Archive for the ‘Artists’ Category

Review: ‘Dear Nature’ by John Newling

March 27, 2020

The formal beauty of John Newlings’s work belies his self-questioning and interrogation of our relationship with the more-than-human world.

Installation view, John Newling Dear Nature at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham UK, 2020 © Ikon Gallery (3) (Large)

Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and the Ikon Gallery

Reviewed by Anne Douglas and Mark Hope, unfortunately Newling’s Dear Nature exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham is a victim of the current lockdown. This in-depth review is for the time being your guided tour. Anne and Mark are Board Members of The Barn, a multi-arts organisation in Aberdeenshire that focuses on the relationship between art and ecology. John Newling was artist in residence at The Barn (2015-17) and continues to actively engage with and support the development of the organisation.


In the corner of the gallery, the last work of John Newling’s exhibition is entitled ‘Reconciliation Steps’ (2019). It consists of a mirror and a rubber stamp on a small shelf. Looking into the mirror, a text reads “We have signed our names in your soil. So sorry”.  This work evokes John’s response to the reality of the Anthropocene.  As stated in the exhibition text, John is determined to understand “what it is to know that we have profoundly affected our environment… you can trace our evolution to a point where we have subdued nature, but to our own cost because we will make ourselves extinct.”  This is the sharp, critical end of a stunningly beautiful, formally aesthetic body of work, which moves between nature and culture, materiality and ideas, interwoven with different notions of time.

work entitled Reconciliation Steps (2019)

‘Reconciliation Steps’ (2019). Image courtesy of the authors.

What is it to know that we have profoundly affected our environment?

The Dear Nature exhibition is situated in three large rooms that open into each other on the second top floor of the Ikon Gallery. As the title implies the work addresses nature throughout, at times with a deep sense of awe, at others profound curiosity and at others of irony, “Can we ever truly be together (with nature)?” John asks (Newling 2018).

“It is learning that deepens our love.” (Newling 2018 ‘3rd February, 2018’)

In the first room ‘365 days and 50 million year old leaves’ (2019) consists of a row of carefully constructed stacks of sticks that are as identical in size and shape to the extent that the material allows. John picked up a stick every day for a year, cut each one to the same length and blackened each of them with charcoal, then painted each end white.

‘365 days and 50 million year old leaves’ (2019). Detail (left) and installation view (right), Courtesy the artist and the Ikon Gallery.

In this way John joins the cycle of growth and decay in nature, interrupting it by transforming abandoned branches into ‘stick wands’, then into formal sculpture. The similarity yet difference between one stack and another exposes the singular, wilful character of each stick. We come to realise that they are each unique forms of energy that are particular to the time and place in which they have grown, then fallen. It is as if by interrupting the trajectory that nature has set from growth to decay, by collecting and transforming what nature has given, a new element is introduced. The three stacks feature other objects including soil balls, feather quills and an ink well that extend the play and tension between nature and culture. The reference to magic in this relationship is strongly present.

John’s artistic process involves a deep paradox. His way of making art is rigorous, painstaking, structured and controlled and yet the outcome also feels improvisatory, as if somewhere along the way chance and serendipity had played their part.

John Cage, the experimental composer and visual artist, once criticised improvisation: “Most people who improvise slip back into their likes and dislikes and their memory, and don’t arrive at any revelation that they’re aware of” (Fiesst, 2009). Cage wanted to free sound from personal taste, to let sounds be themselves. It is this quality of letting things ‘be themselves’ that John evokes again and again in this exhibition; the sense that the work we are looking at ‘happened’ or ‘occurred’ in ways that were unpredictable and unforeseeable, even to John himself. He attends to the work in progress, continually responding to its emergent life.

Left: ‘From my garden’ (2018), Right: detail. Images courtesy of the artist.

In the second room of the three rooms we encounter ‘From my garden’ (2018), a large work in copper leaf and paint which creates a different record of John’s practice of collecting. This time it is a leaf from every tree within his garden. The leaves are formally organised in a grid and once again it is John’s particular approach to form building that frees the singular shapes of each species and reveals the immense variability across species. This play between determinacy and indeterminacy, between degrees of control and openness to serendipity and chance, is a distinct quality of both Newling and Cage’s work. It is a particular quality of freedom that is does not stand in opposition to constraint. Both artists evoke the way energy moves through material in nature, the blood through arteries, the wind through water, movement that is made possible by being contained, constrained but, free not just from personal taste, but also individual, human control.

