Dreaming Together, a collaboration between the New-York Historical Society and Asia Society Museum, features more than 35 interwoven works drawn from both art collections that generate dialogue about the urban and natural environments, protest and rebellion, individuals and identities, borders and crossings.
The exhibition is organized in categories – Nature, City, Protest, and People.
Highlights include the Canal Street diptych (1992) from Martin Wong’s Chinatown series, 98-foot hanging scrolls by Dinh Q. Lê featuring abstractions of the World Trade Center towers (2016), and a dystopic video narrative of war and destruction by Shiva Ahmadi (2014). The result is a powerful reflection on the possibilities unleashed when people, cultures, and institutions dream in tandem.
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A collateral exhibition in the Asia Society Triennial, Dreaming Together is the first collaboration between New-York Historical Society and Asia Society. In this discussion, Asia Society Triennial Artistic Director Boon Hui Tan and New-York Historical Society Curator of American art Wendy N.E. Ikemoto, Ph.D touch on themes from the exhibition and the possibilities unleashed when people, cultures, and institutions dream in tandem. The discussion was moderated by Asia Society Triennial Executive Chair and Chair of the Exhibitions Committee, and New-York Historical Society trustee Agnes Hsu-Tang, Ph.D.
In-depth Survey of Asia Society Triennial: WE DO NOT DREAM ALONE with Boon Hui Tan and Ken Tan
All text from this article is attributed to the DREAMING TOGETHER catalog.
In the Dreaming Together catalog, Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang writes, “The original concept of Wendy’s exhibition predates the Triennial, when she dreamed a solo “dream” of a transnational, trans-Pacific retrospective of important American artists of Asian descent, whose works remain unexplored by Euro- and American-centric art institutions. Aptly named Dreaming Together: New-York Historical Society and the Asia Society, this groundbreaking exhibition represents an unprecedented collaboration between two iconic cultural institutions that are, in their respective curators’ words, “seemingly incongruous.” Anchored on Wendy’s curatorial vision, and with Boon Hui’s advisory input on contemporary Asian art, this institutional partnership has produced an important intellectual dialogue that compels viewers to reconsider how historical entrenchments have shaped present-day America.
Dreaming Together contests the historical perceptions of “American-ness.” These two exhibitions further serve as a rare platform for diasporic artists of Asian heritage around the world, who have been historically marginalized by both their ancestral and adopted societies.
Conceiving, developing, and implementing an art exhibition is a painstaking, multiyear process under normal circumstances. Wendy and Boon Hui persevered against all odds during COVID-19, and their original, multi- artist exhibitions were among the first to open, safely and responsibly, to the public and for the public, since the pandemic first struck New York City. With resolve and courage, they shared an unyielding belief in the power of art to revive hope and led their respective projects in a spirit of resilience. They made deft curatorial changes in response to, in sequence: COVID-19, an extended lockdown of New York City, amplified racism and violence against people of Chinese and East Asian descent, a global economic recession, the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd that galvanized nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2020 American presidential election. The purpose of a contemporary art platform is to exhibit a visual history of the present; in this light, Dreaming Together impels us to confront historical traumas as they unfold in real time. Further, the inclusion of three works created by artists during and for Black Lives Matter protests gives us a rare, emic view of these artists as activists, in action.
Two groupings of works in this exhibition stand out in the context of the mission of the New-York Historical Society, one of the oldest cultural institutions in the United States and the oldest museum in New York City.
Inside the venerable institution’s grand Dexter Hall, two monumental cityscapes of New York frame the hall’s end walls: on the southern wall is a pair of 100-foot-long hanging scrolls of abstract photography by the transnational Vietnamese and American artist Dinh Q. Lê that captures the explosive collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; across the length of the hall is American artist Richard Haas’s iconic, nearly 60-foot-wide panorama of southern Manhattan.
