people and gradually we drifted into talking about Ilya, each of us displaying our love for him as if he were alive and with us. Even through her unbearable grief her face suffuses with light when I praise Ilya. […] She said something remarkable recalling Ilya. She said, the test of a work is does it speak for the artist after he’s gone. In life the artist persuaded us by his personality, but after he’s gone only his work is left to persuade us.

 

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Day by Day in the Studio 12: August 11

Three Tables

August 11, 2011

A drawing from August 11, 2011 finds me at a table, at night. Instead of picturing myself at the table where I did the drawing, I have placed myself where I live much of my life, in front of  my computer, at another table. The table is the one I am writing this blog post on now, a small Parsons-style table my sister Naomi bought for herself to use to write sitting at the same spot: for many years it had a small but treasured view of the Provincetown bay, but over the years two trees have come to block that view…I used to wonder what I could pour onto the roots of the first tree in order to stunt its growth or even kill it, by the time the second one was planted smack in front of the window, the view was mostly gone. She loved that view but she would still love looking out at the sky through the leaves. She always loved the way one could see Norman Mailer sitting in his little study in both his houses here, looking out at the bay, and liked to think of herself in a company of people who have been writers in this place. We shared that love of tradition and of belonging to a place, an American place we felt that through time we could claim to belong to, I think because we also shared the trauma of displacement, one we had not experienced ourselves, but that marked our lives, that of our parents’ forced displacement from Europe.

The drawing was done at another table, a jeweler’s worktable that has been in my family for about 70 years. It was my father Ilya Schor’s worktable in New York, I think perhaps as far back as the 1940s, certainly as far back as 1955. When my mother bought this house, she commissioned a young artist to build a worktable identical to it. The new table stayed in New York, and she brought the old one up here to Provincetown where she worked several months a year for the next 35 years. She always cleared and cleaned the table before her return to New York, covering it with a layer of the New York Times. The first summer after she died I felt the table should not be left alone. I put a fresh layer of newspaper down, unpacked inks, gouaches, brushes, and sketchbook. Sitting at that worktable at night in a pool of light from an ancient fluorescent desk lamp, I worked my way back into life. The worktable was an engine of creativity, a hearth. I thought of it so much as sitting down to her table and continuing that only later did I remember that it was not just her desk, but also his, the one she had sat down to, to continue the work.

Resia Schor, working in Provincetown at age 91, 2002.

Ilya, Resia, and Mira Schor’s worktable, August 11, 2013

I paint on another table where I have worked since before graduate school, next to windows with starched gauze white curtains. I would be happiest having ten such tables, I could use an infinite amount of tables, I am pea-green with envy at artists who have huge studios and giant tables (the kind you see in documentaries, where the artist’s assistant religiously brings out some work for the great man to work on) but this one, always more than half occupied with supplies, has been a place I can work.

Painting table, Provincetown, August 11, 2013

You cannot go home again, in some basic sense: today I walked past the house where I lived when my family was intact, the summers we first came to Provincetown when my father was still alive. Sometime in the 1980s I had the eerie experience of walking past the door and as a young girl came out I heard her mother call her, “Mira.” I had never met or heard of anyone with my name until Marilyn French wrote The Women’s Room, with a heroine of that name, now here was a child named perhaps for that heroine, coming out of the house I had spent perhaps the happiest times of my life. But long since the door, which opened directly to an staircase to the second floor apartment we rented, was boarded up and the entrance moved to the side. But I can sit at my father and mother’s worktable. Tables must be stable and this link to the past creates a kind of stability of tradition and time.

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Day by Day in the Studio 11: August 10

Early August brings the first night I hear a few crickets, a melancholy sound because it means both deep summer and the coming of fall. In the studio, things both speed up and slow down, for me there is always a pressure to finish as much work as possible while I have undisturbed studio time, like a squirrel storing acorns, and there is a slowing down when I feel imperceptibly in a productive groove.

August 10, 1976

August 10, 2013

In the morning the sun rakes a painting worked on the day before.

In the painting two words frame the moment: “austerity” and “time.” These days in the studio are the ones I long for most of the year, when time appears for fractions of a second to slow down, when a moment of clarity allows for a space of enjoyment of perception, if only that of a hummingbird at rest. It doesn’t last, but for a moment “time” puts on its expansive, positive face, rather than the one we live with where it speeds past without respite or experience.

I am reading Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and The Ends of Sleep. Crary posits that the human need for sleep is a waste of the time of the 24/7 featureless economy of late capitalism: sleep is the last atavistic vestige of a contingent humanity that must be suborned, eroded, the need for it eradicated if possible, so that humans can keep up with the always on mode of global production, information, and consumption. He describes the needs of a “contemporary imaginary in which a state of permanent illumination is inseparable from the non-stop operation of global exchange and circulation, ” where “24/7 is a static redundancy that disavows its relation to the rhythmic and periodic textures of human life…a time of indifference, against which the fragility of human life is increasingly inadequate and within which sleep has no necessity or inevitability.” Crary writes,

Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most of the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life–hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship–have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present. In spite of all the scientific research in this area, it frustrates and confounds any strategies to exploit or reshape it. The stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it.

