Wednesday, 26 July 2017

I'm there, and here, in ritual time, in no time....




I posted this on facebook yesterday, and someone said that it was a true fantasy world. I'm not interested in trying to correct their personal resonance, that's the point, that they look into it and see what they see. But when I read their interpretation, I realised that for me this is no fantasy world. This is the world.

This is human experience. I can't really word it ... in here there are elements of symbols and shapes scratched by humans (in this case, Picts...) onto stone, over 2,000 years ago. In an instant, by being present here in my present, these shapes and forms dissolve all the years that stand between me and the maker of those signs. I'm there, and here, in ritual time, in no time. Standing in the experience of a fellow human, with all their wonder and fear, their confusion and their attempts to make meaning; inhabiting their projections onto this strange and unfathomable world, the world of their own strange and unfathomable being. And in this shared ritual time there's a split pain in the belly, a portal into blood and heat. And all around, as fast as the image tries to hold itself true to the meaning it hopes to use to anchor the world inside and outside, all that tries to be solid is melting... the shapes and the colours and the forms that we project in our desperate attempt to hold on, to inhabit and create meaning, are dissolving....

Thanks, Sarah-Jane Summers, for your comment.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Humans making meaning, marks and signs






As I came out of my long, reflective, I-don't-need-to-make-any-images period, I found myself in the Chamber Street Museum, here in Edinburgh.

I used to go to this museum a lot when I was a child; eight, nine, ten years old. The museum, along with my father's books on Crete and Phoenicia, set the path of my life. It sowed a seed of fascination, as I copied Egyptian friezes and hung out with the boa constrictor and the skeletons on the third floor.





What were those symbols of the past, undecipherable forms scratched onto stone?






Scratched into stone. Shapes scratched into stone. Lost meanings, scratched into stone.






Now the Picts, here in the land of my birth.






Picts/animals, like human/peacocks.... birds, dreams, horns, fear, celebration, propitiation ....





























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Friday, 2 June 2017

Different purposes for art: the image as transformer




A day after I wrote 'How did it come to this', I went back and added this line near the end:

'This is ironic, if it's true - that working from life, for me, kills the life force in my images'

How can this be? Isn't it the wonder and beauty (or horror and tragedy) of life that makes someone want to produce an image? How can 'working from life' - which many people working in the Euro/American tradition would probably agree is essential to make convincing, vibrant images - how can it be that working from life produce its opposite?

This all revolves, in my view, around how you see the purpose of your own art-making. For me, the purpose of having 'a precious human life' is to use yourself as a transformer. I wonder if not using yourself as a transformer is when 'dead' images appear.

One way of working that can allow you to bypass your own transformative capabilities is making paintings from photographs. Not paintings from your own photographs, which can act like notes to remind you of your own experience of actually being there... but finding a landscape, say, already neatly made into a 2 D image, and basically copying it. It can be technically instructive to do that, but on the whole the process doesn't lead to images that are alive, at least for me.

If you only focus on accuracy, say, drawing what's in front of you as 'true to life' as possible, you will become very good at accurate drawing. But there's also a chance that your drawing will be dead.

A drawing 'from' life, if it's only technical, lacks the life in the original object. The real object now is a piece of paper or a canvas. Which is not alive. So something has to happen to make the illusion on the paper live again.

I didn't understand how this worked for a long time. The beauty and mystery of a real world object would attract me, and I would want to respond. I had been taught that the appropriate response to something I liked visually was to try to reproduce it on paper. I'm not knocking this urge, or the delight the act can bring. I'm not saying that people can't produce wonderful things in response to this urge.

I did it for years, and I learnt many things about the private satisfactions of improving technique, of being able to 'capture' what was in front of me. But after a while I thought, yes, it feels lovely. But, so what? There are cameras now. I can do it for my own satisfaction in the feeling of doing, but, still, so what? Something was lacking.

I wasn't interested in the contemporary traditions of my own culture - their purposes somehow left me cold. I had no idea. I had a feeling, an instinct, towards wanting to make images that entered into some kind of darkness, some other layer. I remember a moment one day trying to paint tree trunks in Italy. I was staring at the darkness of the black trunks and I could feel it. I knew I had to try to express it but I had no idea how that could come about. I wanted to make paintings that would excite me on this level, even just for myself, so that I could look at a painting and actually feel something, feel moved. I wanted an image to have power, I wanted it to shift me around and spit me out in a different form.

