All’s Well, the Twentieth Century Dies: David Bowie as Postmodern Art Detective Professor – Kellie A. Wacker

When considering David Bowie, people tend to envision specific iconic incarnations of Bowie-the-performer: the Mod of the early 1960s; the hippy folk rocker of the late 1960s; Ziggy Stardust of the early 1970s; the “Plastic Soul” singing Thin White Duke of the mid-1970s; the introspective art rocker of the late 1970s; and the mega pop star of the 1980s. Although generally known as a musician and performer, Bowie’s original training, like many British musicians of his generation, was at art school. [1] Throughout his career he has maintained strong connections to the visual arts as an exhibiting painter, printmaker, and art collector. In addition to being a highly visible supporter of the “YBA,” or Young British Artists, he has served as a contributor and member of the editorial board of the British journal, Modern Painters, since 1993. Strongly interested in promoting the work of British artists, he recently started 21 Publishing which specializes in illustrated contemporary art books. References to art and artists surface periodically in his work and the Glam Rock movement he inspired with Ziggy Stardust is arguably a grand work of performance art. Notable references to artists include the song “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory (1971) and an abstract reference to the performance artist, Chris Burden, in “Joe the Lion,” from Heroes (1977). “Look Back in Anger,” from Lodger (1979), he dealt with the frustrations of being a struggling artist. In 1995 Bowie released Outside, a complex album that is best understood as both a reflection of fin de siècle anxiety and a critical commentary on the state of the visual arts at the end of millennium. In an interview given in 1995 to support the album’s release, Bowie stated, “There is almost an unconscious, collective paranoia about hitting a brick wall at the end of every hundred years . . . it was hard enough to end a hundred years – how do you end a millennium?” (Greco 21). Included in the liner notes is The Diary of Nathan Adler, or The Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue, which is described as a “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle” (Bowie, Outside). It is a postmodern detective story in which Detective Professor Nathan Adler seeks to solve the murder of a girl whose deconstructed and electronically reconnected body is found carefully installed in a web-like fashion on the steps of an American museum described as “both signifier and guardian to the act” (Bowie, Outside). Adler also sounds like an art critic when he asks, “It was definitely murder, but was it art?” (Bowie, Outside). he unresolved crime is unlikely to be solved in a traditional sense and the reader is left to question what Adler is really trying to determine – the identity of the murderer or whether the gruesome display is a work of art at all. Nicolas Greco, in his unpublished dissertation, has correctly observed that Adler’s “job is not to find the murderer, as one would expect, but rather to determine whether the act of murder constitutes art” (Greco 69). Thus, Adler seeks to find the murderer only in order to contextualize the work as part of a critical approach in determining its status as art, not for the moral reasons that one might otherwise expect.

The album was produced with the assistance of Brian Eno who had worked with Bowie previously on the experimental trilogy of Low, Heroes, and Lodger produced in the late 1970s.[2] As a kind of postmodern gesamtkunstwerk, Outside is constructed like seventies-style concept album interweaving music, image, and text. Brian Eno at the time said that he was not interested in making a record of disconnected songs and commented, “There’s got to be a bigger landscape in play than that” (Rowland 32). As a concept album each component of Outside can be appreciated individually but it is not intended to operate independently and no single component fully explains the whole. The music and images (all various digitally manipulated manifestations of Bowie’s countenance) work together to create a narrative that introduces the key characters of the story: Baby Grace Blue, the stereotypical young and innocent victim; Leon Blank, a twenty-something young man with “three convictions for petty theft, appropriation and plagiarism without license”; Ramona Stone, the middle-aged owner of a body parts jewelry store, “interest drug” dealer, and “tyrannical futurist”; Algeria Touchshriek, an elderly, creepy, but relatively harmless dealer of “art drugs and DNA prints” who is also a “fence for all apparitions of any medium”; and Detective Professor Nathan Adler, who works for an organization, Art Crime, Inc., a corporation funded by the Arts Protectorate of London (Bowie, Outside). As Nathan Adler explains