'Design for the duvet cover of a farmer' (regrown 2019)

‘Design for the duvet cover of a farmer’ (regrown 2019), Courtesy the artist and the Ikon Gallery

Dear Nature (2018), Courtesy the artist and the Ikon Gallery

Dear Nature (2018), Courtesy the artist and the Ikon Gallery

In the third room ‘Design for a farmer’s duvet’ (regrown 2019) follows from an invitation to make work with a co-operative of flax farmers in Dieppe, Northern France. John created compost into which he planted flax seeds given to him by one of the farmers, Franck Sagaert. When the seedlings were a few inches high, John plucked each one out of the soil, wound each plant and root into a circle and pressed them, generating the motif for a ‘design’. The completed piece was created by gluing each pressed plant in rows onto a large sheet of flax woven in France. The structure evokes the linear form of a script. It is also repetitive in the time-honoured way that designs repeat but it is anything but ‘designed ‘ in any determinate sense. A seed becomes a seedling and then becomes material for new life as an artwork. The pattern is cyclical and rhythmic as well as linear and developmental, unfolding like a story that we are invited to explore, but not literally read.

“Love John” – a detail from a Dear Nature Letter printed in Nymans Language (2020)

“Love John” – a detail from a Dear Nature Letter printed in Nymans Language (2020)

Nymans language (2018)

Nymans language (2018)

Script appears as a leitmotif in this work. In ‘A Language from the garden (Nymans language)’ (2017), exhibited in the second room, John invents an alphabet drawn from different species of trees in the gardens of Nymans, West Sussex. The National Trust, who now own and run this historic property, commissioned the work. The leaf of each species forms a letter engraved in marble. Nymans Language is also a downloadable font that the public are invited to use. Where normally the shape of the letters of the alphabet are simply a means to an end rarely noticed, Nymans Language draws our fascination through the significance of each leaf shape and a sense of play and discovery that is fundamental to the way we, as human beings, decipher meaning. We become the child who is excited when he or she learns to read. We share the thrill of the code breaker who ‘cracks’ a secret.

Soil Books (detail) (2019)

Soil Books (detail) (2019). Image courtesy of the artist and the Ikon Gallery

‘Soil Books’ (2019) in the third room of the gallery are a series of nine sculptures in which the content of each ‘book’ is made with leaves picked up each day as John walks from his house into his garden. “It’s like a ritual, so that every leaf in those books – the language of the books – is from my garden”. Each ‘page’ is made of processed soil with leaves that are pressed, gilded and stained with watercolour and each book contains twenty pages of which only the middle two pages are displayed. We might never read the pages beneath the ones that are presented, but we come to know the labour that has led to their coming into being. This is a spiritual labour that evokes the monastic but in some strange reversal. The order of the books is crucial because it indicates the change of seasons. Instead of renouncing life to focus on the spiritual, this series of works reconnects us with mystery in everyday experiences. Cage shared a similar sense of mystery and used different tactics to reveal this: 4’33 “(1952) frames an interval of time in which we as audience are invited to encounter the sounds we make as human beings when we gather together. It appropriates the ritual of the concert and concert hall to open up to the life that exists beyond the frame just as John’s gathered leaves experienced through the frame of the book in Soil Books, make visible the unpredictability and sheer beauty of the life in one material encountering another. In the work of both artists we continually move between the human and nature, co-creatively.