I remember, very early on, reading something about Pat painters in India. Pat painters are itinerant storytellers who travel around singing stories as they roll out a long painted frieze that illustrates the story.


Contemporary Pat Painting about Aids


I think I probably got this mixed up with something else I read about images being 'enlivened'. Something about the eye being painted in last (it can't have been the Pat painters, because they don't paint the image live, as far as I know...). Anyway, a seed was planted. A seed about images having power. Not being accurate, not even having to be skillfully (for which often read, 'realistically'...) rendered. It didn't matter if the eye that was enlivened had eyelashes. Nobody cared if the face looked like it was attached to a body in the actual world, with the sun shining on it from the left. The point was the eye, looking at you.





This idea stuck with me through all the years of English teaching, through all my personal disasters, through all the scrabbling to make a living in various parts of the world.

Fast forward to the spring of 1994. I'm sitting in the office of a lecturer in Vaishnavism at Madras University in South India, staring at the painted stripes that run from his hairline to the point between his eyes; taking in the fact that a university lecturer is sitting behind his large oak desk with a bare torso, a sacred thread, wearing a dhoti; and noticing that in his right ear there's a square earring that these days I know (because now I'm doing a degree in Indian art and philosophy) contains 9 gems, each one of which has a particular significance.




I'm here to interview him about how a piece of regular rock, the kind of stuff that anyone can sit on at the side of the road, goes about the process of being transformed into an actual, living embodiment, of actual, only-on-of-them, God with a capital G (which, of course, no-one can touch). I don't know how I've blagged my way into his office, but everyone in South India is assuming because of my age that I'm at the very least a PhD student, and a lot of doors are strangely and very generously opening to me.

He tells me, in a very academic way,  how the process of 'enlivening' through painting in the eye of a temple image takes place and is understood in the texts. Then, to my amazement, he slips seamlessly from his academic, analytical mind into his experiential body, and starts to tell me what it feels like to stand in front of an image of God and receive darshan. Darshan is the moment when the worshipper, standing in the dark womb heart of the temple, in front of the image, looks up, and his eyes meet the eyes of God.

It's like an electric shock, he said.


There it was. The image as transformer, a live conduit, and through it, the viewer of the image is enlivened and transported into a different sense of themselves.

In some traditions, there's only a mirror in the sacred centre of the temple, no image at all. And at the end of the Teyyam ritual in North Kerala, as the possessed dancer is coming out of their trance, they're shown a mirror, to receive darshan of themselves, transformed.








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Thursday, 1 June 2017

the pause continues




It's shocking for me to pause. Ever since I started image-making again, I've been compelled, albeit gently, albeit not necessarily for hours at a time, to keep going. To not fall back as I did so many times before... scared of giving up in the face of the uncertainty of it all, and the strangeness of my chosen practice of trying to 'sit in a room and wait for something to happen' (Anish Kapoor).

I've thought of it recently as 'making space for things arising'. Forcing, intention, trying, pushing, are all quietly shown the door.

Who says that only the actual making of an image is 'working', or whatever it is that this thing is, my life, my correct life, the life that was always trying to breathe itself through me?

In the discomfort of the pause, I strive to stay awake. To stay with it, to feel everything that's present at the same time, all the layers of it, without the release of satisfactory doing.

And one thing that has arisen is the idea of pausing to look at what has appeared over nine years of this process.





These images are communications. They carry a mystery. This whole process is a communication, carries a mystery.

It doesn't do to hurry such things.


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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

'The artist must be blind to distinctions between 'recognised' or 'unrecognised' conventions of form'





'The artist must be blind to distinctions between 'recognised' or 'unrecognised' conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and hearken to its words alone. Then he will with safety employ means both sanctioned and forbidden by his contemporaries. All means are sacred which are called for by the inner need. All means are sinful which obscure the inner need'.

Wassily Kandinsky


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Thursday, 13 April 2017

'You have to watch that your art doesn't become too important'





I am pausing now.