This pairing depicts a tale of two cities—Haas’s Manhattan is a megalopolis at the pinnacle of its awesome might as the global center of finance, arts, and culture; in stark contrast, Lê presents New York in an apocalyptic state as the very symbol of its economic might, the Twin Towers, explodes and disintegrates into ashes. These contemporary images echo the theme of the cycle of civilization in the Hudson River School masterpiece, The Course of Empire, exhibited on the western wall of Dexter Hall. Created almost two centuries ago, Thomas Cole’s iconic work has become a prescient, pessimistic allegory of US history in 2020, as COVID and divisiveness continue to shatter the illusion of Pax Americana.
These contemporary images echo the theme of the cycle of civilization in the Hudson River School masterpiece, The Course of Empire, exhibited on the western wall of Dexter Hall. Created almost two centuries ago, Thomas Cole’s iconic work has become a prescient, pessimistic allegory of US history in 2020, as COVID and divisiveness continue to shatter the illusion of Pax Americana.
Another thematic grouping powerfully addresses the subject of protest: German American Johannes Oertel’s Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City is juxtaposed with African, Indigenous, and Irish American Betye Saar’s Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines and a set of three works from the Black Lives Matter movement acquired by New-York Historical’s curatorial initiative History Responds, which collects around history as it unfolds.
Among the three Black Lives Matter works, one image emblazoned with the slogan “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” is particularly provocative. Its creator, Singaporean graphic artist Kenn Lam, reignites a sixty- year-old complex debate about this slogan that began when Asian American activists first used it during the Civil Rights Movement. Wendy has spoken about her decision to include this polemical work in the exhibition: “The debate underscores the hard work required of civic dialogue and coalition building and the conflict often entailed in finding common ground.” Lam’s binary image of a yellow tiger and a black panther prowling side by side, tails entwined, is both inspiring and formidable. Unlike other works in the exhibition, the three Black Lives Matter acquisitions were created and used specifically for protests; these artists continue the activist tradition espoused by artists of earlier generations, such as Francisco de Goya, Félix Vallotton, and more recently, Sue Coe. Yellow Peril Supports Black Power is a potent visual call to arms to marginalized peoples in the common fight against historical, systemic injustices.
Environmental art has a long history and global reach. Artists across centuries and locations have engaged with natural phenomena and ecological issues. They have infused nature with religious meaning and mobilized it toward nationalistic ends, reshaped the earth itself, confronted climate change, upcycled environmental waste, and advanced ecological awareness.
This section explores environmental art from both sides of the Pacific. It focuses on artists who have forged new approached to landscape and still life traditions-who visualize in innovative ways the sometimes symbiotic, sometimes catastrophic intertwining of human and natural history.
In 2015, Taca Sui traveled through the mountains of China in search of the ancient steles, or carved monuments, memorialized by an 18th-century scholar named Huang Yi. They proved elusive: many of the documented steles had disappeared and those remaining had worn bare and cracked.
This photography belongs to a larger body of work from Taca’s journey. It features the wall of a tomb cut by hand into the side of a mountain during the Western Han dynasty. The shimmering rock surface, combined with its darkened reflection and ancient chisel markings, suggests a mysterious and ethereal past. The poetic meditation on historical form resonates with Cole’s narrative, at left, of an empire fallen to ruin.
Contemporary Chinese artist Wang Tiande is best known for his burned landscapes. These comprise a traditional brush ink landscape overlaid by a second landscape burned into paper with cigarettes or incense. Some of the brushed image peeks through the scorch marks, while some of it remains occluded or appears only as a ghostly trace through the translucent overlay. Wang developed this practice after accidentally dropping cigarette ash onto a painting in his studio and singeing it.
The resulting work speaks to the fragility of the landscape-its whole form visible only through the haze of its burnt one, as if a more pristine environmental past might be glimpsed only through the fraying present. Its meditation on the course of the natural world invites comparison to Cole’s painted series.
Built environment have been engineered to segregate, protect, unite, and divide. They regulate the movement of people, accommodate mass gatherings, deter loitering, demarcate boundaries, open vistas, establish sight lines, foster community, and encourage communion with nature. They bespeak the values, fears, and aspirations of the very societies they shape. This section focuses not he built worlds of New York and Asia. It illuminates the ways that artists have approached the aesthetics of the cityscapes and explores how they have not only reflected but advanced the broader issues-from ethnic identity to destruction and development, socioeconomic division, and globalization-embedded in them.