Even in a pastoral retreat, my figure cannot relinquish her hold on the always turned on iPhone, whose blue light addictively disrupts sleep. The figure and “time” are small rooted elements in a field of white, marked only by “austerity.” It is hard for anything to grow in a field of austerity, our time now, here in America, where things on the surface look normal or so we are led to believe, but where in fact for most people there is less oxygen in the air, less space to move in, less potential of time.

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Day by Day in the Studio 10: August 3

August 3, 1976

Mira Schor, Postcard: From the Deep Pool of Dreams to Landlocked, August 3, 1976. Ink, dry pigment, medium on rice paper, c. 3 1/2 x 6 in.

Mira Schor, Two Postcards (side 1), August 3, 1976. Ink, collage, medium on rice paper, c. 4 x 6 in. each

Mira Schor, Two Postcards (side 2), August 3, 1976. Ink, collage, medium on rice paper, c. 4 x 6 in. each

Postcards/blog posts. You mail a postcard, although I did not mail the postcards I made as artworks in 1976-77. You “publish” a blog post and it goes out into the mysteriously infinite internet, including in my case to a number of subscribers who I believe get these posts as emails. The similarity is that they arrive unexpectedly. This series of posts, Day by Day in the Studio–short spontaneously written essays suggested by works done on particular days in the summer over a period of about 40 years, including only those that I have a specifically dated record of on the hard drive I am working on this summer–has received mixed response as best I can tell. I regularly get one or two unsubscribe notices after each post. This is plain rude and unnecessary behavior, people! I subscribe to many blogs and even old fashioned email posts and, top secret, I don’t read all of them every time, I often don’t have time, so I understand that no one else has any more time than I do, and I’m not necessarily interested in all of them, but I have never clicked “unsubscribe,” first, because it would hurt the person’s feelings and, by the way, it’s not anonymous, the unsubscribe notice includes the person’s email address which may contain their whole name or enough of it, and, second, because by scanning these blog posts in even the most cursory manner I do get a basic sense of what various people are thinking about and doing, and sometimes I find something I like or learn from so it is always informative on some level. On the other hand, I have been getting very supportive emails from other artists including from people I do not know in person, but through Facebook and my writing, which I am glad of because I do try to lace my personal reflections with comments of more general interest to other artists.

In one of these emails, William Conger, a Chicago-based painter, wrote asking

I’m very interested in notions of duality on literature and art. This seems to be a central theme in Terry Eagleton’s recent The Event of Literature. Would you care to say why you have frequently chosen to work on both sides of a translucent surface as if the image/content depends on their integrated presentation?

I was grateful to able to address what is an important aspect of how I have often structured works and I warned him I might use my response to him in a later post and indeed here is it.

I think that before any kind of analysis (in the psychoanalytic sense as well as any other) of why I work on both sides of the translucent paper, I owe that process to inheritance. Both my parents worked on both sides of every object they made, jewelry, Judaica, and sculpture, and my father painted on both sides of the pieces of cardboard he painted on–the image on the back was not translucent or functional as in my drawings, but in both cases there is always a sense of discovery and pleasure when you see the reverse side or the interior. In my mother’s work in particular, she recognized the visual power of the back of her works in silver, so that the functional, unintentional forms that helped created the “front” image was just as interesting though often with a darker feeling..if you look at my blog and search for the posts on both their work, Resia Schor and Ilya Schor, you will see examples of what I’m describing. I’m just finishing work on a catalogue for a show this summer here in Provincetown of their sculpture and that aspect of their work is featured in the catalogue.

I also find that as I began to work with rice paper and through experimentation began to work on both sides, then deliberately to work one side to create the other, that the “back” side often had a vigor that sprang from decision made purely instrumentally, thus without self-consciousness, and gradually the “back” became “the front” or no distinction could be made. Although oil painting doesn’t allow for that particular method of production of a surface, I try to remember the freshness that comes from unintentionally.

Here are examples of the back and front of works by my parents that will be exhibited in the exhibition Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor, opening August 16 at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

Ilya Schor, Angel (back and front), c.1959-60. Brass with brass wire, 26 1/4 x 11 1/2 x 7 in. riveted to a wood base.

Resia Schor, Nike (front and back), 1981. Brass, Plexiglas, gouache on paper, 12 x 12 in.