. . . the investigation of art crimes was in itself inseparable from other forms of expression and therefore worthy of support from this significant body. Nicolas Serota himself had deemed us, the small-fry of the division, worthy of an exhibit at last year’s Biennale in Venice, three rooms of evidence and comparative study work which conclusively proved that the cow in Mark Tansey’s “The Innocent Eye Test” could not differentiate between Paulus Potter’s “The Young Bull” of 1647 . . . and one of Monet’s grain stack paintings of the 1890’s. The traditional art press deemed this extrapolation “bullshit” and removed itself to study the more formal ideas contained in Damien Hirst’s “Sheep In A Box.” Art’s a farmyard. It’s my job to pick thru the manure heap looking for peppercorns (Bowie, Outside).[3]

The exhibition described at the Venice Biennale is fictive, but its description combined with well-known historical and contemporary works creates a hyper-real environment. In the world of the Diary fact and fiction exist simultaneously to the point that the differences between them no longer matter. Bowie’s example of Mark Tansey’s postmodern paintings, such as The Innocent Eye Test (1991) which commented on ideas of representation and perception in pre-Modern, Modern, and Postmodern periods, is important. Tansey’s monochromatic paintings have a faux-aged quality and by referencing well-known masterworks and appropriating the appearance of old magazine or book illustrations they imply documentary authority. Not unlike Bowie’s Diary, the work from this period often deals with visual paradox and impossible events.

In 1993, two years before the release of Outside, Bowie had written in the liner notes for The Buddha of Suburbia (the soundtrack for an independent British film of the same title) that the major “obstacle to the evolution of music has been the almost redundant narrative form” and he referred to a desire to “finally relegate the straightforward narrative to the past” (Greco 2-3). This is an idea that is particularly significant to Bowie, when asked if there was any thread that links his work throughout his career he replied, “it’s the realization, to me at least, that I’m most comfortable with a sense of fragmentation . . .. The idea of tidy endings or beginnings seems too absolute. It’s not at all like real life.” (Rowland 94). Consequently, the story presented in Outside is distinctively non-linear with passages that shift between three personally significant years: 1977, 1994, and 1999. In 1977, Bowie released both the Low and Heroes albums, which New Musical Express editors Roy Carr and Charles Murray described as marking his abandonment of “conventional narrative/expository lyrics” and his embrace of “savagely opaque concrete verbals” (Carr and Murray 87-88). Inspired by the Exquisite Corpse and other automatic writing techniques invented by the Dadaists and Surrealists, and refined by the Beat poets William Borroughs and Brion Gysin in the post-war period, Bowie developed a lyric writing method in which he wrote passages on sheets of paper which he then cut into fragments and rearranged. He now uses a computer program he co-designed called the Mack-Verbasiser, a punning bit of humor that references the ever-hip Bowie as both a Mack (a sexually active individual in slang terms) and a Mac-user. In the Diary Nathan Adler uses a similar program which is described as a “Metarandom programme that re-strings real life facts as im-probable virtual fact” (Bowie, Outside). Interestingly, the results are described not as solutions, but “solvents” (Bowie, Outside). By inputting random information the program sorts it into configurations that produce unconsidered, but potential, connections. Thus, the program does not find logical links between ideas and facts, but instead dissolves them. Both Bowie’s old and new techniques are visually referenced in the lyric page for the song, “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” in which the largely illegible lyrics appear as if composed with the use of scissors and paste or through digital manipulation.

The third year of significance is 1994, the period when the story of Outside was conceived and written and a time when Bowie was forming ideas about the ritualized and blood-obsessed nature of a significant portion of contemporary art. In an interview for Esquire Magazine Bowie said that he felt as if people were in a period of spiritual starvation and he referred to “the advent of the new cults of tattooing and scarification and piercings and all that” as way to satisfy this unmet need (Greco 19). Further, he observed,

My input revolved around the idea of ritual art – what options were there open to that quasi-sacrificial blood-obsessed sort of art form? … There’s a hole that’s been vacated by an authoritative religious body — the Judeo-Christian ethic doesn’t seem to embrace all the things that people seem to actually need to have dealt with in that way — and its sort of been left to popular culture to soak up the leftover bits like violence and sex (Greco 19).