This view from the elevated platform of Metro-North’s 125th Street Station describes rusted railroad tracks passing by a vacant lot and a lone building. Contemporary American artist Marc Winnat recalls stepping off the train in Harlem one late November day and noticing the way the low sun hit the old brownstone. The scene hooked him, and he later worked it up from photographs in his studio. He called the resulting painting Death Row, Harlem after the line of burned-out buildings that ran along the train tracks from the Harlem River to East 97th Street.
The ominous title seems to have foretold the fate of the neighborhood: both the brownstone and the structure behind it have since been demolished in an aggressive redevelopment program centered around Harlem’s historic 125th Street.
This work belongs to a series of over two thousand photographs that contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Dali produced between 1995 and 1998 to critique Beijing’s aggressive urban renewal program.
Each picture juxtaposes the ruins of razed structures with forms of cultural splendor and economic prowess: a national monument, an imperial palace, or a sleek new development representative of the triumphal image the city sought to project. Zhang’s incisive compositions characterize redevelopment as censorship of the built environment—as a choreographed and selective presentation of history and the city’s modernization.
Broadway Street Corner captures a fleeting encounter on New York City’s busy thoroughfare. The composition positions the viewer as a pedestrian on the sidewalk. The cropped forms of the people, the yellow cab, and the light post create a snapshot aesthetic of elements about to shift farther into or out of the frame. In addition, the loose and fluid brushwork imbues the scene with dynamism and movement.
Anchoring the image is the man in the reddish-orange jumpsuit on the left-hand edge of the canvas. He represents the Sanitation Associates in the Times Square Alliance work crew—the men and women whom contemporary American artist Tom Christopher came to know as he stood on the street corners to sketch and photograph.
For the artist, the work speaks to the potential for human connection offered by the press of New York City and to “the mad rush and little islands of quiet” in its everyday life.
Canal Street belongs to a larger group of Chinatown paintings by twentieth-century American artist Martin Wong. It depicts the red pagoda-style structure, originally built in 1983 as the former headquarters of the Golden Pacific National Bank, at the corner of New York City’s Canal and Centre Streets.
Chinatown appears in this painting as dreamlike and visionary. The perspective is off-kilter. The building seems too large for its space: it sits not quite comfortably in the picture but twists and leans. Its vibrant reds pulse against a blank and almost neon- blue sky. The streets are empty—evacuated of human life. The entire scene is oddly doubled—repeated on the left and right with the same building, glowing streetlamp, subway station, traffic light, and street signs. Only minor differences—the six women in the windows on the left and the man in the doorway on the right, for instance—distinguish the two versions.
Chinatown emerges less as a real location than as a stage set—a fantastical construction of Asia and Asian-ness. In the words of the artist, it becomes “an exotic Oriental extravaganza”—a vision of ethnic otherness likely informed by his collecting, beginning as a child growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, of kitschy tourist souvenirs and curios. Wong engages in this painting as much with his Chinese American heritage as with touristic perceptions of it, presenting a spectacular form of Asian excess that reads equally as empty, superficial, and not quite of this world.
His self-portrait further complicates ethnic stereotypes. The openly gay and mixed-race “Chino-Latino” artist appears, on the banner spanning the two buildings, in a purple cowboy shirt and Stetson hat emblazoned with an image of Christ.
Autumn in the Forbidden City, East Veranda pictures the mangled corpse of a bird draped in a long strand of pearls. Chinese New Wave artist Hong Lei references Song Dynasty bird-and-flower painting but subverts its traditional symbolism. Here, the bird promises not hope and renewal but death. Its splayed posture implies violent demise, and the splashes of red pigment evoke the splatter of blood.