What is the art we make, that we try to birth out of our bodiesheartsexperienceminds? Does it satisfy? If it satisfied, would we need to make more?

Is its purpose to satisfy, or simply to express, in a more immediate, body-emergent way?

But what becomes of expression? If expression is the purpose why all the analysis about whether or not the expression indicates emergence along a desirable path (desirable on own my terms, given that I'm not seeking to contribute to the development of art history or satisfy buyers or gallery owners)?


Notes from my last Paul Oertel workshop:


How is making art separate from identity?

An identity that isn't the artist.

He had to 'have a complete nervous breakdown' in order to separate his work from his identity.

'I don't have to do it right. I can make art not to validate myself but because it's fun and I love it. The art can end tomorrow and I'm ok with it.



You have to watch that your art doesn't become too important.

Be humbled by your own artistry, not glorified by it. You don't feel like it comes from you.



Art deconstructs your identity; it deconstructs fixity of mind.



Create out of your life-given self, as you were born... serving the spirit of life will set you free.

Ego in the service of the life-given spirit, instead of the other way round.







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Saturday, 25 March 2017

How did it come to this?




I've been a little bothered recently by the wonky and not so convincing line that's appeared in my current images, and thought I would look back over my breadcrumb trail to remind myself of how I got to here.

The images above were done about four years after I left St Martin's School of Art, London. I left because what they were teaching me (abstract, conceptual and performance art) made no sense to me (I was 18). In my previous year, at the Berkshire College of Art, I had had a good basic training in drawing techniques and colour theory, and had taken a course in the history of 20th century art and architecture. What was going on at St Martins was alien territory, and it didn't smell right.

I understood the principles of 'Western' aesthetics, had studied the development of ideas about paint and representation; the movement and counter-movements of painting in recent times. I remember very clearly the day our lecturer introduced Malevich's 'white on white', painted in 1918, which is essentially a white square on a white ground. Something jerked me awake and I thought, oh, ok, that's it for painting, I guess. Now what?

After that, I lived in Italy for three years, painting and drawing, while working a day job as an English language teacher. I was in the middle of the Umbrian countryside, drawing and painting one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. And with every single thing I did, I thought, no, not this... no, not this. It was an unconsciously driven process of experimentation leading to elimination; a working through of all the traditions I had been given, and finding nothing in them that interested or excited me.

At the end of the three years, I got a job teaching Tibetan refugees in North India. One day, early on in my time there, I was sitting in my bedroom, looking out at the monsoon clouds gathering across the valley. I was suddenly compelled to make the first drawing in the collage below.




At a certain point in the drawings that followed, my line finally broke free. This was what I had been waiting for, without realising it. Western representational techniques, for all their majesty and wonderful use of paint, simply didn't interest me, for reasons that were a total mystery. But this lively line suddenly dancing on my page was the most exciting thing I had ever seen (reading left to right, pictures 3, 4, 5, and 6.).

I didn't know it at the time, but I was unconsciously searching for one of the principles at the heart of Indian traditions of aesthetics; the idea that a painted or drawn image must convey prana, life-force or breath. Many years later, when I was doing a degree in Indian art and architecture, I would come across a quote in an ancient treatise which said that the painter needed to be able to show with the movement of their line whether a figure lying on the ground was alive or dead. The idea took my breath away.

Some years before that, however, when I was back in India again, I met a young painter who had been studying in England under a painting teacher who taught 'old master' techniques. She reminded me about tonal drawing and taught me some of the things she'd learnt from him. I learnt a lot from her (the last three drawings in the collage above).

And then there was a twenty year break, during which time I did a degree at SOAS in Indian Art, Philosophy and Architecture, and went to India to do two field-based projects in Tamil Nadu. One of these was an architectural project, which involved a lot of drawing (the bottom two pictures on the right in this collage):




During a holiday break from my job as a lecturer in Adult Education in the university sector, later still, I participated in an Earthwatch project which involved documenting old Turkish houses in Kula, Turkey, for an American architectural study (the other drawings in the collage above). Somehow drawing kept raising its head and looking at me.

When I came back to painting in 2008, the work that first appeared was abstract. As I've said before, I was more than a little surprised. I was convinced that I was completely finished with trying to make art, and had always found abstract art quite difficult to respond to.




