Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty Essay Writing

This is the official website for information regarding the internationally renowned American artist Robert Smithson. A part of the Holt-Smithson Foundation (, the Estate of Robert Smithson is exclusively represented by James Cohan Gallery, New York ( This site was written and compiled by Elyse Goldberg (, Liaison for the Estate of Robert Smithson.

Smithson, visionary artist, a pioneer of land art, is most well known for his provocative earthwork, Spiral Jetty, 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah. Smithson is internationally renowned for his art and critical writings which challenged traditional notions of contemporary art between 1964- 1973. His work and writing continues to inspire each new generation decades after his passing in 1973. Smithson's works are featured prominently in major museum collections such as The Museum of Modern Art, new York, New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo (see Collections).

The site is intended to be educational, and is not a comprehensive catalogue. Contained within is a selection of work arranged chronologically in categories, beginning in 1961 with his early collage and language drawings, and moving into his emblematic works on paper, crystalline structures, Nonsites, earthworks, photographs and films. A complete biography of Smithson's exhibition history is posted as well as a bibliography. The essay section is inclusive of writings by and about Smithson, and features a selection of interviews conducted with the artist. The site will be updated with forthcoming exhibitions and events as they occur.

    "...the artist seeks.... the fiction that reality will sooner or later imitate."
    Robert Smithson from "A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art," 1968
Since the mid-sixties and at the onset of the 21st century, Robert Smithson remains one of the most influential and original artists whose voice has had a major impact on artists of his generation, and continues to do so today. His complex ideas took root in many forms: drawings, projects and proposals, sculpture, earthworks, films and critical writings. Smithson's provocative and seminal works, made in the mid-sixties to early seventies, redefined the language of sculpture.

He was one of the founders of the art form known as earthworks or land art, and is most well-known for Spiral Jetty, 1970, located in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. This monumental earthwork was inspired in part when Smithson saw the Great Serpent Mound, a Pre-Columbian Indian monument in southwestern Ohio. The earthworks were a radical departure from making formal objects situated in a gallery setting. Spiral Jetty embodied one of his goals, which was to place work in the land rather than situated on the land. Smithson's earthworks defined an entirely original notion of landscape. Dissatisfied with the status quo, Smithson did not limit himself to any one form or style of art. He moved beyond modernism's hermetic tendencies by abandoning formalism, rules and traditional art materials. Smithson's oeuvre, as an artist and writer, defied convention and produced works that could not be easily categorized. He utilized non-traditional art materials such as language, mirrors, maps, dump trucks, abandoned quarries, hotels, contractors, and earth to produce his radical sculptures, photographs, films, and earthworks.

Beginning in 1964, he emerged with minimal-like structures that veered away from minimalism's closed systems. Robert Hobbs stated "Smithson was not strictly a minimalist. He used the vocabulary of minimalism... clean geometric forms, industrially fabricated parts, the look of a way of pointing out the weaknesses of systems and networks," (Robert Smithson: Sculpture, Robert Hobbs, Cornell University Press, 1981). One such work that exemplifies these early investigations is Enantiamorphic Chambers, a wall work that structurally has two identical chambers that incorporate mirrors. Smithson has said of this piece, "If art is about vision, can it also be about non-vision...its form is a bi-polar notion that comes out of crystal structures...two separate things that relate to each other. Enantiamorphic Chambers, there is...the indication of a kind of dialectical thinking that would emerge later very strongly in the Nonsites."

Importantly, Smithson stated when interviewed by Paul Cummings that "Enantiamorphic Chambers freed me from all these preoccupations with history; I was dealing with grids and planes...empty surfaces. The crystalline forms suggested mapping."

Embodied in all of Smithson's endeavors was his interest in entropy, mapping, paradox, language, landscape, popular culture, anthropology, and natural history. This is evident in works he created such as Heap of Language, King Kong Meets the Gem of Egypt, Enantiamorphic Chambers, A Nonsite - Pine Barren's New Jersey, Yucatan Mirror Displacements, Partially Buried Woodshed, Asphalt Rundown and Spiral Jetty.