The bird appears, moreover, not amid nature but before the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing’s Forbidden City— the grand imperial palace that served as the ceremonial and political center of China for nearly 500 years. Far from an icon of cultural grandeur, the palace diminishes in Hong’s work into a piece of the waning past: the backdrop of a vintage photograph with bleached tones and surface scratches whose handwrought damage echoes the violence of the subject.
This is an elegiac image by an artist who mourns the loss of traditional Chinese culture. His work shares with Martin Wong’s painting both a dream-like surreality and a grappling with China’s place in a globalized world.
Protest is a worldwide phenomenon and a human right. It has toppled governments, given birth to new nations and systems of faith, liberated the enchained, shifted thought, and secured rights previously denied. It can be quiet or loud, subtle or explicit, personal or public, violent or peaceful. It drives transformation, often against forces of states and restraint.
The objects in this section address the American Revolution, the Arab Spring, Jim Crow, Black Lives Matter, and contemporary geopolitics. As their individual histories make clear, they function not as passive records of protest but as themselves agents of upheaval and change.
This animation by contemporary Iranian American artist Shiva Ahmadi was inspired by a 2009 uprising in Iran and the Arab Spring that swept the Middle East two years later. Commissioned by the Asia Society Museum in New York and based on an earlier watercolor of the same name, Lotus opens with a tranquil scene of the enlightened Buddha surrounded by loyal monkey subjects who bear offerings of delicate bubbles. It ends in a dystopia of war and destruction as the monkeys’ bubbles turn into bombs and the Buddha transforms into a tyrant.
Ahmadi’s work calls attention to cycles of tyranny and revolution as global phenomena that complicate American exceptionalism. Its focus on the aftermath of revolution serves also toquestion the promise of American Revolutionary ideals: What follows the rebellion? What happens when its abstract principles must be implemented and upheld? Ahmadi’s despairing vision of failed promise sets the stage for the larger group of objects set alongside it— one that reaches from slavery during the Revolutionary era, as pictured by Oertel, and beyond toward Jim Crow and present-day systemic racism.
Along with the work of Kalaya’an Mendoza and Kenn Lam, this painting was recently acquired as part of the New-York Historical Society’s History Responds initiative to collect around history happening now.
The work responded to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020. Every day for forty-six days (one for each year of Floyd’s life), an anonymous artist who works under the moniker Artistsfor George used a different color scheme to paint Floyd’s larger-than-life portrait. These paintings—along with printed versions reproduced with help from the community print studio Shoestring Press—were mounted on long sticks and distributed, typically to Black men, at Black Lives Matter protests. They featured in many of the New York City marches against systemic racism.
The simple cardboard ground of this painting carries the texture of the everyday and the urgency of the moment. It makes clear that art happens not just in the studio but on the streets—and that it has the potential to not only mirror but mold history.
The white stars of this American flag have become military cemetery crosses, and the red stripes appear to bleed. Belle Osipow created the work in 1969, a critical year that marked President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy and the public’s growing dissent over American involvement in the Vietnam War.
The artist herself participated in neighborhood meetings and canvassed against the war. Her daughter recounts that the painting hung in the family living room in Los Angeles.
Though a clear reference to Jasper Johns’s celebrated Pop Art icon Flag (1954–1955), the work reaches from Pop toward protest. Its pairing with Dinh Q. Lê’s video animation of the Fall of Saigon encompasses the global scope of the war and the complexities of its interpretation from American and diasporic Vietnamese perspectives.
The US Constitution begins with the words “We the People.” Since it was penned in 1787, this phrase has provoked controversy and prompted dialogue. its rhetoric raises questions about inclusion and exclusion-about who “we” are and about which people constitute a nation. The same questions might be applied beyond nations to immigrant and expatriate groups and to diasporic cultures-as well as to an increasingly interconnected international citizenry.
The portraits and genre scenes in this section speak to the ways that artists have envisioned individuals and communities-their bodies, spaces, actions, and identities. The juxtaposition of works from the New-York Historical Society and the Asia Society Museum highlights similarities, divergences, and the complexities of navigating who we are as a global people.
