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David Diao
2015.9.19 - 2015.11.15
Great Hall
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Through his symbolic painterly rhetoric, David Diao transforms the formal language of New York abstraction through his personal narrative.

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is proud to announce the solo exhibition David Diao, running from 19 September to 15 November, 2015. The retrospective brings together 115 artworks drawn from collections spanning North America, Europe, and Asia, the artist’s largest exhibition to date. Born in Chengdu in 1943, David Diao left mainland China for Hong Kong in 1949, later settling in America where he has lived for nearly six decades.

His early work is profoundly influenced by the New York School of abstract painting. Starting from this exceptional moment in art history, he gradually transformed this authoritative aesthetic tradition by extending its language to individual experience. The painterly narratives that underpin his work—reflections on how we evaluate the modern masters, systems of artistic production, identity, and memories of his family and his ancestral home—have come to characterize a unique mode of symbolic signification.

Throughout his career, David Diao has shown a profound interest in the history of abstraction. From the 1960s until the late 70s, Diao sought to build on and break through the complex theoretical foundation laid by his artistic predecessors. Diao looked to the formal language of abstract painting, reflecting on and revising the predominant aesthetic discourses through his work. In works like Wealth of Nations (1972), Diao repurposed cardboard tubes discarded by garment factories as tools to apply paint to the canvas, disempowering superficial notions of the “aura” of the artist’s brushstroke. He would paint over the bilateral canvas again and again until arriving at a satisfactory result—a working method at odds with the Greenbergian painting principles that were taken as consensus at the time. By naming abstract paintings after well-known books and movies in lieu of the standard “Untitled,” Diao referenced objects external to the picture plane, a practice verboten in doctrinaire formalism that would inevitably risk being labeled kitsch.

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Diao took a brief hiatus, partly due to what the artist felt was an unresolvable crisis facing abstraction and formalism. It was at this time that Diao abandoned entirely self-referential artworks, incorporating narrative as a thematic buttress to the painting’s composition. The 1984 work Glissement, which appears in this exhibition, is a landmark piece from this period. Based on a renowned photograph of Kazimir Malevich’s landmark presentation in “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10,” Diao overlays the paintings that comprised this spatial installation onto a single, compressed canvas. Diao’s fluid sense of time and space sits at odds with Malevich’s rejection of figurative reproduction, even as they both pursue extreme flattening in two-dimensional art. Writing in Artforum, renowned critic Thomas Lawson said of this piece, “With the work Glissement, [David Diao] reinvented his practice as a droll examination of shifting realities in art, history and personal experience.” Himself an adroit observer of modernist art, Diao began to see art and the history that surrounds it as a game, as something to be engaged in contest. In the Little Suprematist Prisons, Diao attempts to reconcile the formal styles of Kazimir Malevich and Robert Motherwell in the same compositions, putting the two painters into a putative conversation. Though often considered within the same modernist tradition, Russian abstract art, once at the forefront of European abstract painting, was largely dismissed in Clement Greenberg’s Cold War-tinged narrative of formalism. Similarly, in Tree (1988) Diao writes the names of several modern artists on the sprawling geometry of Malevich’s Suprematism (Supremus #50) as if it were a broken genealogy of European abstract art, relationships of influence in disarray.

Other works address the systems that support art, in particular institutions tasked with critically evaluating artists. Most prominent among these is a series of canvases based on the art of Barnett Newman, one of Diao’s artistic idols. In 1990 Diao read that in his 27-year career, Newman only painted 120 artworks in the style for which he was known. Fascinated by the disparity between Newman’s enormous influence and relative paucity of works, Diao began to research various metrics related to Newman’s output, displaying this information in a series of graphical paintings. These seemingly “abstract” paintings suggest that quantitative measures of an artist’s practice amount to nothing more than trivial bits of information, immaterial to the true value of art. At the time he was making these works, Diao was also over twenty years into his own career, prompting him to consider his life and work with Newman’s as an implicit foil. In Résumé (1991), the artist depicts his complete exhibition history as a series of lists by year; in the same vein, he also began incorporating other aspects of his career—studio floor plans, sales records, positive and negative reviews—into his artworks. The banal realities that underlie the life of the artist are thus transformed into a language of symbols. In doing so he deconstructs the romantic notion of the artist as solitary genius, replacing it with the banal realities of a career with its ups and downs. The exhibition’s Chinese title is in part inspired by the artwork David Diao: A Retrospective (Chinese) (1995), one of a series of paintings of ”invitations” to imaginary exhibitions at major institutions including MoMA and the Centre Pompidou.