This particular dynamic is deeply felt in the ‘Library of Ecological Conservations – Leaves and Me’ (2017-19) also in the third room. The work consists of 36 ‘letters’ composed over the course of three years in which the apparent artifice of gilding in silver, gold and copper from the ‘base ‘materials of leaves and paper made from compost manifests a present day alchemy. We sense the magic that is contained in this library displayed in three groups of 12 works. In each work the materials have undergone a transformation, creating a life of their own, one that John has nurtured into being through carefully judged constraints and a practice of care, firstly in each individual work and secondly in the placing of each work within its group of 12.These works breathe within their own space and yet combine to create an almost mystical whole. The vaulted upper floors of this particular area of the gallery can rarely have been so evocative of a medieval cathedral, inviting us to reach out for something beyond.

view of 3rd room (1)

View from the second into third room including Soil Books and Library of Ecological Conservations – Leaves and Me (2017-19). Courtesy of the artist and the Ikon Gallery

In the presence of such beautiful work focused on continuing nature’s processes, why do we have a final work that frames the need for reconciliation? The exhibition is entitled Dear Nature, a reference to an art work created in 2018 when John wrote a letter to nature every day for 81 days. Each letter begins with the recognition that human beings are degrading the conditions that enable us to live, a widening gap between ways of being that are incompatible and are indeed in need of reconciliation.

‘Dear Nature’, letter of 10th January, 2018.

Dear Nature

We have been lovers.
We made deities from your wonders
We worshipped you; laid our fears at your feet.
We thought that we needed you to need us.

But wasn’t that just some way of seeking control?

Maybe we find it hard to accept that you are the most powerful
and complex set of relationships that we can encounter; perhaps we got jealous of all your other affairs.

In our rush to evolve in our fights and flights, we have got lost among our own conceits; spinning such a terrible storm.

I am sorry.

What to do?

Yours
John

The downward spiral implied here from love to worship to control gets to the core of the question of what it is to know that we have profoundly affected our environment. Each work in the three rooms of the gallery addresses this question in distinctive ways. The exhibition also spills over into public space. In the square opposite the Ikon Gallery there is an office complex belonging to NATWEST bank. In front of the bank with its proud NATWEST sign, is a tree in which John has placed large but discrete metal lettering that follows the line of the trunk with the words “So Sorry….”.

words "...so sorry" installed in a tree outside a branch of the Nat West

‘Dear Nature’ (2019). Courtesy of the authors.

An apology is both the act of saying sorry for a wrong doing and the explanation and defence of a belief or system, especially one that is unpopular (Cambridge online dictionary). Dear Nature (2020) functions in the first way, saying sorry for the damage we have inflicted on nature and also in the second to expose problems of belief and practice that have led to our current predicament.

‘Dear Nature’, letter of January 15th, 2018


Our need for surplus focused attention on improving you, efficiencies melded in the pressures of a market. We wanted more and more from you; growing yields belied the damage we were doing.

We signed our name in your soils.

Perhaps we did not know of this but we do now. It is a cycle that shows us our deficiencies. It is us that need to improve. We can do better.

No more signing in your soil.

Yours
John

We have only described here a small sample of works in the exhibition. And no review can do justice to either the scope or the authority of this exhibition. It has been curated by an exceptional team at the Ikon Gallery under the directorship of Jonathan Watkins.

There are other exhibitions in the Ikon Gallery at the moment including, in the First Floor Galleries Judy Watson, an Australian artist of matrilineal Waanyi heritage, addresses Australia’s ‘secret war’ in relation to indigenous Aboriginal people and brutal forms of colonisation.

In the Tower Room of the second floor, Mariateresa Sartori (until 5th April, 2020) in which Chopin piano pieces are visualised as conversations between two people.

Yhonnie Scarce, who belongs to the Kokatha and Nukunu people in Australia, will open in the Tower Room on 9th March – 31st May 2020, exploring the political and aesthetic qualities of glass, in particular the crystallisation of desert sand as a result of the British nuclear tests in her homeland between 1956-63.


References

Feisst, S. 2009, “John Cage and Improvisation: an Unresolved Relationship,” in eds. Gabriel Solis and Bruno Nettl. Musical Improvisation: Art, Education and Society, Chicago: University of Illinois Press. pp. 38–51.

Newling, J., 2018. Dear Nature. Warwick and Nottingham: Warwick Arts Collection and Beam editions.

Reblog: Global Environment Policy as political theatre #COP26

March 17, 2020

Reposting from Artists & Climate Change, Kyoto Forever? UN Climate Conferences as Political Theatre is a valuable exploration of the ways in which theatre can open up and imagine global environment policy-making, particularly as enacted in UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conventions of the Parties (UNFCCC COPs, particularly with COP26 coming to Glasgow in November.

