|The Problem With American Bonsai
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|Author:||Vance Wood [ Wed Jan 17, 2007 4:51 pm ]|
|Post subject:||The Problem With American Bonsai|
The Problem With American Bonsai
by Vance Wood
Bonsai by Vance Wood
Illustration by Will Heath*
Bonsai in America is now about sixty years old in at least the American public's awareness of it. It is true that some Japanese-Americans have been growing bonsai here for much longer, but they kept their interests and efforts pretty much confined to their own ethnic communities. Few outside of this circle were aware of what was going on. Fewer still had interest in it.
With the end of WWII interest in bonsai began to blossom outside the confines of the Japanese community fanned by an interest from returning G.I.s and their families from the Far East, specifically Japan. The Non-Asian population began to voice a desire to posses and create these miniature wonders for themselves and a need to fulfill this desire created a vacuum that cried out to be filled. Slowly some enterprising individuals sought to supply this need, first with books and then with classes on a local level. Buy the late 1950's people like Yuji Yoshimura and John Naka became famous within the growing bonsai community as credible teachers and masters of the art. It would be at least another ten years before Europe would recover from the devastation of the war enough to have interests in other things less important than staying alive, demolished cities and where their next meal was coming from.
The question has been asked as to why bonsai in America is so sadly behind bonsai in Europe. As has been pointed out, bonsai in America has a ten year jump on bonsai in Europe but somewhere along this time frame bonsai in Europe surpassed American bonsai and American bonsai stagnated into something generally thought of as second rate in comparison.
Finding answers to this question is not easy or comfortable if one is to look at all of the conditions objectively as symptomatic and not as excuses. It has been said that European bonsai are artistically superior to American bonsai because of the long European artistic tradition. This may be partially true but it does not address the entire issue. There is something else going on here that cuts right to the heart of the culture and some may not like what I think is going on. I don't think the problem is simply a lack of a strong artistic heritage or a doltish ham-fisted approach to bonsai. I think America is capable of producing good artists so why is this not happening?
If there is a single trend that more or less defines American bonsai it is the pig-headed hobbyist mentality that is happy with mediocrity. I think there is more of this type of thinking in America than elsewhere though, truthfully, I cannot say for sure this is the way it is in Europe. I strongly believe that it is not. European bonsai seems to be able to support several world-class masters and gifted amateurs that put much of what America produces to shame. These people would not exist if it were not for their bonsai communities desire to excel.
After many years of teaching bonsai and participating on many Internet forums and discussion groups I have slowly discovered a trend in the people that make up the body of most bonsai communities in America. It is exacerbated by some peculiar and destructive cultural tendencies that serve to cripple the growth of anything it comes in contact with.
Over the last ten years or so I have noticed a selfish me only approach to bonsai where people, new to the art, expect to be hand fed everything in their learning experience. If that were not enough the same individuals tend toward a juvenile lashing out at those who are trying to help them if the information they receive is not what they expected or liked. This is particularly obvious in the newer generation of bonsai growers. It is as though the older generation of bonsai growers' lot in life is only to provide them with everything they need to learn bonsai, without cost, without thanks and without respect.
Thinking themselves to be wise they are quick to condemn those who try to tell them they are wrong. This is made worse by others who will pat them on the back and say it's OK, their behavior is not an issue and the advanced grower should have been more tactful. So instead of admonishing the young we slap down the teacher. Simply put we have reached the nexus of our dilemma. We have the young who think they want to learn and we have the old who are happy with the status quo. Many of those who say they teach should themselves seek a teacher rather than spread their mediocrity as a goal to be sought. Especially on the Internet, where you can see a lot of this happening, you have the culture of ego surpassing the art of bonsai. In fact it is not about bonsai at all. In the end we have beginners teaching beginners.
This is the beginning of sorrows, to use a Biblical concept, and it is only the tip of the ice berg. If you start a conversation about art and bonsai in the same breath you will likely have an argument on you hands in America. There are a substantial number of bonsai growers who, being happy in their paucity, will argue you into the ground that bonsai is not an art. This is ego driven, where by there is a tendency to discourage or marginalize those who might make bonsai on a level they are not willing or capable of attaining to. This would not be so bad in and of itself but these same individuals also teach. There is a movement downward in American bonsai that has an aversion to seeking quality. It is as though Americans have adopted the bonsai as a hobby philosophy and are quick to reject bonsai as an art.