Other works from the 1990s engage directly with then-current conversations around multiculturalism and identity politics. In pieces such as Twin Dragons (1999) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1994), Diao mobilizes imagery including film stills of Bruce Lee (considered by Diao “the most famous Asian man in American culture”) and the Swedish actor Nils Asther playing a Shanghai warlord in a 1933 Hollywood film. In Pardon Me, Your Chinoiserie is Showing (1993), he makes a textual image from a riposte to a leading French curator’s misguided comment during a meeting that “you’re not really a Chinese artist.”

Since the mid-2000s, Diao’s art has taken a more autobiographical tack. Faced with his first solo exhibition in Beijing in 2008, and understanding that local audiences might not be as familiar with the modernist histories he often addresses, Diao artist decided to meet them halfway by using his childhood home—the Da Hen Li House in Chengdu—as the subject of a major cycle of paintings. For this project, Diao interviewed several of his family members now living in the U.S., turning their (often conflicting) recollections and other supplementary materials into a group of paintings that implicitly concedes the impossibility of objective truth, particularly where memory is concerned. In his most recent works, Diao depicts memories of his childhood in Hong Kong, where he lived on Chatham Road in Tsim Sha Tsui from 1949 to 1955. With these paintings, Diao, one of the most introspective contemporary artists to emerge in the past few decades, connects his practice to the artistic ecology of China.

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Download “David Diao” press release.

About the Exhibition

David Diao is curated by UCCA Director Philip Tinari with Felicia Chen, and designed by Christian Bjone. The exhibition catalogue is published with support from Frank F. Yang Art and ESLITE GALLERY, and Artron Art (Group) Co., Ltd. Airline sponsorship comes from AIR CHINA. Coinciding with the public opening is an exhibition symposium entitled “David Diao: Which Way Up?” Other programs include “Building Memory: David Diao’s Return to Da Hen Li House,” “David Diao, American Artist—Forum on Late Twentieth Century American Painting,” and a series of screenings entitled “David Diao: Documents of Diaspora.”

 

About the Artist

A transplant to New York via Hong Kong, David Diao (b. 1943, Chengdu) graduated from Kenyon College in 1964 and has taught at Hampshire College, The Cooper Union, and the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Diao has a long history of notable exhibitions, most recently including the Whitney Biennial 2014 and a solo exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. His works have been collected by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Hirshhorn Museum, and M+, Hong Kong. In 2014, the University of Strasbourg hosted a seminar focused on his work.

 

Odd Man Out, 1974_cmyk

Odd Man Out, Early works, 1960s-1970s

David Diao’s earliest works are best understood in the context of the debates around painting that were unfolding during the years he was making them, the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the postwar triumph of the Abstract Expressionists, painters and critics of the following decades looked for formal breakthroughs, interrogating concepts like composition, mark-making, and the flatness of the picture plane. Diao came up with a series of responses, making “allover” paintings that had no center, using ordinary objects like squeegees to spread paint, letting the stretcher bars show through his canvas, and in one case even showing an unfinished plaster gallery wall as a work of art.

Here are examples of two key series from that period. The first series uses salvaged cardboard tubes to “scrape, roll, or drag repeated layers of paint across the entire canvas… until something happened to my liking,” creating two-sided abstractions that read like open books. “I was determined to go against Clement Greenberg’s advice to painters to cut off and crop the painted canvas in order to find the final work. Instead, mine indexes everything that happened on it,” Diao has said. The second series, begun after he moved studios and returned to painting with brushes on the wall, consists of freehand compositions made entirely from geometric forms, and given titles drawn from movies and books, in subtle protest against the reigning practice of eliminating narrative content by naming works “Untitled.” These geometric works connect to a twentieth-century European modernist tradition which Diao would continue to explore. These early works reappear later in Diao’s career, notably in Plus and Minus (1991), where positive and negative reviews are silkscreened directly onto the paintings they originally discussed.