I'd been using  complexity theory (chaos, fractals...) as a theoretical framework for my critique of adult learning models, so perhaps the appearance of these images is no surprise. I used to say that Complexity was my way of getting Indian philosophy into my theoretical work in Education; perhaps it was also my way of staying connected to the one kind of visual form that had always made sense to me, the shapes and repetitions of the natural world.

A year or so later, I remember wondering on this blog about how my studies of Indian art and philosophy, and my interest in Indian aesthetics (the idea of conveying the movement of life through forms, as opposed to the proportional and muscular accuracy of my own Greek-influenced tradition...) were going to come together.

Eventually, after two trips back to India, and an intensive study of Hoyshala temple carvings and Jain murals...




...the free line managed to find its way back in. One morning my dancers just quietly took off from their Indian roots and began doing their own thing.




Suddenly, they were everywhere. They just would not lie down.

I've always been full of admiration for European and American traditions of using paint; the techniques of using oil and acrylic, building up layers, using tonally blended colour etc. But I've never wanted to do it for some reason. Instead I've always been drawn to translucence, the way that light shines through the paper in watercolour, for example. Light, shining through things... in a way that isn't quite the same as when you add white paint to oil and acrylic pigments.

When I'm painting figures now, I have to keep consciously steering myself away from European drawing habits like seeking out the light source, or wanting to convey that light source using tonal values that are linked to light sources in life. My aesthetic always rejects it. It has to be thin, translucent veils of pure colour, rather than blending and tones.

Sometimes I deliberately mess with the light source...





I have no idea where it's going. I try to simply follow; some fugitive trail laid down by aesthetic experience, study and sensibility that can only be seen/felt if I get out of the way. There's some kind of embodied knowing; an invisible, accumulated store that has accrued through decades of looking and feeling and being. I have to keep going.

In October last year, I came back from my workshop with Paul Oertel in France, and things took a slightly different turn.





It was easy at first. The images just came without thought. But then they started to lose the freshness of line and colour that had so beguiled me when it first appeared. For a while I studied the earlier ones and tried to reproduce that quality. But it was impossible. The minute I start trying to do something, everything turns to lead.

At the moment I've decided that it's evolution and there's nothing I can do about it. I often don't like what comes out, but I've decided to accept whatever it is, and stop trying to make it capture something from an earlier stage.

I've been aesthetically offended by many things that have appeared recently. But then some days later I've sometimes seen something new that's trying to come through.

I feel a kind of relief now that I've stopped trying to constantly trick myself into the conditions that allow for the emergence of the free unconscious line. It's still wonderful when that happens, as it did the other day...





But there are other forms of image coming. This is the latest, in progress...




I can see here how I was trying to get into the state that I know can generate the free line, but it wasn't entirely working. Probably because I had an image (a detail from a carving, for example) in front of me; the quasi-copying process 'from life' seems to be deadening somehow.

This is ironic, if it's true - that working from life, for me, kills the life force in my images!

My current idea is that I need to work with a process that isn't quite this; in fact with the process that I've just realised is what generated the dancers in their freedom. This means that I draw from my image of the carving (either a photo or a drawing done in situ in India); I draw to study,  to learn and internalise the forms and the expression and the things that I love. But then I need to put the source image away, and work with the residue of it, with what's left in memory, mind and heart...

That's my current theory, anyway. Let's see what happens next.




(If the early part of this post seems familiar, I took part in a facebook challenge a year or so ago that involved exploring these same ideas in the history of the evolution of 'the free line'...)

Monday, 13 March 2017

There's more to art than the art world...




Today I read an interview on Hyperallergenic called 'Goodbye to all that: Why do artists reject the art world?'


'Everyone I know thinks the art world as it's set up now, and as it has evolved over the last half-century, is a deeply flawed system, and these artists [those being discussed in the interview]- diversely, sometimes at self-sacrificing cost and sometimes to their benefit - highlight that fact or call it out. Whereas most of us develop our own variant on "oh well". It's possible that the idea of walking out of this world at all, where there's an unspoken assumption that everyone engaged in cultural work is a de facto lifer, strikes some people as "mad"'.