Perhaps the most consequential theatrical forums of the moment are the UN climate conferences, or COP meetings, which occur every year in a different city and at which the governments of the world negotiate coordinated attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or at least they perform diplomatic negotiation and perform commitments to reduce emissions. Global emissions continue to rise as climate impacts worsen, heightening the fictive, performative impression given by these conferences. At times they appear to be nothing but deceitful political theatre.

Continue reading…

Chris Fremantle, Anne Douglas and Dave Pritchard have been working with global environment policy in a chapter and a timeline to be published in the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Art and the Public Realm. Addressing the works of Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018) and Newton Harrison (b. 1932) in parallel with the step-change in global environment policy-making in the early 1970s the new texts explore different understandings of time.

 

Newton Harrison: 3 recent videos including ‘Apologia Mediterranean’

March 13, 2020

Three recent video works by Newton Harrison – an apology to the Mediterranean Sea, a call to Scotland to become the first industrialised country to give back more than it takes out, and an installation to assist biodiversity to adapt in Northern California.

Meditation on the Mediterranean. Included in the Collateral events of the 58th Venice Biennale, as part of Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum at the Complesso della Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti, Fondamenta di Cannaregio, 910, from 8 May – 24 November 2019.

On The Deep Wealth of this Nation, Scotland included in the Taipei Biennial 2018-19 and exhibited in Banchory, Braemar and Edinburgh. Created with the support of The Barn, Banchory and the SEFARI Gateway.

Future Garden for the Central Coast of California is a site-specific environmental art installation by UCSC emeritus arts research professors Newton Harrison and his late wife Helen Mayer Harrison–at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden.

Working in tandem with botanists at the Arboretum, the Harrisons have created trial gardens inside three refabricated geodesic domes, where native plant species are being exposed to the temperatures and water conditions that have been projected for the region in the near future.

For more on current work see The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure. For historical work see The Harrison Studio. For perspectives on the practice of the Harrisons see various Fremantle and Douglas papers.

Shelley Castle asks ‘IS THIS IT? Looking towards COP26’

March 7, 2020

Black Square, courtsey of Shelley Castle

Black Square courtesy of Shelley Castle

Throughout our travels to Glasgow and beyond, Lucy Neal, myself and Anne-Marie Culhane witnessed rivers bursting their seams and reclaiming land, causing heartache for communities and farmers, expanding territory for beavers, and washing away crops.  Rising alongside the water is a mounting sense of urgency, and an accompanying feeling of confusion, about how (or even if) as creative practitioners to respond to the Climate Change talks in Glasgow in November.

Described by Lucy as a ‘Black Square’ (from Charlotte DuCann, Dark Mountain), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) creates a real and metaphorical space which vibrates with a sense of power and exclusivity wherever it lands.  Like its equivalent cosmic force, the black hole, COP also seems to draw everything towards itself, with ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) felt by many who are not invited, but for whom the consequences of a lack of progress will be beyond dire. Lucy and I attended COP24 in Poland as part of Walking Forest, gifting seeds from the last suffragette tree standing in the Suffragette Arboretum in Batheaston to delegates in an intimate ritual aimed at supporting the work being done across the world to fight for the rights of people, trees, rivers.

It was shocking to see how little space, literally and in terms of voice, those already suffering from the consequences of the crisis were given.  So as part of the cultural sector, how do we decide if, how and for whom we might respond to this year’s COP, which has potential to shift the trajectory of Earth’s future, but a track record of getting virtually no-where beyond words?

Is this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to engage (and possibly even make a small difference to its outcomes), or is it something that will be impervious to any energy we might throw at it?  Lucy began by outlining what ‘had to happen’ legally at COP26: countries must submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for cutting emissions and demonstrate the Paris agreement is working well enough to deliver a safe climate.

In our open guided conversation kindly hosted by Glasgow Sculpture Studios and Chris Fremantle from ecoartscotland, we met a group of 20 artists, activists, interested individuals and organisations, to at least attempt to find a place to stand in relation to COP26.