 

Glissement, 1984_cmyk

Glissement, Breakthrough, 1984-1986

David Diao took a brief hiatus from painting during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period punctuated by his first visit back to Chengdu after three decades in 1979. When he began painting again, he found a path beyond the pure, formal abstractions of his earlier period by incorporating images and concepts drawn from modern art history. Glissement (1984), based on a 1915 photograph of an exhibition by Kazimir Malevich, became a way for Diao to relate to a canonical image on his own terms by allowing the contours of the paintings in the photograph to slide among each other. He continued to make many further paintings exploring different aspects of this image in a loose notion of seriality found throughout his work. In the Little Suprematist Prisons (1986), Diao proposes, towards the end of the Cold War, an imaginary link between Russian Suprematism and American Abstract Expressionism, creating a series of compositions that play on Robert Motherwell’s The Little Spanish Prison (1944) in the style of Malevich and his peers. Key to both bodies of work, and many that follow, is the idea of a slippery history that can be appropriated, commented upon, and remade through the act of painting.

 

Let a 100 Flowers Bloom, 1988

Let a 100 Flowers Bloom, Excavating modernism, 1980s

In the 1980s Diao became deeply interested in the contesting visions and versions of modernism that had flourished throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Of particular attraction to him were schools such as de Stijl, the Bauhaus, and Constructivism, for whom advanced aesthetics were part of a larger social vision. Glancing knowingly at their contrasting, sometimes contesting ideologies, Diao juxtaposed these schools in works such as Let a 100 Flowers Bloom (1988) in which the logos of these movements contend for dominance. For Diao, an affection for these schools and their collective, revolutionary politics was also a way of expressing dissatisfaction with a triumphalist American version of art history in which individual genius reigned supreme.

 

Résumé, left panel, 1991_cmyk

Résumé, Self-analysis and self-critique, 1990s

As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Diao—a quintessential insider of the New York scene whose career had nonetheless experienced multiple ups and downs—began to think in his work about his position and its relation to the larger dynamics of the art world and its politics. Using strategies of data visualization not yet prevalent, he gave direct form to information not generally discussed in polite company: his sales records, studio floorplans, visits from curators and collectors, and even his curriculum vitae. He followed this with a series of invitations to imaginary exhibitions that he felt he deserved but knew he would never get—retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, and an unspecified location in China. In Synecdoche (1993), Diao even goes so far as to edit a catalogue essay on the German painter Gerhard Richter by the art historian Benjamin Buchloh so that all mentions and images of Richter’s work are replaced with his own. Diao’s personal reflections contain a hint of the universal, encapsulating the distinct psychology of the (somewhat) “successful” artist in the face of the ever-expanding machinery of the global art world.

 

The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1994

The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Identity politics, 1990s

Having been educated in the United States since age twelve, Diao has always worked within a Western art historical lineage. Indeed, “Chineseness” was never an outright subject or context in Diao’s painting. And yet as discourses of globalization and multiculturalism became ascendant in the 1990s, and as “contemporary Chinese art” gained international visibility, Diao was increasingly forced to reckon with the perception of himself as a Chinese artist. In one particular instance, a well-known French curator remarked after meeting Diao in Paris that “You are not really a Chinese artist”—ironic to Diao as he had never really seen himself as one to begin with. In further works from this period, Diao contemplated his own relation to his ethnicity, sometimes using the image of Bruce Lee, perhaps the most recognized Asian man in the mainstream American consciousness, as his surrogate on the canvas. By confronting racism directly, Diao was continuing the same project of self-understanding that underlies his autobiographical works. He was also responding to a much larger conversation in the United States about how race, class, and gender inform aesthetic values and art-historical hierarchies.

 

Sitting in Perfect Arrangement, 2004_cmyk

Sitting in Perfect Arrangement, Philip Johnson and the Glass House, 2000s

Diao’s ongoing passion for modernist architecture led him to create a group of works around the greatest American icon of the genre, Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Johnson (1906-2005), a disciple of Mies van der Rohe and the founding curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, designed and built the house as a retreat in the upscale suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1949. He died there in his sleep a few months before his 99th birthday in 2005. In one painting, Diao lounges in the living room as if he owns the house; others make reference to Johnson’s exacting arrangement for the furniture—which he compared to the details of the medieval cathedral at Chartres—in light of the fact that the white wool rug shrinks with each washing, altering the proportions. Diao remains fascinated both by Johnson’s supremely elegant and exacting vision, and by the ways in which entropy always interrupts such visions.