Entropy was a theme that consistently ran throughout Smithson's art and writings. He explored his ideas involving decay and renewal, chaos and order with what came to be known as his Nonsites and Earthworks. Smithson spoke at great length in interviews and essays on entropy and his notion of time. In Entropy and the New Monuments he wrote "...the urban sprawl, and the infinite number of housing developments of the postwar boom have contributed to the architecture of entropy" and that "entropy is a condition that is moving toward a gradual equilibrium." Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, Kent State University, Kent State, was a piece Smithson created on site during an invitational arts festival. He located an abandoned woodshed and poured earth on to the structure until it cracked. This work is a prime example of Smithson's visualization of entropy and time, leaving it to be "subject to weathering, which should be considered part of the piece." This quote is from a statement Smithson signed when he donated the work to Kent State University.

Smithson developed a significant body of work that engaged complexity and oppositions: nature/culture (Aerial Map-Proposal for Dallas - Fort Worth Airport), language as material (Heap of Language), space and time (Spiral Jetty Film), monuments and the anti-monument (earthworks such as Spiral Jetty), displacement and landmark (Map of Broken Glass, Atlantis). Mirrors were major elements in Smithson's early structures and continued to play a major role in his later Nonsites and Displacements, begun in 1968. He said, "mirror in a sense is both the physical mirror and the reflection." It is "a concept and abstraction"... a displacement "of properties."

A Nonsite - Pine Barrens, New Jersey was Smithson's first Nonsite. It was constructed in 1968, in a remote area of southern New Jersey. On looking for sites he stated "I began in a very primitive way...started taking trips in 1965; certain sites would appeal to me more--sites that had been in some way disrupted...pulverized. I was really looking for a denaturalization rather than built up scenic beauty...when you take a trip you need precise data and I would often use quadrangle maps; mapping followed traveling" (from “Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson,” The Writings of Robert Smithson). Smithson's Nonsites were radical in both idea and construction. The Nonsite was map, a 'landmarker'. These pieces were constructed primarily from natural materials he chose from remote, unpopulated areas, or the ruins of collapsed buildings. The materials from this site were brought into the gallery, placed in constructed bins, with maps or situated within mirror formations.

The Nonsites, created a dialectic between the outdoors and indoors, and were examples of Smithson's explorations into sight and its simile - site, displacement and location. Literal and allegorical, the Nonsites confounded the illusion of materiality and order. The mirrors functioned to order and displace, to add and subtract, while the sediments, displaced from its original site, blur distinctions between outdoors and indoors as well as refer the viewer back to the site where the materials were originally collected. Lawrence Alloway has stated in his essay “Sites/Nonsites,” from the book The Writings of Robert Smithson, "the relation of a Nonsite to the Site is also like that of language to the world: it is a signifier and the Site is that which is signified."

Conceptually the Displacements differ from the Nonsites. Displacements were works that incorporated mirrors or structures made from natural elements temporarily sited in the land, such as Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1969, Mirror Displacements (Brambles), England, 1969. These works were never intended to be permanent pieces as Smithson had said in “Fragments of a Conversation,” "I don't leave the mirrors there. I pick them up. It's different from the site/nonsite...It's another level of process that I'm exploring. A different level of containment."

Smithson developed a wide variety of photographic works - none of which dealt with traditional composition or conventional image making. One such work, Spiral Jetty Film Stills, 1970, is a three-paneled composite photowork of black and white images that were taken during the making of Spiral Jetty. Other photographic works incorporated collage with text or maps. Smithson also produced a unique body of photographs that were based on his Displacement pieces called Slideworks, the format of which is 35mm slide transparencies. These photographs are simultaneously artwork and document and are not a formal rendering of the landscape in traditional photographic terms. Like the materials in the Nonsites, the images themselves become displacements. Oolite Island, Sunken Island, both 1971, Yucatan Mirror Displacements 1-9, 1969, and Hotel Palenque, 1969-72 are some examples of Smithson's Slideworks.