We simplified the options of where we might position ourselves individually to:

IGNORE – it’s a f*****g waste of time,
ENGAGE – in parallel but in response to,
DISRUPT – cause interventions that shake up the black square,
BE AT THE TABLE – be inside, working with policy/actions/representatives

Lucy Neal held a group that wanted to explore the idea that to IGNORE COP was the preferred tactic.

Pondering what ‘IGNORE’ might meant, the group considered how it might be possible to create civic spaces like the ‘Commonwealth Games’ where people could mediate the event on the streets; create soft edges with generosity and kindness, person to person.  The conversation focused on creating a space that confronts apathy whilst exploring the narrative of de-growth and other ways of living.

Talk turned to how to create a ‘performance of ignoring’ – an intervention called the ‘black onesie option’ that would see people at the far-flung corners of the Black Square softening it’s edges.

It was decided that ‘Ignoring could well be the new Paying Attention!’

Shelley held the ‘ENGAGE’ space where a group considered their feelings of dilemma around any impact creative actions may have on those living and working in Glasgow.  It was thought that many local people could see both COP itself and accompanying protests as a huge annoyance.

‘It boils down to if you think COP26 will achieve anything or not’ and ‘how much influence do we want/have, who would our actions be for?’ created rich ideas for actions – like a performance in which we could ‘all just walk away from COP’

There will be spaces for creative responses, potentially at Glasgow University and at Strathclyde Student Union which will we understand be the ‘Civil Society space’ organised by Stop Climate Chaos Scotland.

In these spaces some representatives from COP might see or experience creative responses and alternative stories, but the question was ‘could these go back into COP in any meaningful way?’  Was inhabiting a ‘parallel space’ enough or did it just give COP more power to ignore?

Anne-Marie held the ‘DISRUPT’ table with two others. There was a surprising lack of interest in creative disruption. Anne-Marie set up some provocations to start the conversation for example:  ‘COP is really important – the lives and deaths of thousands of people/creatures etc ride on this – why wouldn’t we disrupt it by blocking airports and transport links at the end if adequate agreement not reached?’ and ‘What would the suffragettes do?’

The group then discussed whether it could be possible to create ‘hospitable disruptions’ like the Walking Forest seed gifting at COP26 which allowed people to step out of the thrust of debating, writing, compromising, and into another space for remembering their own core values and a sense of humanity/compassion’

Chris Fremantle joined those wanting to ‘BE AT THE TABLE’ in COP.  The group talked about who would be ‘at the table’ particularly focusing on issues such as farming. Multiple different groups from corporate lobbyists through the Soil Association to Via Campesina will all be there. The arts might:

  • draw attention to patriarchy and colonialism through Glasgow’s own history;
  • Solidarity in the face of challenges;
  • amplify the voices of those who are not at the table;
  • support international solidarity.

The group also explored what moral support might be needed for those at the table and how culture connects land workers everywhere through story, song and dance.

By the end of the day most felt that a conversation had begun to offer a rich and deep perspective on why and for whom, before even considering the what and where.

There was strong sense that understanding the significance of the COP in relation to the bigger ‘moment’ is critical; that small performative interventions could influence values and offer new meaning.

It was humbling to feel the diversity and breadth of experience, knowledge, care and artforms in the room.  We hope to continue this dialogue soon – please keep an eye on the cop26-general or cop26-glasgowlocal lists on riseup,  ecoartscotland and the arts4cop26 group on Facebook for further information.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shelley Castle is an activist, mother and civic artist, and an active member of Culture Declares Climate and Ecological Emergency. Working across a variety of mediums and with multiple collaborators, her practice is underpinned by a fascination of biodiversity in all its forms.

Anne-Marie Culhane creates events, performances and long term projects that invite people into an active and enquiring relationship with each other and the land working as artist, activist and collaborator across a range of disciplines.

Lucy Neal is a theatre-maker and educator interested in how celebratory events act as a catalyst for change. A Co-founding Director of the London International Festival of Theatre (1981-’05), her work looks at how the arts inspire new ways of living within the ecological limits of a finite planet. She is author of Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered.