 

Paintings in Scale, 1991_cmyk

The Paintings in Scale, Barnett Newman as icon and example, 1990s-2010s

Of all the modern masters with whom Diao has conversed in his work, none has captivated him more deeply than the painter Barnett Newman (1905-1970), whom he considers “the most intellectual of the Abstract Expressionists.” As a young painter in New York, Diao helped to install Newman’s most important exhibition, “Stations of the Cross,” at the Guggenheim in 1966. Years later, as he started taking stock of his own career, Diao realized that Newman’s god-like reputation had been built from only 120 paintings. “Measured against his enormous influence on me and others, it certainly puts into question the convention that great artists are prolific. I wanted to make my astonishment visible and chose a Newmanesque scale and format to do so,” he has said. Diao thus went about visualizing Newman’s output in lists, as icons, as explorations of particularly productive or unproductive years. In using the canvas to address and convey such detailed factual information, Diao sought “a way to escape grand universalist claims often made for abstract painting,” even as he created powerful abstractions of his own.

 

Push_Pull, 1989

Push / Pull, Investigating the New York avant-garde, 1990s-2000s

David Diao is perhaps above all a New York artist, and as such has a great fondness for the intricacies of the artists, and the art histories, that the city has produced. He reserves a great combination of respect and trepidation for the genealogy of modern art put forth by MoMA’s founding director Alfred Barr, a provisional flowchart of influence that hardened into orthodoxy. He regards fondly the overwhelming critical influence once held by the dueling critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, a tension he makes clear in the painting Push / Pull. He retains an abashed fondness for the Abstract Expressionists and the mythologies surrounding them, driving artists of his own later generation to purchase plots in the cemetery where many of them rest.

 

M&M (Melnikov & Malevich), 2012

M & M (Melnikov and Malevich), Return to the Russian avant-garde, ca. 2015

Diao’s recurring fascination with Constructivism and architecture led him to Konstantin Melnikov, who, after having been one of the most active figures in the twenties avant-garde circles of Russia, refused to yield to Stalin’s mandate to build uniform structures and had his license taken away in the 1930s. Melnikov is best known for his own house in Moscow, consisting of two intersecting cylinders with hexagonal windows and built between 1926 and 1929. In this group of works Diao explores the unique properties of this building, which began life as a utopian manifesto but ultimately became a prison for its owner. Playing on the shared initials of Melnikov and Malevich, he also looks for other similarities between their lives and works–from their similar predicaments under the Soviet system, right down to the recurring element of a Thonet chair that appears in both the photograph on which Diao’s painting Glissement (1984) is based and a photograph of the Melnikov house interior.

 

I lived there until I was 6..

I Lived There Until I Was 6…, The Da Hen Li Cycle, ca. 2008

Invited in 2007 to make his first exhibition in mainland China, Diao sought a method to “meet halfway” an audience who would not be familiar with the modernist references of his usual work. He settled upon the idea of his childhood home, the Da Hen Li House in the center of Chengdu, which he left when he fled China in 1949 at age six and never saw again. Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic, the house was converted to the headquarters of the Sichuan Daily. It was demolished shortly before Diao returned to China for the first time in 1979. No photographs or plans remained.

 

107- Kowloon Lower Manhattan, 2014

Kowloon / Lower Manhattan, Revisiting the refugee years, ca. 2015

After fleeing Chengdu with his paternal grandparents, Diao spent five and a half years living as a refugee in Hong Kong before moving to join his father in New York in 1955. In the leadup to this exhibition, Diao began to reflect on this hitherto unexplored period in his own life. These paintings map the area where he lived—the tip of the Kowloon peninsula—in relation to the China he had left behind and the Manhattan he would come to inhabit.