In 1970 Smithson moved his work outside of the gallery walls to concentrate entirely on earthworks such as Spiral Jetty, Partially Buried Woodshed, and Amarillo Ramp. At this time a small group of artists were engaged in reformulating their ideas of art in relationship to the land. These endeavors in the land enabled Smithson to explore chaos and order-how natural forces such as wind, rain, heat and cold, would affect the work over time. Artist Nancy Holt, to whom Smithson was married 1963-73, has said of Spiral Jetty... "In its scale and ideas, this sculpture embodies the spirit of some of the great monuments of past civilizations yet it is wholly contemporary in concept and execution."

The earthworks enabled Smithson to deal with his concerns regarding art in the land, while simultaneously producing an artform that was non-commercial, existing outside of the traditional viewing spaces. It could not be owned or seen easily. The earthworks, with the exception of Broken Circle/Spiral Hill, which was constructed in a public area in Holland, are known by most only through photographs. After Smithson's plane crashed while photographing the site for Amarillo Ramp, Philip Leider, who published Smithson's writings in Artforum, stated that "Smithson died in the midst of a meditation on nature and art as original as any since Cezanne."

The rich legacy of Smithson's contributions as a writer and artist remains an unending source of inspiration. Lawrence Alloway notes in his essay “Site/Nonsite,” that when Smithson wrote A Sedimentation of the Mind, he (Smithson) "explicitly aligns geological change with the process of thought....landscape, then becomes analogous to the human condition or at least of our communications" and that Smithson in his writings and in his work "acknowledged complexity and contradiction as a working condition."

Smithson's influence on future generations is unquestioned, as is evidenced by the number of continuing essays, new publications, and numerous exhibitions both group and solo currently planned for the artist.

Quotations from the artist taken from:

The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt, New York University Press, 1979.

Robert Smithson: Sculpture, Robert Hobbs, Cornell University Press, 1981.

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Smithson was also a prodigious, witty and visionary writer. Smithson's writing on land, western culture and the 'nature of objects' positioned a new critique of art. His writings gave voice publicly to his art and the art of his time. Smithson also used writing as an artform, as is evidenced in Quasi Infinities and the Waning of Space that appeared in Arts Magazine, November 1966. In that essay language is utilized as image, and image functions as text/footnotes. Smithson's infamous essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, published in Artforum, 1967, was his vision of contemporary monuments - entropic ruins from the industrial landscape, factories, bridges, sprawling metaphors of our social condition, whose pathologies became urban detritus - and stood in opposition to the great pyramids and other architectural wonders built to honor human endeavor.

His writings were published in the book The Writings of Robert Smithson, published in 1979, by New York University Press and in 1996 a revised and expanded edition was published by University of California Press, Berkeley, California.

In November of 2000 a new publication of The Writings of Robert Smithson appeared in German, edited by Eva Schmidt and Kai Voeckler, published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koenig, Cologne.

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This site is meant to be educational tool, and is not a comprehensive catalogue of all of Smithson's artworks. Works posted date from 1961-1973.

The site is broken down into categories:Earthworks, Sculptures, Drawings, Photographs, Films, Biography, Bibliography, and Essays. The works are arranged chronologically within each category.

Works selected for the site contains examples of Smithson's early explorations with language (Heap of Language), collage drawings (St. John in the Desert), and sculptures that embodied a post beat and pop art sensibility (Quick Millions) as well as his more well known Drawings, Nonsites, Displacements, Photoworks, Films, and Earthworks.

Detailed biographical and bibliographical materials are presented here which are representative of Smithson's solo and group exhibitions. The bibliography cites articles, reviews, essays, interviews, books and catalogues, films and public collections.