If this was an academic essay, I could go to town on this question. Who do you mean by 'artists'?; are they all doing the same thing?; which art world are you talking about?, what is 'the' art world? etc etc. There's definitely not one art world, and people use the term to mean many different things.

Here are some of the ones I'm aware of, in hierarchical order... At the top, there are galleries where no-one expects anything to sell; where the host space has already bought the work and put it into a collection and is simply putting it on display. Then there are galleries that sell to big investors, because there's an investment market. Then there are galleries that sell to people who are not necessarily looking for an investment, but which take up space in an expensive part of town and charge very high prices. Then there are galleries which try to represent artists who don't sell in the either of these first two types of gallery, which sell at more reasonable prices. There are also galleries who look primarily for things that will sell to tourists and passersby, who don't try to represent anyone in particular but simply want to find what they can sell the most of. And then are various types of online art site, where anyone can post anything and sell to anyone who finds them on the internet.  All of this could be see as 'the art world', and much more that I haven't mentioned.

However, when people refer to 'the art world' in something like the interview above, they're referring to something a little more specific.  This is what I would call an (albeit highly varied)  establishment art world.  That an establishment art world exists is the first thing that confuses me, because I thought that art was meant to be quite a wide and free kind of thing, existing at least in part to mock and challenge institutions and establishments. But as far as I can see there is definitely an establishment thing going on.

It operates and perpetuates itself through 'top galleries', and also through the institutions we know as art schools/colleges. Where you go to learn how to be a free artist, right? Well, no, actually, not really. Art schools are educational institutions. Whether or not you realise this in your first flush of youthful hope and desire (I'm talking here about people who want to be 'fine artists', which in the past would have meant a painter, or sculptor, but which now means something much wider...), you go to art schools to be schooled.... in some version of the prevailing institutional/establishment views about what 'art', or 'contemporary art practice', is. To learn, amongst many other things, what is allowed and what is not allowed in 'serious art'.

When I went to St Martins, London, in the late 1970s, if you were serious about becoming a painter, there was an unspoken rule which said that you could not go anywhere near the life room, or do any other kind of work 'from life'. The real/proper/serious students all worked on very large canvases, and everything they did was abstract.

More recently, I was interested to see in an article on 'Ten Threshold Concepts In Fine Art' that one of the assumptions of a fine art art education in 2011 was the need to move your students from 'aesthetic to conceptual awareness'. There's nothing unreasonable about this idea, and it's perfectly in line with the aims of 'higher' education.

But let's consider it for a moment. Your students most likely arrive with a love of the aesthetic; a desire, perhaps, to work with colour and paint and line and shape... propelled by a big, unexamined soup of visceral and emotional responses to the world. According to the threshold concepts article, it's your job, as their art school lecturer, to shift them away from the soup that brought them to you and teach them:

'...an understanding of the creative process as one which requires critical thinking and idea development through research and reflection conducted using a variety of approaches, methods and materials.'

And there's nothing at all wrong with this. It's exactly what some people want. But this statement reflects a particular view, not only of the purpose of higher education (to develop critical thought etc), but of art as a primarily conceptual affair.  No problem, in principle, unless this becomes an orthodoxy. And that is more or less what has happened; the idea that 'the creative process' should be conceptual  is a highly prevalent institutional/ establishment view. I'm not trying to get into a discussion about what art education should or should not be, my point is that there are certain ideas that are acceptable within current institutional/establishment thinking, and certain ideas that are not.

In the context of higher education institutions, and presumably the preoccupations of different forms of conceptual art (both of which are concerned with how you think ), what is often not so acceptable are things associated with the messy feelings and urges of the physical body (and, dare I mention, the yearning spirit?). I don't mean ideas about the body, which can willingly open themselves up for a wee bit of postmodern deconstruction and contestation. I mean the actual, visceral experience of getting messy with paint. The intense, physical yearning to make marks or form symbols, often without knowing why. The sensation of standing in front of a painting and feeling worlds open up inside your chest. That kind of stuff.