A number of years ago the club I belong to decided to change the annual club show to an adjudicated event. There were some club members that did not agree with this change and some of them left the club. It was their position that this was not fair even though the club recognized different levels of skill and even had a show only category. It was the position of those who approved this format that it would only increase the over-all quality of the club's bonsai; it would also elevate the skill and effort of its members. The latter proved to be true.
Bonsai by Vance Wood
Illustration by Will Heath*
It is believed by many that competition brings the cream to the top. The argument against this circles around the political correctness mantra of "it's not fair". This of course may be true to a point but on a larger scale life is not fair. Attempts to make it so can at best foster mediocrity. Philosophically adopting this concept can lead to disaster on all fronts where it is applied, and quality no longer affords a goal to be achieved. Sadly this very same philosophy has become widely accepted across American culture. It is this same philosophy that is at the heart of all that is wrong with American bonsai. The concept of quality and art in American bonsai has become controversy.
To examine how and why this is happening we need not look any further than our growing acceptance of the concept of "THAT'S GOOD ENOUGH". The car mechanic will fix an automobile so that it is good enough. The carpenter will do a project to a point that is good enough. The landscape maintenance person will do his work so that it is good enough. The homebuilder will do what is good enough; the cement layer will do what is good enough. Almost no one will go the extra mile, foot or inch.
I seriously doubt that many have given much thought to what it means to be good enough. If you accept good enough as the end point of something that can be measured by that elusive concept of quality, then good enough holds with it the idea of not quite achieving "THE BEST POSSIBLE". If this practice is continued over time, today's good enough becomes tomorrow's best possible. From tomorrows point of view, and the practice continues, good enough does not quite reach the new best possible, and as such there is an incremental diminishing down in the level of quality, as the bench mark is continually pulled downward. There is a word for this, it is Paucity.
The over-all effect of this methodology is to gradually degrade the quality of everything it comes into contact with including bonsai. This continues until someone or some group of some ones recognizes that there is a problem, and rings the alarm: Houston we have a problem! Be warned; those who recognize this, and are bold enough to voice this position can expect to be shouted down, and even personally attacked if only with words.
Because this theory of performance is so endemic in American culture it is not difficult to see how it has influenced bonsai in a negative way. The thing that amuses me is the tendency for the greatest practitioners of this concept to also be the same people that will not accept this level of performance when it is offered to them in lieu of pay, contract, or some other arrangement. In other words: I can deliver to you good enough but you must give me perfection.
The American Culture has, over the last twenty years or so, focused on a concept of fairness and the establishment of a level playing field. Pushing for participation in a global market and economy we have put ourselves into a competitive arena while at the same time adopting social theories that are diminishing our ability to deal with it. Earlier I mentioned that the problem with American bonsai was not limited to bonsai, it is only a symptom we can see that is far larger than the simple practice of bonsai.
In the education system the concept of fairness has been influential in forcing some schools to abandon a grading system where by some may fail (receive an F) and some may excel (receive an A). Believing that this is unfair and that the competition it encourages is unfair and injurious to a student's self esteem a non-graded system has been, or is being adopted in some markets across America.
This has also spilled over into the sports arenas where student athletes participate. Instead of there being a winner and a loser, there is simply an androgynous mess of rewarding all who play; no one is a winner. The theory being that if there is no winner there can be no loser, and no one gets their feelings hurt. The over all message that is being sent is one that competition is bad and the results achieved through competition are bad. The big problem is that in the real world there is competition for everything from jobs to promotions to the selling of products and services.
On returning specifically again to the subject of bonsai let it be said that there are a few good bonsai artists in America, but precious few are world class on the level of Walter Pall, and a half dozen other European masters I could name. I realize I may have just estranged myself from the entire American Bonsai Community but the fact remains you cannot solve a problem until you realize you have one.