In the category Essays, a selection of Smithson's writings are posted as are interviews with the artist. Additionally, the Essays section will consist of a assortment articles, reviews, and writings on Smithson by various critics and scholars.

Upcoming exhibitions and events regarding the artist will be posted as they occur.

For further information regarding Smithson's work, please contact Elyse Goldberg or write to Elyse Goldberg/James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th Street, New York, New York, 10001. Tel: (212) 714 9500 Fax: (212) 714 9510

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Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1965
Plunge, 1966
Terminal, 1966
Mirror Stratum, 1966
Aerial Map-Proposal for Dallas - Fort Worth Regional Airport, 1967
A Nonsite, Franklin, New Jersey, summer, 1968
Gravel Mirror with Cracks and Dust, 1968
Mirrors and Shelly Sand, 1970


St. John in the Desert, circa 1961-63
Wondering Earth Mounds and Gravel Paths, 1967
Map of Clear Broken Glass (Atlantis), 1969
Cement Flow, 1969
Museum of the Void, 1969
Spiral Jetty in Red Salt Water, circa 1970
Unedited 16mm Takes-Emmen Holland, 1971
Towards the Development of a "Cinema Cavern", 1971
The Gallery Interior as a Tragic Site, n.d.
Amarillo Ramp, 1973


Proposal for a Monument in Anartica (formally known as Untitled S.F. Landscape), 1966
Monuments of Passaic, 1967
Chalk and Mirror Displacement, 1969
Hotel Palenque, 1969
First Upside Down Tree, 1969
Hypothetical Continent - Map of Broken Glass, Atlantis, 1969
Forking Island, 1971
Bingham Copper Mining Pit - Utah, Reclamation Project, 1973


Swamp, 1969,
a Film by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty, 1970

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The Writings of Robert Smithson
, edited with an introduction by Nancy Holt, published by New York University Press, 1979, Second Edition: Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, published by University of California Berkeley, 1996

Robert Smithson Sculpture
, Robert Hobbs, published by Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1981

Robert Smithson: Unearthed - Paintings, Collages, Writing
, Eugenie T'sai, published by Columbia University Press, 1991

Robert Smithson: Photoworks
, Robert A. Sobieszek, co-published by Los Angeles County Museum of Art, University of New Mexico Press, 1993

Robert Smithson Slideworks
, edtited, Guglielmo Bargellesi - Severi, published by Carlo Frua, 1997

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All photographic rights are reserved by the Estate of Robert Smithson. Permission for the use of any photographic materials must be obtained from the Estate and VAGA, New York, through written mail only. Requests via telephone, fax and emails for photographs will not be accepted. With regard to photo requests for publication purposes, each one is granted on a case by case basis. Please write to the Estate with a full description (what purpose: publication or academic paper, name of publisher if applicable, how many imprints if applicable. Send photo request correspondence to both James Cohan Gallery and VAGA, addresses listed below.

Photo Requests/Estate of Robert Smithson, c/o James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th Street, New York, New York, 10001.

VAGA (Visual Artists and Galleries Association, Inc.) 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 6305 New York, New York, 10018 © Copyright Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Photo Fees required by the Estate as well as VAGA (Visual Artists and Galleries Association, Inc). Fees for photographs are paid by money order/bank check only.

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For information regarding Robert Smithson please contact Elyse Goldberg, Liaison for the Estate of Robert Smithson:

For information regarding other artists and exhibitions at the James Cohan Gallery see web site

James Cohan Gallery
533 West 26th Street New York NY 10001
Tel 212.714.9500 Fax 212.714.9510
Hours Tuesday - Saturday, 10 - 6 pm

Web site Written and Compiled by Elyse Goldberg
Web site designer: Monika Sziladi / Hoopycake! ( Email:

Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture constructed in April 1970 that is considered to be the central work of American sculptor Robert Smithson. Smithson documented the construction of the sculpture in a 32-minute color film also titled Spiral Jetty.