Nurse Tracy belongs to a larger portrait series of essential workers laboring on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. It was inspired by contemporary Canadian American artist Tim Okamura’s own bout with COVID-19 during the height of the outbreak inNew York in the spring of 2020, and it features doctors and nurses from Manhattan and Brooklyn hospitals. The painting’s focus on a woman of color brings to the fore the racial dimensions of the pandemic—both the large number of people of color risking their lives to fight the disease and its disproportionate toll on communities of color.
This painting embraces a more complex national image. It depicts a performance of Cantonese opera at the Chinese Theatre, also known as the Chinese Opera House, at 5–7 Doyers Street in New York City’s Chinatown. Established in 1883, the venue became the first Chinese-language theater east of San Francisco and provided the immigrant community with familiar story lines from its homeland as well as opportunities to socialize and exchange news.
The theater also attracted tourists intrigued by the elaborate costumes and acrobatics of the performances and the perceived exoticism of Chinatown at large. Stafford M. Northcote, a white American artist who worked as an engraver for the illustrated press, references the growth of Chinatown tourism by including a Euro-American couple seated in a theater box toward the right. He moreover invites a touristic gaze: just as the opera offers a spectacle for the audience depicted, so the painting as a whole offers a spectacle for Northcote’s viewers. The viewing area becomes part of an extended stage, and the people depicted part of the cultural performance.
His rendering is nevertheless relatively sensitive. Amid an overtly racist and xenophobic visual culture spurred by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and fear of the Yellow Peril, Northcote showcases the Chinese arts, individualizes the Chinese faces, depicts the immigrants in a mixture of Chinese and Western dress, and acknowledges the complexities of cross-cultural encounter. Notice that the theater box and railing keep the white couple and viewer, respectively, at bay—and that a Chinese man on the left faces the picture plane to return the touristic gaze.
This painting depicts one of the multitude of Chinese hand laundries that emerged in and around New York City’s Chinatown in the 1870s.
Northcote worked as an engraver for the illustrated press, and his painting of a dark laundry interior seems aligned with the growing Chinatown tourist industry of the late nineteenth century—particularly the “slumming craze” that emerged in the wake of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to offer white New Yorkers a peek into the poverty of ethnic enclaves.
Yet, like Northcote’s painting of the Chinese Theatre, this composition complicates ethnic stereotypes and challenges the discriminatory gaze. While the shopkeepers wear traditional Chinese clothing, the Chinese customer appears in Western dress. A network of sightlines links the three figures into a cohesive community. The laundry shop appears neat and personalized, with clothes folded and packaged for pickup and the shelves adorned with personal mementos. A yellow light casts the windowless space in a hearth-like glow that evokes the intimacy and warmth of a domestic scene.
Like the portraits by Louise Lyons Heustis and Jay Yao, this painting explores the geopolitics of fashion. It pictures the mixed-race Seneca chief Gayë́ twahgeh (also known as Cornplanter), who, following the American Revolutionary War, saw the need for diplomacy between Indigenous nations and the fledgling republic and became an ambassador to the young United States.
The painting both references and participates in the complexities of intercultural politics.́ It was likely made to commemorate one of Gayëtwahgeh’s diplomatic visits, and it uses fashion to express his role as an emissary between worlds. The chief wears an Indigenous feather headdress along with Euro- American fabric adapted to an Indigenous style and silver jewelry gifted to him by Congress. The metal gorget around his neck is particularly noteworthy: at once a decorative vestige of medieval armor worn by Euro-American officers and an item resembling traditional Indigenous shell gorgets, it embodies the convergence of distinct material culture languages into an object meaningful to both.
While the painting signals alliance, it also references the potential for misunderstanding and conflict. The pipe tomahawk that Gayë́ twahgeh holds is a pastiche of an Indigenous axe and peace pipe—a weapon of war transformed into a symbol of pacifism. It was presented to the Seneca chief by George Washington during discussions for the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua—a treaty that has since been largely dishonored by the US government.