I fear that the problem we have is so deeply embedded and widely distributed, not only in bonsai but every other aspect of American culture, that it may never be resolved. As long as we are content to argue about bonsai, either on the Internet or face to face, and be less than passionate about doing bonsai, it is going to continue on its downward spiral through our "GOOD ENOUGH" mediocre acceptance of an inferior out-come. Some people will go so far as to argue "Crap" as a standard of style. But this is only a symptom of the greater problem and the subject of another essay.
In the beginning of this piece I stated that our problems go far deeper than just our approach to bonsai. We have become a culture where things come easy to us; we expect instant gratification, that's nothing new we have heard this term many times over the years. We want things we don't think we have to work for and often in our daily lives we approach work that way. We give only what is necessary to keep our jobs. If we do more than expected, our co-workers think ill of us and in some jobs, union jobs, we may get threatened for doing so. The over all effect is to pull down those who try to do better, even if it is better for their own sakes. Better is often perceived by others to be a challenge to their level of performance and is guaranteed to afford controversy or negative feed back. We see all of these things echoed in the world of bonsai in America. It can be said that the problem with bonsai in America is not the material, the artistic background, or any other thing you might dream up, the problem is that Americans are doing bonsai the same way they do everything else, half-hearted, half-assed and lacking commitment.
*American flag images used are in the public domain.
|Author:||Walter Pall [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 6:00 am ]|
Now this I would call a controversial article. I am quite hesitant to open the discussion here. As a non American just about everything that I will say here can be used against me.
But anyway, here are some remarks:
In the article the line as to when bonsai really started in the West is drawn according to public recognition. I would add the formation of clubs and certainly national clubs or societies or whatever you want to call it.
If I apply the same to European bonsai then one has to recognize that 'Europe' like 'America' is just about starting to happen. It certainly was not what it is today after the war.
So as far as I am vaguely informed bonsai here started first in Britain. I think it must have been at the end of the sixties or mid-seventies. At the beginning of the eighties Britain was by far the leading bonsai nation in Europe. Every other country was universes away.
At the beginning of the eighties bonsai became visible in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland.
It was not until the end of the eighties that bonsai came to Spain and Italy. Now the Italian case it really interesting. Colin Lewis, who may read this was publisher of what has become Bonsai Europe later. He was in Italy around 1988 or so and in his magazine he made a bit of fun of what appeared a pathetic Italian bonsai scene - helpless and hopeless people babbling away and having no clue (sounds like Vance's picture :-)). At least this is what the rumor was. Only ten years later Italy had become a major force in Europe and fifteen years later some say that Italy beats the rest of Europe and America left-handedly. Well, someone may well have an agenda saying this. But there is some truth in this.
What does this tell us? That the state of the art of bonsai has nothing to do with the length of history of bonsai in a country or region. It has to do with availability of material, teachers and most of all it is a cultural thing. One can meet Italians who think that they have a genetic advantage artistically, that they have invented the arts anyway. There is some truth even in this. To grant them a genetic advantage is ridiculous, of course, but they certainly have a cultural advantage. The standing of art and artistry in society is quite high. An artist is conceived as a better being. Everyone would love to be an artist.
For the rest of Europe this is not quite true, but probably even more than in America. It is quite dangerous to work with generalizations here. But allow me to say that most Americans would admire an artist more for making a lot of money and being successful in visible way. In Europe they would admire him for being an artist. And it would NOT be a measure of his success how wealthy he has become. This would probably be more so in America. A poor artist is the rule and is to be expected, regardless of quality. At least in Europe.
And there certainly is poverty in European bonsai as there is in American bonsai. This may be one of the clues: even with a very big name one is on the verge of poverty in bonsai in the West. In America this is a very good reason to not want to do it professionally. In Europe there are enough lunatics who try it regardless.
And then this thing about political correctness and the urge to not hurt someone's feelings. Well, PC was not invented here. Bonsai is pretty much competitive here. The game is not about being nice to people but to have the best bonsai. Either as an individual or as club or as a nation or as one who runs an exhibit. While there are some who are more concerned about the mental well being of their fellow bonsai practitioners this is not going as far as in America. By no means. It is about quality and it may well hurt individuals.
This is also true of elder masters. It does not mean much if someone used to be a big name some time ago and leading the arts. If he does not
so anymore he is out. It is like in a sports team. You perform or you are out. You may sit in first row to watch as walking legend, but you would never be on stage to teach. Does this sound cruel? Well, such is life and we have this old-fashioned habit to admit life as it is and not as we would like it to be. Does this all create quality? You bet it does.