In the Diary, it is final day of 1999 – the highly anticipated Y2K perplexed grand finale of the millennium – when the body of Baby Grace Blue is found on the steps of the museum. Death and violence marks the transition to the new millennium and Bowie’s self-portrait on the cover of the CD packaging is strongly reminiscent of the cover of the 1977 Lodger album which, like the themes that permeate Outside, expresses violence. The interior of the bi-fold Lodger album reveals a sequence of photographs – a propaganda photograph of the corpse of Che Guevara, Italian Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ (c. 1490), an infant, and a photograph taken during the preparations for the photo shoot that clearly reveals the props and prosthetics used. The images are conceptually linked by supine poses, references to birth, death, politics, religion and the blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy.

Seductive and violent images continue in the lyric pages of the liner notes for the songs, “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” and “I’m Deranged”. “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” depicts an aggressively posed figure of a minotaur with bloody hands and the page for “I’m Deranged” includes the note, “as sung by the artist minotaur” (Bowie, Outside). The minotaur appears repeatedly in Bowie’s drawings, as well as the “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” music video from Outside and in the video for “Seven Years in Tibet,” a song from the Earthling album released two years later in 1997. Given Bowie’s significant background and interest in art he must certainly be aware of the minotaur as a Modernist symbol. Picasso used the minotaur as a personal symbol of unchecked sexual passions and the half-human/half-bull creature appears repeatedly in the well-known Vollard Suite of etchings produced between 1930 and 1934, as well as in the collage he designed in 1933 to be used for the first issue of Minotaure, a French Surrealist journal. The Minotaur, a character from ancient mythology, was given new life as a twentieth-century dualistic symbol: it is both human and animal, attractive and repugnant, pitiful and fearsome. Bowie used this theme previously in 1977 on the Heroes album in a song, “Beauty and the Beast,” which repeats the phrase, “you can’t say no to the beauty and the beast” (Bowie, Heroes). Carr and Murray noted that “the reason why ‘you can’t say no to the beauty and the beast’ . . . is because they are a theoretically irresistible combination – especially in one person” (Carr and Murray 92). In Outside Bowie demonstrates his belief that the contemporary artist working outside of the mainstream is a kind of minotaur, powerful and seductive, yet dangerous and potentially fatal. Not surprisingly Bowie stated, “my idea of a contemporary artist is Damien Hirst,” an artist most well-known for creating sculptures of dead animals carefully weighted and suspended elegantly in vitrines full of formaldehyde, such as The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) (Carrillo de Albornoz 21). In the 1990s Bowie was demonstrating a sensitivity to the fact that the work of a number of notable contemporary artists was defined by themes and images of violence, gore, and death. It is precisely this gritty and sometimes repugnant leitmotiv that permeates the atmosphere of Outside.

In the Diary, Nathan Adler, whose office is noted as having once been Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko’s studio – specifically the one in which he committed suicide – behaves like a good art detective-critic by looking for precedents for the ritual art murder. He states, “It was a crime whose time was now” and notes that “it had probably its beginnings in the ‘70s with the Viennese castrationists and the blood-rituals of Nitsch” (Bowie, Outside). Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch are referred to or mentioned specifically; both artists were part of AKTIONIMUS (also known as the Vienna Actionists or the Direct Action Group), a group of Austrian performance artists in the 1960s. The Actionists were influenced by Abstract Expressionism and its European variant, Tachisme. However, they placed greater emphasis on the artist as participant rather than as creator of objects. In general, their actions centered on real and implied ritualized violence, especially self-mutilation.