Born to extraordinary privilege in Gilded Age New York, Annie Tinker rebelled against the strictures of upper-class womanhood. She became one of the first women to “ride astride” in Central Park. She joined the Women’s Political Union and advocated fiercely for women’s rights. She recruited like-minded society women to lead local marches that included a Fifth Avenue parade of thirty thousand suffragists. She declared that women should join the cavalry and fight in war alongside men. During World War I, she enlisted with the Red Cross in Europe and became head of the hospital in Ostend, Belgium. She left the entirety of her $2 million estate to her lover, Kate Bertolini, for use during her lifetime and requested that the residual funds be donated to charity to help retired professional women maintain their independence.
This portrait by society painter Louise Lyons Heustis captures a defiant fifteen-year-old Tinker. She wears Orientalist attire: a banded cap, tunic, geometric necklace, fabric belt, and perfume box of apparent Central Asian origin. She appropriates the fashion of another culture, in other words—and she does so specifically to defy American gender norms. Notice that her untailored tunic loosens the traditionally corseted female profile. Notice also that Tinker hooks her thumbs over her belt in a casual and conventionally masculine pose, that she presents herself in an unfinished and slightly disheveled state with an unraveling braid thrown over her shoulder, and that she gazes daringly and directly at the viewer. The perceived otherness of Orientalist fashion becomes for Tinker a means to break expectations and claim the right to fashion herself against prevailing turn-of-the-century Western dictates about how to look and act.
Like the portraits of Gayë́twahgeh and Annie Tinker, this work examines the politics of style. It belongs to Homecoming, an ongoing series of life- size photographs created by contemporary Filipino- Canadian artist Jay Yao in his adopted home of the Philippines. The project features the work of leading Filipino fashion designers from the capital of Manila as modeled by everyday people in the designers’ hometowns or other provincial locales.
While the series explores the designers’ connection to home, it also speaks to their distance and disjunction from it. The images draw a stark contrast between couture and the quotidian—between the glamorous fashion world of the designers and the relatively impoverished lives of the models, and between Manila and the Philippines’ rural communities.
This photograph features clothing by Joey Samson as worn by Margielyn del Rosario in the church in Cavite where Samson worshiped as a child. The specifically Western-style dress and Catholic church setting attest to the long colonial history of the Philippines and its lasting consequences, including socioeconomic imbalance and the dominance of Manila stemming from its role as the former seat of colonial government.
Chinese Shan-Shui (landscape)—Tattoo merges painting, photography, and performance. The series of thirteen larger-than-life-size photographs features the artist’s body in shifting postures and as painted by his wife, the classically trained contemporary artist Zhang Tiemei, with traditional Chinese landscapes.
By wearing the painted landscapes on his skin, Huang honors his classical artistic heritage. At the same time, he violates that heritage by laying it upon the culturally taboo form of the naked body. The work is a provocation—it insists upon a nude body made larger than life, rendered in extremely high resolution, and replicated across a series of thirteen images. The painted landscapes and medium of photography can in fact be seen as tools to evade cultural censorship and disguise the core subject of naked performance art. That Huang’s series featured in Fuck Off—an exhibition organized by contemporary Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei in 2000 and raided by the Cultural Inspection Bureau—attests to its spirit of resistance.
Huang’s work thus engages with the politics of fashion encoded in the portraits by F. Bartoli, Louise Lyons Heustis, and Jay Yao next to it. Its display across the gallery entrance from Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire elicits an additional reading of the relationship between humankind and nature. In Huang’s series, the two become inextricably linked: the topography of the landscape becomes that of the body, and the topography of the body that of the landscape. Tree branches run like arteries as a sustaining lifeforce along Huang’s arms. As the artist moves, he reshapes the natural world—willfully redirecting a stream, for example, just by shifting his posture. The series underscores the power of humankind in the fate of the environment and today’s Anthropocene epoch.
The gorgeous catalog for Dreaming Together is now available at the NYHistory Store.
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history. New-York Historical is also home to the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, one of the oldest, most distinguished libraries in the nation containing more than ten million books, pamphlets, maps, newspapers, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings. It is also one of only 20 in the United States qualified to be a member of the Independent Research Libraries Association.
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