Built on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah entirely of mud, salt crystals, and basalt rocks, Spiral Jetty forms a 1,500-foot-long (460 m), 15-foot-wide (4.6 m) counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake.

In 1999, the artwork was donated to Dia Art Foundation. Since its initial construction, those interested in its fate have dealt with questions of proposed changes in land use in the area surrounding the sculpture.


Robert Smithson's earthwork Spiral Jetty was constructed in April 1970 on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah. The sculpture is built of mud, precipitated salt crystals, and basalt rocks. The sculpture forms a 1,500-foot-long (460 m), 15-foot-wide (4.6 m) counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake.[1] The sculpture is sometimes visible and sometimes submerged, depending upon the water level of the Great Salt Lake.


Smithson reportedly chose the Rozel Point site based on the blood-red color of the water and its connection with the primordial sea. The red hue of the water is due to the presence of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae that thrive in the extreme 27 percent salinity of the lake's north arm, which was isolated from freshwater sources by the building of a causeway by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959.

Smithson was reportedly attracted to the Rozel Point site because of the stark anti-pastoral beauty and industrial remnants from nearby Golden Spike National Historic Site, as well as an old pier and a few unused oil rigs.[2] While observing the construction of the piece from a helicopter, Smithson reportedly remarked "et in Utah ego" as a counterpoint to the pastoral Baroque painting et in Arcadia ego by Nicolas Poussin.[3]

To move the rock into the lake, Smithson hired Bob Phillips of nearby Ogden, Utah, who used two dump trucks, a large tractor, and a front end loader to haul the 6,650 tons of rock and earth into the lake. It is reported that Smithson had a difficult time convincing a contractor to accept the unusual proposal. Spiral Jetty was the first of his pieces to require the acquisition of land rights and earthmoving equipment.[4]

He began work on the jetty in April 1970. The work was actually constructed twice; the first time requiring six days. After contemplating the result for two days, Smithson called the crew back and had the shape altered to its present configuration, an effort requiring moving 7,000 tons of basalt rock during an additional three days.[5]

Construction contractor[edit]

Robert "Bob" Phillips (5 August 1939 – 11 April 2016) worked for 40 years in construction, including positions as a bid estimator for Utah contracting companies Jack B. Parsons Construction, and Whitaker Construction. He often told people that his best-known construction job was “the only thing I ever built that ... was to look at and had no purpose.”

Phillips was an expert at construction materials and techniques and was proficient in projecting the cost and effort required for a projected job.

Phillips was uneasy about using earth-moving equipment in the muck around Rozel Point, where Smithson wanted to create the jetty. “It’s tricky working out on that lake,” Phillips said. “There’s lots of backhoes buried out there.” Smithson, in hip-wader boots, was in full command on the site. “When we got out there, he just took over,” Phillips said. “I don’t think he had done any geology work or anything on it. He just had in his mind what it should look like.… He just had the eye for it. I assume it was the artist in him.”

Smithson actually had Phillips’ crew build the jetty twice. The first took six days of work, using heavy equipment, but two days later, Smithson had Phillips’ team redo it, to create today's spiral shape.

Phillips said Smithson liked to use words like “entropy” to describe the interaction of the basalt and the lake.

Robert Phillips was born in Spanish Fork, Utah and grew up in Cache Valley. He married Judy Crocket in January 1961. They had four children. He earned a degree in entomology from Utah State University. He died of cancer in Ogden.[5]


The sculpture was financed in part by a $9,000 USD grant from the Virginia Dwan Gallery of New York.

In 1999, through the generosity of the artist Nancy Holt, Smithson’s wife, and the Estate of Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty was donated to Dia Art Foundation. As owner and custodian of Spiral Jetty, Dia Art Foundation maintains the lease of Utah sovereign lands in Great Salt Lake upon which the artwork is sited, and is responsible for the stewardship of this iconic earthwork.