When I left art school and started working abroad, I began to discover some new and different purposes and orientations towards colour, and making, and images, and art, to those I had been schooled in.  In India, for example, I saw that a great deal of art was not made for the purposes of self-expression; it was not something that you made because you were special and had a calling; it was often not made to sell, and in many contexts it was produced without a sense of individual ownership, of either the process or the final product. People were making art everywhere, in temples, in cities, in villages, in shops, on roadsides, in the dust, onto cow dung, into mud. It was the same in Bali. Everyone was making things, for all sorts of different purposes. Art in these places was aesthetic, it was narrative, it was symbolic; art was visceral, and it came out of and affected people's bodies, often in the service of things that were not so physical.

Thirty years later, after living and working in Italy, North India, Japan and Australia, I started to paint again. No-one was more surprised than me. Not only that I was painting, but with the images that started to appear.





'It's also the case that nobody begins with a withdrawal [from the art world], or without somehow 'earning' the right to leave


Strangely, I did. I began with a withdrawal.  And though I did almost no work for those thirty years, somehow my connection to image and colour and texture and paint only went to sleep, it didn't die. I wrote a story when I was 16 called 'Stuck in Thick Red' which was about a man who got into a bath of paint every day just for the joy of it. Aesthetic, visceral, emotional, bodily. Completely unfashionable then, and pretty much still unfashionable now.

I never tried to join the establishment art world, and I don't want to join it now. I'm not interested in whether or not I'm moving art history on, or whether or not someone in a New York gallery thinks that my work will 'fit'.

I'm following a breadcrumb trail, and at each step, it satisfies me to share what I find, with anyone who cares to look.






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Friday, 3 March 2017

'People will think I can't draw'





I quite regularly have a little conversation with myself as I make my work. It goes something like this:

A. 'But look how wonky that line/hand/leg is!'

B. 'I know, that just seems to be what happens when you don't draw first in pencil... when you just draw in a kind of free, unthinking way, in response to an idea or an image...'

A. 'Well, you could practice, so that when you draw free like that with a pen your line would be more accurate'

B. 'You just don't get it, do you? I've done loads of drawing 'practice'. I can make something very accurate if I want to. But I've never wanted that kind of drawing. It seems pointless to me. Of course it's what people who look, and perhaps people who don't draw, love. They're culturally conditioned to be impressed with factual accuracy in drawing, they can't help themselves. It's probably them I'm thinking about as another wonky line comes out.

A. 'But why do you think of them, who cares?

B. 'Now you're talking. The minute I think about them, I just step in front of that thought with another one, which says. Oh for fuck's sake! Why on earth would you want to make a technically impressive accurate-in-some-way drawing? Millions of people already do that. Millions of people have spent years improving their hand/eye coordination until they can do that just perfectly.

As 21st century culture we can do accuracy, we can do sophistication, we can do cleverness. We go on doing it, over and over again, and it's technically and aesthetically satisfying to us, to do, and to see. But the question for me, and it's only for me, is what's the point of that? Another pleasing, accurate image. It still impresses me when it's done by others. But as a maker of images, that bores me.

I'm interested in images not as cultural markers of a dedication to cleverness, but as expressions of human experience. What happens when the human hand picks up a stick and goes free, in response to an idea, a dream or a body-shaking fear? What can images be as expressions available to anyone, with  or without years of technical practice? It's something quite contrary in me, that, despite 'being able to draw' a lot of what I make suggests that 'I can't'.

It's something to do with that thing in classical Indian traditions about images expressing life-force, breath - the line or image as an expression of something living, experiential. For me that's also about wonkiness and imperfection; and also about the message potentially encoded in a symbol or a visual idea which leaves the image open to interpretation by the viewer, rather than simply feeling wowed (and often alienated from the world of creativity) by reproductive accuracy.

I sometimes think about offering workshops that would provide this opportunity for anyone at all to work free with symbols and imagination; for the sheer joy of the sensation of making a pen move through ink, or of making a field of colour.  I'd like to find a way to take away ordinary people's fear of working with definite, symbolic imagery. So that instead of saying, 'oh, I don't know how to draw an eye' and feeling depressed at the lack of accuracy in their marks (people think accuracy is gift or talent, but it's not, anyone can learn to draw...), they would be able to dive into the world of their lived, embodied experience and create out of that without fear. '





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