Schwarzkogler is most known for a series of Actions performed in private or in front of a small audience between 1965 and 1966. He is also known for having committed suicide in 1969 and the details of his death still remain occluded in the literature about him. It has been widely believed that he died of blood loos as a result of methodically dissecting his penis during one of the Actions. In actuality, Schwarzkogler jumped or fell from his apartment window during a prolonged period of instability. Hermann Nitsch, who worked closely with Schwarzkogler, explained in an interview with Gerhard Petak that the artist “was not well . . . he was insane and committed suicide because of the suffering connected with the insanity” (1). His death was much more banal than has been widely reported. When photographs of his performances were shown at the 1972 international Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, journalists and critics with pre-conceived notions about Schwarzkogler wrongly interpreted the images. Articles in Artforum as late as 1978 continued to describe a gory and scandalous death (Calas 36) and Keith Seward wrote in Artforum in 1994 that Schwarzkogler’s reported self-mutilation was by then widely known to be a fallacy and commented that “you will read no text about the Austrian artist that does not relish in either reporting or debunking the castration myth” (104). Bowie falls into the category of continuing to fuel the rumor of a sensational suicide by referring to Schwarzkogler in the Diary not by name, but as a “Viennese castrationist.” Further, one of the liner images is clearly appropriated from Schwarzkogler’s Action 2 — Summer 1965 and the addition of the skull and crossed bones graphic erroneously connects Schwarzkogler’s performance with death.

Hermann Nitsch is directly referenced, being mentioned by name in the Diary and in one of the liner image pages. Nitsch’s name is found between two lines of text repeating “rituals blood” and “bloodblood” (Bowie, Outside).[4] In reference to the Actionists Adler comments, “public revulsion put a lid on that episode, but you can’t keep a good ghoul down” referring to the fact that Nitsch has, since the 1960s, continuously developed organized blood rituals through his Origien Mysterien Theater (Orgies Mystery Theater) project (Bowie, Outside). The largest projects have been performed at his castle in Prizendorf and the art rituals are a combination of appropriated Catholic ritual and his subjective understanding of ancient Mediterranean mystery-cult rites. The highly orchestrated events involve music, pageantry, the ritual slaughter of oxen, simulated death by crucifixion, symbolic rebirth through baptism in blood, and the communal consumption of the slaughtered animals in a feast that concludes the performance.

The same image page from the Diary also includes the word “Burden” referring to performance artist Chris Burden, who is described in the diary as “having himself shot by his collaborator in a gallery, tied up in a bag, thrown on a highway and then crucified upon the top of a Volkswagen” (Bowie, Outside) which is a rather accurate description of the performance.[5] Bowie had referred to Burden’s crucifixion performance earlier on the “Heroes” album in the song, “Joe the Lion,” in which the line “nail me to my car and I’ll tell you who you are” is repeated (Bowie, Heroes). Notably, the lyrics reveal that Bowie sees such bodily violent performance as a transcendent event that leads to greater understanding of identity and self-realization. Using a hyper-real strategy of blending fact and fiction (along with sharply dark humor) Bowie, through the voice of his character Adler, also refers to a fictitive young artist who had pieces of his body removed systematically

. . . a finger-joint one night, a limb another. By the dawning of the ’80s, rumour had it that he was down to a torso and one arm . . . . He didn’t do much after that. I guess he read a lot. Maybe wrote a whole bunch. I suppose you never can tell what an artist will do once he’s peaked (Bowie, Outside).

Bringing his chronology of gore and art into the 1990s, Adler mentions and somewhat dismisses Damien Hirst’s work by commenting that it was a more “palatable ritual” for the public because no humans were involved. The dismissal seems rather uncharacteristic of Bowie because he was at the time intensely interested in Hirst. He had interviewed him for Modern Painters and had even arranged a working session with Hirst in his studio when he was creating his Spin series of paintings. Two of the images in the diary (the Schwarzkogler and Ramona Stone pages) have radial patterns in the background that look strikingly similar to Hirst’s spin paintings. Adler then contrasts Hirst’s work with a description of “4 Scenes in a Harsh Life” a 1994 performance by Ron Athey. [6] Athey’s performance work visually borrows from the tradition of graphic Baroque martyrdom scenes as it deals with issues of self-loathing, disease, death, and redemption. Catherine Opie’s studio photograph of one of the scenes, Suicide Bed (2000) provides a good example of the allusions to Baroque art in his work as it reflects the tilted, foreshortened figure of St. Erasmus in Nicolas Poussin’s Martyrdom of St. Erasmus (c. 1629). Instead of having his entrails ripped out and wrapped on windlass by his torturers, Athey shows himself as both the torturer and the tortured, his body repeatedly pierced with hypodermic needles in a clear reference to drug addiction. Notably, hypodermic needles used as ritualized piercing tools also appear in Bowie’s video for “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.” Although edited quickly to minimize its graphic nature, the crown of a man’s head is shown pierced with criss-crossed needles like a contemporary crown of thorns.[7] Athey describes his work as “both a pageant to and lurid slur against classic religious imagery and its relationship to the eternal themes of death and disease” (Athey). His performance, as Adler rightly notes, was also controversial because of the audience’s proximity to Athey who is HIV+. Some performances included attaching the towels used to sop up his blood to a clothesline suspended over the audience. At a later point in the diary when Adler pulls together connections between the artists discussed he makes the following insightful comment, “We’re mystified by blood. Its our enemy now. We don’t understand it. Can’t live with it. Can’t well . . . y’now?” (Bowie, Outside).