Ruth Ben-Tovim was not able to attend but is the fourth artist in Walking Forest, a project funded by the Arts Council of England as part of the Season for Change, a UK wide programme showcasing cultural leadership on climate action.

Walking Forest seeds a mycelium network of relationships led by women in the UK and internationally to initiate three site-specific public residencies and a large-scale mass participation event, potentially in Scotland and contributing a voice at COP26: whether at the table, engaging, ignoring or creatively disrupting.

Walking Forest concludes in 2028, with the planting of an intentional forest for Earth activists.  All four artists are part of Culture Declares Climate and Ecological Emergency – a growing global movement of ‘declare’ initiatives including local authorities, architects, musicians, lawyers and doctors.

For notes on the open meeting before Christmas co-hosted by ecoartscotland and Creative Carbon Scotland see here.

Green Tease for COP26 Glasgow

November 13, 2019

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ecoartscotland and Creative Carbon Scotland are collaborating to provide an opportunity to discuss the arrival of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP bandwagon in Glasgow in November 2020. The Green Tease will happen at Many Studios in Glasgow on Tues 10 December 6.30-8.30pm. See below for booking, schedule and address.

30,000 scientists, policy-makers and politicians (seriously, thirty thousand) will be in Glasgow for two weeks.

It will be in the news. It will jam traffic. There will be many news reports. There will be drama. Trump probably go to Turnberry instead. The organisers are apparently hiring cruise ships to provide additional accommodation because there is not enough hotel capacity in Glasgow.

How can we frame this event in the lead up to it?

Do we understand the specific issues that will be on the agenda?

How will the global South and those already living with the Climate crisis be heard?

What is the role of the arts and heritage?

How can we make it meaningful for people living in Scotland?

Can we engage the attendees usefully?

Once the spotlight moves on to the next place in the unfolding crisis (it’s beams are on Doncaster flooding and on New South Wales fires at this moment), how can we deepen our understanding of the living reality, so often not represented in the Policy?

COP and Cocktails is an opportunity to discuss what we might do, think about when it is useful to commission, to programme, to make as well as ‘what’.

Book your free place

Where?

The event will be held in the event space at MANY Studios, 3 Ross Street, Glasgow, G1 5AR. The venue is situated 15 minutes’ walk from Glasgow Central Station and St Enoch Subway station and a number of buses stop less than 1 minute’s walk away. The venue is situated on the ground floor and is wheelchair accessible.

Tuesday 10 December Schedule

6:30-7pm Drinks and mingling

7-7:30pm Presentations from various organisations about their plans for the COP, including:

  • ecoartscotland
  • Creative Carbon Scotland
  • Glasgow City Council
  • ClimateXChange
  • others to be announced…

7:30-8pm Discussion of what we would like to get out of the COP and how we can achieve it

8-8:30pm Drinks and mingling

For further information please contact Lewis Coenen-Rowe: lewis.coenen-rowe@creativecarbonscotland.com

Review: After ‘Into the Mountain’

October 11, 2019

Allen Ginsberg instructed us,

“Notice what you notice”
“Catch yourself thinking”
“Observe what’s vivid”

Earlier this year Simone Kenyon’s new work Into The Mountain, commissioned by the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, was performed in the Cairngorms. ‘After Into The Mountain’ is a reflection from John Hall, Wendy Kirkup and Simon Murray who went to Into The Mountain together.

We offer John, Wendy and Simon’s reflection, not as a review (pacem the blog title), but as a consideration of the experience. In order to maintain the three voices this piece is a pdf which you can access here: After into the mountain – final version with images

After Into The Mountain

Biographical notes:

John Hall is a poet, essayist and retired teacher, who lives below Dartmoor and was closely involved in the conception and development of Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts.

Wendy Kirkup is an artist living in Glasgow. She is also an Associate Lecturer in Fine Art for the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), working at the Moray School of Art campus.

Simon Murray teaches contemporary theatre and performance at the University of Glasgow. He has been a professional performer and theatre maker and was Director of Theatre at Dartington College of Arts before moving to Glasgow.

Links to an incomplete collection of reviews:

Studio International Review

The Scotsman Review

Art North Magazine

The Stage Review

The Guardian Review


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