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David Diao
  • Glissement (detail)
  • 1984
  • Acrylic on canvas
  • 178 x 254 cm
  • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
Works in the Exhibition
 / 9 1
    • David Diao
    • Wealth of Nations
    • 1972
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 213.5 x 335.5 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Morocco
    • 1975
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 213.5 x 396 cm
    • Private Collection.
    • David Diao
    • Glissement
    • 1984
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 178 x 254 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Black and White with Chair
    • 1984-1988
    • Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas
    • 213 x 274 cm
    • Courtesy the Collection Fonds regional d'art contemporain Bretagne.
    • David Diao
    • Map-Red, Yellow, Blue
    • 1985
    • Gouache on printed paper
    • 166 x 160 cm
    • Courtesy the Collection Le Consortium, Dijon.
    • David Diao
    • Russian Constructivism
    • 1987
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 213.5 x 213. cm
    • Courtesy Museum d' Moderne, Saint Etienne.
    • David Diao
    • Seal/Zeal
    • 1987
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 213.5 x 213.5 cm
    • Courtesy Collection of Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
    • David Diao
    • Skating on Thin Ice
    • 1987
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 223.5 x 335 cm
    • Courtesy ESLITE gallery, Taipei.
    • David Diao
    • Let a 100 Flowers Bloom
    • 1988
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 213 x 274 cm
    • Courtesy Yageo Foundation Collection.
    • David Diao
    • Cardinal Rule: Beware of False Friends
    • 1988
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 226 x 282 cm
    • Courtesy M+, Hong Kong.
    • David Diao
    • Tree
    • 1988
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 213.5 x 213.5 cm
    • Private Collection.
    • David Diao
    • Of 2 Squares
    • 1989
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 122 x 183 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Geo and Non-Geo
    • 1990
    • Acrylic and vinyl on canvas
    • 148 x 366 cm
    • Courtesy Main Trend Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • The Paintings in Scale (Blue)
    • 1991
    • Acrylic and vinyl on canvas
    • 198 x 335 cm
    • Courtesy the Artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Sales 2
    • 1991
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 167.5 x 213.5 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Studio
    • 1991
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 168 x 137 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Pardon Me, Your Chinoiserie is Showing
    • 1993
    • Acrylic and vinyl on canvas
    • 152.5 x 183 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • The View from Past 50: 1/2 Full, 1/2 Empty
    • 1993
    • Marker on raw canvas
    • 96.5 x 76 cm
    • Private Collection.
    • David Diao
    • Synecdoche
    • 1993
    • Collage and silkscreen on canvas
    • 57 x 96.5 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • The Bitter Tea of General Yen
    • 1994
    • Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas
    • 190.5 x 117 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Carton d'Invitation
    • 1994
    • Acrylic, silkscreen and vinyl on canvas
    • 193 x 244 cm
    • Private Collection.
    • David Diao
    • Slanted MoMA
    • 1995
    • Acrylic and vinyl on canvas
    • 117 x 178 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Retrospective (in Chinese)
    • 1995
    • Acrylic and rice paper on canvas
    • 152.5 x 101.5 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Office Baroque Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Twin Dragons
    • 1999
    • Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas
    • 183 x 396.5 cm
    • Private Collection.
    • David Diao
    • Lying 1
    • 2000
    • Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas
    • 200.5 x 292 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Endangered Species 3
    • 2004
    • Acrylic, silkscreen and vinyl on canvas
    • 200.5 x 292 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • The Rug, It Shrank!
    • 2004-2005
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 183 x 274.4 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin.
    • David Diao
    • Salon 2
    • 2010
    • Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas
    • 226 x 335 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • M&M (Malevich & Matisse)
    • 2010
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 172.5 x 224 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Office Baroque, Brussels.
    • David Diao
    • Open: Surrender and Mourn
    • 2011
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 122 x 264 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Double Rejection 1
    • 2012
    • Acrylic, silkscreen and inkjet print on canvas
    • 91.5 x 198 cm
    • Courtesy Frank F.Yang Art and Education Foundation.
    • David Diao
    • Home Again
    • 2013
    • Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas
    • 274 x 127 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • All That I Remember
    • 2013
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 106.5 x 198 cm
    • Courtesy M+, Hong Kong.
    • David Diao
    • The Unfinished Paintings 2
    • 2014
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 213.5 x 106.5 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • She Was a Neighbor
    • 2014
    • Acrylic and paper on canvas
    • 223.5 x 172.5 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
    • David Diao
    • Chatham Rd to Franklin St.
    • 2014
    • Acrylic on canvas
    • 76 x 294.5 cm
    • Courtesy the artist and Postmasters Gallery.
Installation Views
Related Programs
    • 2015.11.7
      Building Memory: David Diao’s Return to Da Hen Li House
      14:00-15:30
      Auditorium
    • 2015.10.11
      David Diao: Documents of Diaspora
      17:00-19:00
      Auditorium
    • 2015.10.11
      David Diao: Documents of Diaspora
      14:00-16:00
      Auditorium
    • 2015.10.5
      David Diao: Documents of Diaspora
      18:00-20:00
      Auditorium
    • 2015.10.4
      David Diao: Documents of Diaspora
      18:00-20:00
      Auditorium
    • 2015.9.19
      David Diao: Which Way Up?
      Exhibition Symposium
      14:00-16:00
      Auditorium
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Videos
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  • Interview with David Diao
    3'18''
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