I don't share the gloomy picture of the state of the art in America really. One has to see that what is visible from Europe and from Asia is the top trees and the top people mainly. And at home one sees the parochialism. Well, I have good news for you: There is just as much of that in Europe too besides what you see. And as I am told bonsai is a dying art in Japan and the general bonsai practitioners seem to know less than the hobbyists in the West by and large.
Ok, now you can crucify me. Together with Vance.
|Author:||John Dixon [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:16 am ]|
I was only able to scan read these two entries, but I will definitely go back and read them in entirety.
Vance and Walter, you are both very interesting fellows with whom I truly enjoy sharing bonsai experiences with on the internet. The Internet.... probably one of the biggest attributes and faults of present time bonsai. It can be such a valuable resource and, at the same time, such a spoiler, for productive bonsai pursuits.
Americans (meaning U.S.) have a lot to learn in bonsai. Truth be known though, so does the rest of the world. It is an evolving art. Just like Walter inferred with sports, you are producing or you are finished. We are no where NEAR finished. We are mere rookies, and I think that means we have skills that just need to be honed. That requires listening and learning. That requires a teacher or teachers (coaches, if you will). If there is one area where Americans could improve, it's probably in the trait of humility. We need to acknowledge we are not "all-knowing". At the same time, we need to remember we are as capable as anyone else. Being born to a certain nationality or continent, does not make you better or worse. I'm sure there is a man in Kyoto who couldn't design a good bonsai if his life depended on it, and a young lady in Belgium who could be a bonsai prodigy if she wanted to.
I, myself, have no problem with having my failures identified (I recently did such a thing on another site as a parody named "The Dead Tree Society"). As a matter of fact, I encourage POSITIVE criticism to be addressed to me. I WILL listen. At the same time, I am not easily convinced that what others say is a fault is indeed such. It has to be proven to me. My mentors have the ability to do this, but sometimes I still disagree. This is evolution. No teacher should want a carbon copy of themselves. They should only want to instill their skill in others and let that individual flavor the results with their own personal style. That is what keeps bonsai refreshing or PRODUCTIVE, if you will.
I love this discussion! Any generality towards a particular nation is exactly that, a generality. Many bonsai levels exist and are not restricted to national borders. Great things are possible in American Bonsai, just like every other country where individuals practice the art.
Being an American, I feel comfortable saying this:
We just need to have the self-control to know when we need to teach and when we need to be taught. Ears work better when the mouth is silent. Never quit learning and be quick to share wth others. The rest will take care of itself. Bonsai needs to remain enjoyable, at least for me. If it ceases to be entertaining, so will I.
|Author:||Dorothy Schmitz [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:08 am ]|
And it can only get better.
Here I am,a female European import,starting to learn about bonsai in
the Southern State of Florida.
I basically agree with Walter,not knowing as much about the historical
development of bonsai in Europe. There are some more points I may
add to the general discussion.
Looking at Italy we will also realize how well structured the educational
network of bonsai appears to be.The UBI officially recognizes bonsai
schools and elevates the qualification of the individual student to a higher
level and therefore creates better quality bonsai material.
We do not have such organization (yet) here in the States.I would go
even so far to say,the existing main American organizations do not
collaborate well with each other.
Also,we are lacking an American more or less centralized sponsored
exhibit event,to really determine the quality level of American bonsai.
Regarding Vance's observation about rebellious students,I can only say,
there are ethically correct students as well as ethically correct teachers.
Teachers have to be aware of the fact that honesty and commitment
cannot be camouflaged.Same goes for the student.It takes true desire,
focus and endurance to be perceived as an "ethically correct" student.
Spend 90% of time with the right people,either side,and only 10 %
with aggrevation,instead of working the other way around.
Nowadays bonsai novices are beeing offered the full acces of internet
information,that has not always been the case.So be ready for it,because
they w i l l ask.
Contests,if genuine,are very productive.Competition will generate
development and thus higher the level of art and creativity.