And here are other examples of how they worked the back and the front of almost every work they made. In the case of my father, the back most often functions as a kind of unconscious of the work, a night for day, or simply provides a surplus of delight, visual pleasure where it would not ordinarily be seen, as in the front and back of a bracelet in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but rarely is it directly instrumental or indexical, unlike the back’s of my mother’s works, as in the pendant below, where the back leaves open to view how the work was made while creating an image as, if not more, interesting than the “front.” (I demonstrate the delightful complexities of my father’s bracelet in my 2003 video on my parents’ work, The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor, an illustrated video script appeared in differences in 2003).

Ilya Schor, Bracelet (front and back of a detail), 1958. Silver, gold, diamonds, approximately 6 x 1 1.5 in. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Resia Schor, Pendant. Silver and gold, approximately 4 x 2 1/2 in.

When I began to paint in oil in the early ’80s, the medium presented challenges, many of them of a nature familiar to anyone who has tried to master this medium–how to effectively be either loose or tight, and how to avoid mud, the most feared by-product of first attempts–and some that were particular to how I had previously arrived at an image. For years I worked both sides of rice paper so that several experiences of the creation of the image were visible at the same time in the final layer: dry pigment on the back of the paper pushed color and highlighting through the front without being present as a tactile element, while the dry pigment on the front as tangible as a sculptural element. In oil I had to figure out a way to make these complexities of layering happen as oil painting allows, where most of the layers are covered over and you cannot see through to the beginning of work and the back doesn’t penetrate the front except chemically and through refraction of light through layers of matter of which the viewer is not consciously aware: in oil painting, the under layers do affect the final surface in many ways causing conservatorial stability or havoc, but these layers are mostly hidden to the viewer and thus seem to operate as alchemy–leading to the fascination infrared imaging of paintings holds for us, as we discover what is going on in some of those unseen layers.

August 3, 2003

Mira Schor, Painting (yellow on blue), 2003. Oil on linen, 30 x 36 in.

It took a long time to adjust to the way in which the layering of an oil painting goes from a bottom layer (whose back is closed to us by sizing) to the visible final layer which is the painting image, here in a work that represents what it is and what I do, painting, or pain-t-ing as some might read it.

Meanwhile I continue to work on a type of paper which allows me to work front and back though because it is less resilient than rice paper, I mainly put white gesso on the back so that it gives an overall highlight to the work while also offering another, acrylic layer of matter to thicken and strengthen the work.

Mira Schor, Untitled, end July 2012. Ink on tracing paper with gesso on reverse side, c. 18 x 30 in.

While I continue to work both sides of paper, I also appreciate the blunt opacity of oil.

August 3, 2012

Mira Schor, The Bland Face of Expropriation (II), August 3, 2012. Oil on linen, 18 x 30 in.

Many recent paintings combine drawing and painting techniques and ethos such that I call them oil-assisted drawings: at best they keep intact the potential for spontaneous line that is more easily achieved in drawing while adding the color and materiality of oil paint, whether it be glaze or a beautiful opaque pigment used straight from the tube onto the canvas, in the case of this painting also finished August 3, 2012, a tube of Old Holland Cobalt Blue Turquoise that I had hanging around the studio since the ’90s. The painting presents two spaces–the garden in a summer’s night, and the classroom in winter, and it suggests a third, the space that is the ground of the whole painting, the flat gesso “wall” I create on linen, so that in the painting the figure in the dream of winter, dreams of an escape, which is back to the ground of painting.

Mira Schor, Fallow Field Series: Last Dream of Summer, August 3, 2012. Oil, ink on gesso on linen, 18 x 30 in.

The rapturous and desperate attempt to draw enough strength from the earth to deal with winter in the city trapped in rooms, recalled some important influences and this summer I became taken with the necessity to see and read something again that I had been introduced to at the very beginning of my becoming an artist, a beautiful catalogue on Rajput Painting from a show at Asia House in New York in 1960. The paintings reproduced in this catalogue–small works on paper, combining vivid color, rich narrative, radiant nature, and sometimes language–gave me support at a time when painting still generally had to be large, abstract, oil or acrylic on canvas, with no evident personal or narrative content to speak of. As important as the paintings reproduced in the catalogue were ancient Indian poems accompanying three or four particularly rapturous paintings. A few misremembered words of one of the poems has been like a refrain of a song in my mind this summer, “all rain and Vrindavana.” Googling Vrindavana did not make the remembered line make sense and I wanted to assure myself of my memory so much that I ordered a second copy for my studio here–a hardcover catalogue from 1961 turned out to be available and cheap online– and it arrived today, August 3, 2013.

This night of rain and rapture, all Vrindavana/ unmoored, adrift, lost in the solid dark of rain/ in torrents of sweet rain.

Wild lightning in the lap of the dark;/ Radha ever more richly plays,/ while sidelong in the slippery path a way is felt,/ vermilion, musk, and sandal-mark all turn to mud/ in torrents of sweet rain.

Narrotama, who cannot swim, drowns in the unhorizoned sea.

Narottama Das, 16th Century, trans.: Deben Bhattacharya

 

 

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