232312 By referencing specific mid- to late-twentieth century artists such as Rothko, Schwarzkogler, Nitsch, Burden, Hirst, and Athey, Bowie presents us with a pantheon of contemporary artists whose performance and work focuses on the transcendent nature of violence, gore, and death. Through the Outside album, he speculates that an art-ritual-murder would be the next logical. Although the idea seems contemporary, the idea is not new. In 1828, Thomas De Quincey, published an essay called “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Bowie is familiar with this essay and he referred to it in his interview with Damien Hirst in Modern Painters in 1994. De Quincey presented the concept that a murder could be analyzed as an aesthetic rather than a moral issue and that it could, in his words, “be treated aesthetically, as the German’s call it — that is, in relation to good taste” (342). Joel Black, in his study, The Aesthetics of Murder, A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture, places De Quincey’s essay in the context of what was then the relatively new field of aesthetics. He explicates that De Quincey’s satirical essay was written to point out problems within Emmanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790) regarding the sublime and his placement of human acts of violence into a different category — that of the “monstrous” (Black 14-15). Black notes that

. . . once natural violence was considered as a possible source of aesthetic experience, what was to prevent human violence, which inspired perhaps even greater terror, from making aesthetic claims as well? Why shouldn’t the malevolence and the inscrutable purpose of the murderer . . . be capable of stirring us with awe? If any human act evokes the aesthetic experience of the sublime, certainly it is the act of murder. And if murder can be experienced aesthetically, the murderer can in turn be regarded as a kind of artist — a performance artist or anti-artist whose specialty is not creation but destruction (14). [8]

In comparison to Bowie’s ideas in Outside, the most illuminating aspect of Black’s discussion of the Murder essay, is when he states that De Quincey “brought Kant’s concept of the natural sublime to its ‘logical’ conclusion in the spectacle of murder” (15). In Outside Bowie takes a very similar position by pushing the concept of ritualized violence, death, and gore to its logical conclusion. In Bowie’s vision of a not-so-distant and familiar future (one clearly modulated by the millennial-angst ridden period in which it was conceived) the act of murder and its resulting object, the cadaver, becomes art.

2362In this respect it should be noted that Bowie’s prediction, in part, has come true. Gunter Von Hagens, a German physician who has patented an embalming process called “plastination” (in which water is replaced by plastic polymers thus rendering the specimens permanently life-like in their death stasis), has been exhibiting a collection of human and animal parts and bodies since 1996, one year after the release of Outside. The exhibition, called Körperwelten (“BodyWorlds”), did not receive widespread notice until the largest exhibition — including 175 human body parts and 25 bodies — opened in London in March 2002 amid great controversy. Von Hagens, who is a pariah in the German scientific community, says that he is not an artist (Von Hagens). [9] However, he has displayed the bodies which he refers to as “plastinates” in art galleries, he dresses and appears eerily like the German performance artist Josef Beuys, and he has stated that he “beautifies the specimens [by] putting them into lifelike poses” (Holmes 78). By referring to the cadavers as plastinates he de-contextualizes them as human remains and thus, by being semantically transformed into objects that can arguably be treated as works of art. The exhibition has included vignettes that juxtapose Von Hagens’ plastinates, such as the Basketballer,with a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (c. 1492). Although he states to the contrary, Von Hagens is clearly concerned with aesthetic issues and operates as both scientist and artist.