Smithson died in a helicopter crash in Texas three years after finishing the jetty.[6]


At the time Dia acquired Spiral Jetty, the work was fully submerged in the lake. Beginning in the early 2000s, however, sustained drought in Utah caused water levels to recede, and Spiral Jetty became visible for the first prolonged period in its history. As a result, the prominence of Spiral Jetty has risen dramatically over the past decade, increasing both the visitorship to the site and the public’s interest in the artwork, at the local, national, and international levels.

Dia is committed to maintaining a photographic record of the work and documenting changes to the piece over time. Dia collaborates with two organizations in Utah, the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College (GSLI) and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) at the University of Utah, who have been deeply involved in the advocacy of Spiral Jetty over the years.

The issue of preservation has been complicated by ambiguous statements by Smithson, who expressed an admiration for entropy in that he intended his works to mimic earthly attributes in that they remain in a state of arrested disruption and not be kept from destruction.[5]

In 2008 plans were announced for exploratory oil drilling approximately five miles from the jetty.[7] This was met with strong resistance from artists, and the state of Utah received more than 3,000 e-mails about the plan, most opposing the drilling.[8]


In 1970 during the construction of the jetty, Robert Smithson wrote and directed a 32-minute color film, Spiral Jetty.[11] The film was shot by Smithson and his wife Nancy Holt, and funded by Virginia Dwan and Douglas Christmas.

The film documented the construction process and also formed an ancillary artwork. Smithson combines his interest in geology, paleontology, astronomy, mythology and cinema, stating that he had an interest in documenting "the earth's history".[12] In conjunction with filmed sequences of the jetty, Smithson incorporates footage of dinosaurs in a natural history museum and the ripped pages from a history text. During this scene, Smithson refers to the institutions of history: "the earth's history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing".[11] Smithson's narrative supports an alternative view of historical discourse and the art object's placement or production outside of the museum institution. His writings also indicate that the helicopter film sequences over the jetty were a method of "recapitulating the scale of the jetty".[12] By visually disorienting the viewer, Smithson is able to negate a time and place for the materiality of the artwork or create what he calls a "cosmic rupture".[12] Through this state, the viewer is meant to be unable to categorize or classify the site, and will be left in a state free from the dialect of history.


The work was named Utah's official state work of art in 2017.[13]


External links[edit]

Person standing in the middle of Spiral Jetty, viewed from the shore
  1. ^"Spiral Jetty". James Cohan Gallery. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  2. ^Kimmelman, Michael (13 October 2002). "Out of the Deep". The New York Times Company. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  3. ^Smithson, Robert (1979). Holt, Nancy, ed. The Writings of Robert Smithson: Essays with Illustrations. New York NY: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814733943. 
  4. ^"A Finding Aid to the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers". Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 29 November 2012. 
  5. ^ abc[ Sean P. Means, Contractor brought Spiral Jetty to life, Salt Lake Tribune, 19 April 2016, p. A11
  6. ^Pagel, Angelika. "The Immobile Cyclone: Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty". National Park Service. Archived from the original on 25 July 2008. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  7. ^Kennedy, Randy. The New York Times. "Artists Rally for Spiral Jetty in Utah"
  8. ^Johnson, Kirk. The New York Times, 27 March 2008. "Plans to Mix Oil Drilling and Art Clash in Utah"
  9. ^"Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  10. ^"Sunrise over Spiral Jetty". J. Paul Getty Trust. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  11. ^ ab"Spiral Jetty, 1970 Film by Robert Smithson". James Cohan Gallery. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  12. ^ abcSmithson, Robert. The Spiral Jetty, 1970, published in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Nancy Holt, New York University Press, pp. 109-113
  13. ^"Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty Is Named Utah's Official State Artwork". Artforum. March 13, 2017. Retrieved March 15, 2017. 

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