Competitions may be viewed as mirror for self examination and state
of accomplishment,but by no means as selfpurpose.That would be
deterimental to personal development and not serve any noble purpose.
So how can we help the "problem" with American bonsai?
First of all,as Walter pointed out ,we are in an early stage of global
bonsai development.Even Europe still relys on imported fine specimen
trees from Eastern Asien countries.
America has great material and some great trees in development.
These trees will be the fine specimen for tomorrow.Right now,we may
concentrate on supporting the all over creation of good quality trees,
since America's bonsai will only be as strong as its weakest tree.
|Author:||Attila Soos [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 2:14 pm ]|
Interesting article, Vance, I am glad that you are sticking your neck out, and not worried whether or not you wil get peppered with raw eggs and other vegetables :)).
There is one sure way to improve the quality of American bonsai: strictly monitor the quality of bonsai exhibits. What this entails is the ruthless rejection of those trees that do not meet the absolute highest quality standards. And I am talking about absolute top quality.
Here is why: as long as a person creates mediocre bonsai and it is given the opportunity to exhibit it, there is no incentive for self-citicism and improvement. I've seen exhibits where the same faulty bonsai was exhibited every year, and nobody cared to point it out. This is called complacence.
Is there a problem to find knowledgeable judges who can recognize what top quality means? I dont' think so, but if this is the problem, one can always invite a recognized name from out of town, just for this purpose.
As long as this strict standard is upheld, it won't matter what people talk on the Internet, what is their learning method, and whether or not they listen to their teachers: at the end of the day, if you create top quality, you can exhibit, and if you don't, you may not.
If a person, who has been doing bonsai for 20 years, was denied of exhibiting for the above reason, this would surely get him to listen to others and start learning again.
The problem starts when a mediocre bonsai is exhibited at an international convention, such as the one in Sacramento, last November. When this happens, the message is this: Mediocre is OK, we are all equal, we are only here to have fun.
And Kimura pointed this out when he was asked about it: it is embarrassing to exhibit something that is not top quality.
What if you want to exhibit 30 trees, but only 10 will pass the quality test? You don't compromise. And this will be a great incentive to improve.
Look what happens in the top sportsleagues in the US, such as the NBA, NFL, NHL, ect: if you can't win, you are out. They don't care where you came from, or how you have learned. You can either beat the best in the world, or there is no room for you. This culture will create the most competitive leagues in the world, where only the best have a chance.
So, I don't think that there is a solution that is more simple than this: hold the exhibits to the highest international standards. If you don't create top quality bonsai, you will never be able to exhibit it on an important show. Never ever (unless you want to be part of the "beginners" section on your club show, which woud be embarrassing after doing bonsai for 15 years).
But the good news is that you can always show those trees in your own backyard, or at your friend's house...and have some fun while doing it.
|Author:||Vance Wood [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 3:04 pm ]|
Walter, Atilla, John, Dorthy and yes even Mark--- and the rest of you that have commented so far. I thank you for taking of your valuable time to comment on this subject, some lengthy and carefully thought out comments and they are appreciated.
|Author:||John Dixon [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 4:38 pm ]|
Very valid points you make about compromise. Displayed bonsai must meet a perceived standard of the event. Local events that encourage competition on different levels are under-used though, in my opinion. No one will - or should - bring Kimura or the like to judge beginner bonsai, but when the unknowing public sees a display of beginner, intermediate, and advanced bonsai, they will get a quick and permanent lesson about the varying quality of bonsai. This is great on an "introductory" level. Regional events that I have been involved with seem to have grasped the fact that more refined bonsai are needed for entry where established artists are the judge. The Carolina Bonsai Expo is a great example of that. Over the last eleven years, the event has improved from basic "mallsai" quality bonsai to very impressive specimens and more thought-out displays. These are positive signs of an improving art. Now the NC Arboretum, where the Expo is held, has a dedicated Bonsai Display Garden that was well over a million dollars to build. It houses a bonsai collection that basically evolved from any gift trees presented, to one now that is very selective about future donated bonsai. We all benefit from this.