In the case of the Bodyworlds exhibition no murder has been committed – Von Hagens’ claims that all the bodies are legally donated to his Institut für Plastination — but the situation in which human bodies, in highly manipulated poses and in varying states of deconstruction, are being exhibited within art venues is a problematic one.[10] Because the plastinates have been shown to the public within art galleries they have been contextualized to the lay public as a form of art. As such, they are not being viewed strictly as pedagogical anatomical models . The mission statement of Bodyworlds affirms that “all models look alike and are, essentially, simplified versions of the real thing. The authenticity of the specimen, however, is fascinating and enables the observer to experience the marvel of the real human being” (Von Hagens). Although it is certainly true that the Bodyworlds spectacle provides the viewer with access to an authentic view of the human body it also functions as something more than a natural science exhibit. Like Bowie’s Detective Professor Nathan Adler, sensitive observers are left standing at the doors of the museum — that “signifier and guardian to the act” — and wondering, “Is it art?”

Works Cited

Athey, Ron. 7 July 2004.

Black, Joel. The Aesthetics of Murder, A Study in Romantic Literature and
Contemporary Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Bowie, David. Heroes. RCA, 1977.

—–. Hunky Dory. RCA, 1971.

—–. Lodger. RCA, 1979.

—–. Low. RCA, 1979.

—–. Outside. Virgin Records, 1995.

Calas, Nicolas. “Bodyworks and Porpoises,” Artforum 16 (January 1978), 33-37.

Carr, Roy and Charles Murray. David Bowie: An Illustrated Record. New York:
Avon Books, 1981.

Carrillo de Albornoz, Cristina. “Pop Art,” The Art Newspaper 132 (January 2003).

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Selected
Essays. New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1900.

Frith, Simon and Howard Horne. Art into Pop. London/New York: Methueun,

“German anatomist draws criticism for corpses preserved at Chinese facility”
MSNBC News 2004 February 3. 3 February

Greco, Nicholas. David Bowie’s 1. Outside: The Creation of a Liminoid Space
as a Metaphor for Pre-Millennial Society. Master’s thesis, McMaster
University, 2000.

Holmes, Pernilla, “The Remains of the Day,” Art News (May 2002) 78.

Rowland, Mark. “The Outside Story,” Musician 204 (November 1995), 31-41.

Seward, Keith. “Rudolf Schwarzkogler” Artforum 33 (September 1994), 104-105.

Von Hagens, Gunter.
27 July 2003.


1. This significant trend is discussed extensively by Simon Frith and Howard Horne in their study, Art into Pop (1987).

2. These three albums are often referred to as the “Berlin trilogy” as they were recorded in sequence at the Hansa By The Wall Studios in Berlin.

3. Several comments should be made regarding the above passage. The choice of Potter’s 1647 canonical animal painting is likely intentional as it is was painted 300 years before Bowie’s birth date of 1947. Nicolas Serota is the director of the Tate Modern art museum in London. The reference to Damien Hirst’s work is concerning the vitrine sculpture, Away from the Flock (1994).

4 It may be coincidence, but the letters “db” at the center of “bloodblood” are also Bowie’s trademarked logo.

5. This description does, in fact, accurately describe Burden’s early work.

6. “4 Scenes in a Harsh Life” (attended by Bowie) was one performance within a trilogy. The other two were “Martyrs and Saints” and “Deliverance.”

7. This type of piercing was also a part of Athey’s performance.

8. Black also states that De Quincey subverted the beautiful by the sublime and, overall, subverted ethics by aesthetics (14).

9. Von Hagens’ laboratories are located in remote areas such as Balian, China and Bishkek, Kirgizstan.

10. It should be noted that in January 2004 the Associated Press carried a story about British, German, and Chinese media reporting that two Chinese cadavers had bullet holes in their skulls implying that the bodies were of executed prisoners. Von Hagens reasserted that all the cadavers were legally donated; however, he also stated that such a thing was not impossible and, after conducting an inventory incinerated all bodies with head injuries for the stated reason of avoiding the possibility of using executed corpses.

Author Biography

Kelly A. Wacker is Assistant Professor of Art in the Art Department and Gallery Director at the University of Montevallo

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