One tidbit I would like to add to this discussion is the decline of the egotistical braggards in bonsai. About fifteen years ago, I became immersed in bonsai to the point where the "big names" became known. Over the last ten years or so, I have seen that same group both prove and disprove their talent as individuals, especially American ones. The big-name list was reduced, in my opinion, but this isn't necessarily a bad situation. That same list values quality over quantity, as well it should. Slowly, the list is being added to. In addition, an avoidance list has been born. These are the individuals whose mouths outweighs their abilities. As the bonsai community communicates, these persons will find their flaw revealed and known. Such are the growing pains or any worthwhile endeavor. At the same time, we must not be too quick to dismiss rising talent of individuals who do not seek out attention. They must be encouraged to share. Once again, humility is prudent for our basis of direction.
We must separate the wheat from the chaff. The end result is always worth it.
|Author:||Will Heath [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 5:00 pm ]|
|Author:||Vance Wood [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 5:28 pm ]|
|Author:||Rob Kempinski [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 8:59 pm ]|
While I agree that competiton is a good thing, especially for bonsai, I really have a hard time agreeing with too much else in the article. The main reason is it is full of generalized, impossible to verify statements. For example, the article concludes with the statement
"the problem is that Americans are doing bonsai the same way they do everything else, half-hearted, half-assed and lacking commitment."
Use of the words "everything else" means we should not find any example otherwise. Where I work at the Space Center we do not do things half-assed, half-hearted or without commitment. My company and its workers, including many union workers, devote our careers to safely launching rockets into space with many positive returns for not only Americans but everyone. For example if you use GPS for navigation or fly in a plane that uses GPS thank the hard working, commited and dedicated space program workers. So if I can debunk of one of these sweeping generalizations, right outside my office door, then I wonder about the rest of the generalizations made.
The American companies I am familiar with are all striving to adopt the concept of continuous improvement. We never say that's good enough. We are always evaluating how to do our jobs in a better manner. And while some American companies do lose market share that is the natural outcome of the competitive market. Not everyone can win in a zero sum game.
So far, bonsai has not reached the zero sum game state. There is plenty of improvement and develoment to go around.
In my travels I've seen some very good bonsai in the US. I posted a series of photos of American bonsai artists on the Internet Bonsai Gallery not too long ago.
http://internetbonsaiclub.org/index.php ... ic=16944.0
Its obvious from the Internet and reading magazines there are good bonsai artists all over the globe (with the exception of Antartica) and its equally obvious that there are bonsai novices all over the globe. Regardless, what's to be gained by debating it?
If you know where to look, the trend in the US is to find better and better bonsai trees not as Vance says "if there is a single trend that more or less defines American bonsai it is the pig-headed hobbyist mentality that is happy with mediocrity." Walter Pall's travelouges point out the good material he encounters. in Florida alone the trees and the presentation of them are getting better and better and many are world class.
I don't think we have to be so hard on ourselves. Rather we should all strive to improve and develop our trees regardless of where we live.
|Author:||Vance Wood [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:23 pm ]|
You should take a good hard look at the public education system and what they are teaching. You should read some of the things that are written on the Internet, you should see what many of the traits I pointed out have done to the Auto industry. You are right, perhaps I painted with too broad a brush for an article this size.
I know for the most part the space industry strives for perfection, that's why one of the Mars landers failed because somebody forgot to transpose from metric to SAE measurement, and that there was an error in the mirror for the Hubble telescope, and that they knew that ice falling from the main tank on the Space Shuttle could damage the tiles on the Space Shuttle. There is probably the best example of good enough. My brother works in that industry as well, and I know there is a lot of good people dedicated and diligent, but there are some good enough people as well.
I know not everyone wants to look at this the way I have, I am not necessarily talking about the good bonsai artists I am talking about the bulk of those who practice the art. I am talking about the general trends that are driving the majority of people interested in bonsai, those we wish to inspire and challenge to make better bonsai. All that being said you cannot say that bonsai in America is on the same level as bonsai in Europe, that we should be at least the equal of. So why is that no so?
|Author:||Mark Arpag [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:49 pm ]|
Just because "it has been said that European Bonsai are artistically superior to American Bonsai" DOES NOT MAKE IT A FACT.
|Author:||Will Heath [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:07 pm ]|
|Author:||Rob Kempinski [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:10 pm ]|
|Author:||Rob Kempinski [ Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:20 pm ]|
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