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east european art

EAST EUROPEAN ART IN THE
AKSENOV FAMILY FOUNDATION COLLECTION

İnci Eviner. Broken Manifestos
2010, video


İnci Eviner approaches human life as a part of state governance system, from the perspective of biopolitics. Turkey, her birth country, is an axis between various political regimes of the West and the East, and Eviner cultivates this ‘borderline’ position, swaying from definite choices, hesitant to make a step in either direction, and rightly so. Demonstrations of protest in her piece Broken Manifestos should result in gaining freedoms and rights, on the one hand. On the other, they push society to the brink of a state of emergency, which entails suspension of all legal norms. An influential figure for Eviner, philosopher Giorgio Agamben has argued that a ‘state of exception’ is the predominant biopolitical paradigm of the Western state (which Turkey has desperately tried to join for many years with its bid to enter the European Union) and is, in fact, the underlying mechanism for concentration camps. Therefore, the demonstrations are doomed to end in failure, much to the protesters’ and the artist’s despair.
Using the incrustation-like technique of video overlay, also known as Picture in Picture (PIP), Eviner extracts human figures of demonstrators from their habitat and charts them against a black backdrop, thus illustrating the state of ‘bare life’ that people are reduced to when they find themselves in a place of exception from any legal protection, such as a concentration camp or a refugee camp.
The first part of the video triptych, ‘Demonstration’, presents a lexicon of gestures that people deploy to claim their rights. These are often universal across different parts of the world, still, in Eviner’s words, while in Turkey any protest means danger, in France a demonstration rather tends to resemble a fête. The second part, ‘Violence’, is based on Eviner’s childhood memories. The third one, ‘Immigrants’, evokes the lively streets of Istanbul. The 3-channel video is projected to the accompaniment of a unique 6-channel sound installation, where traditional belly dance music is mixed with what Eviner defines as ‘music of the streets’—hip-hop and barking.

İnci Eviner. Untitled
2012, paper, ink, mixed media, 76x55 cm

 

Drawing is a starting point, a foundation for İnci Eviner’s creative practice: graphic elements appear in all her works from murals to video installations, where Eviner completes video frames with ornaments or uses Picture in Picture technique to ‘incrust’ kinetic figures onto a black background. Nevertheless, in her untitled drawings intricate accurate lines and spots executed in ink, sometimes accompanied by bits in printing techniques, are in sharp contrast to ambiguous imagery.
Vague human figures of indeterminate sex can rather be identified as female. Like any other figures in Eviner’s oevre, they are protean. They represent unfinished hybrids of humans and animals, and therefore can be interpreted in the context of biopolitics, a concept of utmost importance to Eviner. Aristotle declared that ‘man is by nature a political animal’, thereby claiming that human beings are distinguished from animals by their capacity for political existence. Eviner takes on and problematizes topics central to feminism, to womanhood, and her characters are denuded of legal rights and therefore exist in a state between animal and legal, social, human, ie in a ‘state of exception’ (Agamben).
Moreover, the ambiguity of female images in Eviner’s productions stems not only from blurred gender or political identity, but also from the artist’s protest against the stereotypes of Western art tradition in portrayal and representation of Eastern women.

Zbigniew Libera. History Lesson
2012, photograph, 140x349 cm

 

This is part of New Stories series, accomplished by Zbigniew Libera in 2012. Libera’s focus on history and its new rendition is not an act of rewriting of the Soviet past and not a demonstration of multiple historical perspectives. It is rather the artist’s reminder about the myth of eternal return, which is evident in Libera’s body of work, including Lego. Concentration Camp (1996)—7 original sets of Lego bricks to construct a concentration camp; or Positives, a photographic series (2002—2003)—recreations of famous documentary and press photographs symbolizing trauma and grief, where the characters are back to the same tragic scene of the past with happy smiles on their transformed faces. In Zofia Kulik’s project Archives of Gestures Zbigniew Libera even personally modelled in 700 staged photographs to emulate poses from art repertoire of various periods, from Greek vase painting, Roman tympan sculptures or Baroque paintings to style standards of Nazi Germany and Stalinist era. It is interesting to mention another level of parallels which lies inside the poses, similar to William Blake’s drawing of Albion channelling da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
From this perspective History Lesson, with horse riders against the background of a deserted ruined landscape, together with other photographs of the series, presents a version of the Apocalypse—not as in the End of Days, but as in the Second Coming, a new cycle of being. Therefore, humanity still has hope in this photograph because, as history has it, the circle may be closed any moment.

Zbigniew Libera. Hrubieszow
1983—2010, photograph, 36x28 cm


Joseph Brodsky once wrote that ‘prison, really, is shortage of space compensated for by excess of time.’ The photographs of Hrubieszow city prison taken by Libera during his incarceration with a smuggled camera and film, look almost like there is no such shortage. The artist was arrested in 1982 for printing and distributing anti-state publications which criticised police violence during the Pacification of Wujek. In the photos taken in the prison yard inmates are walking around, talking to each other in a circle and sunbathing. Whether photographing the yard was Libera’s deliberate choice or it was just the safest location to shoot out there, the brightly lit space surrounded by a see-through fence is perceived as a synecdoche of the Polish People’s Republic of that time. The photo shoot was done in 1983: 2 years after declaration of martial law in Poland, when the country was literally a big prison camp, but nevertheless tried to maintain a regular life.

Irma Blank. Ur-schrift ovvero Avant-testo, 25-6-02
2002, polyester, pen, 35x35 cm


Throughout many years Irma Blank has conducted research of language, focusing her attention on its visual aspects while ignoring verbal meanings. She has invented her own writing systems, with familiar columns and lines formed by unconventional, completely undecipherable inscribed signs. Such neglect of the word stems from her lack of trust in it. According to Blank, ‘the word is deceptive… We see it still today: words, words, words that say nothing.’ This standpoint is more evident now, in an era of overabundance of mostly irrelevant information, but Blank started formulating it in the 1960s, in her first works.
Avant-testo means before text in Italy, where Blank resides. It is an attempt to go back to the beginning, so that writing could get a new start and gain a new meaning—something unspeakable that can only be felt. In this series any rudiments of written text structure are gone, there are only spontaneous intuitive drawings made with a ballpoint pen. As if having taken the pen accidentally, just to write something down, Blank obliterates everything that has been or could have been written on paper before. But in this point of new beginning there is a certain rhythm and energy that could help decode the manuscript.

Anna Jermolaewa. Five Year Plan
1996—∞, video


Five Year Plan video is an ongoing project started in 1996 in a St Petersburg metro station. Hundreds of thousands of passengers flow through the space daily, going about their business. Every five years Jermolaewa returns to Elektrosila metro station and goes up and down the same escalator with a hidden video camera filming the opposite escalator. Time seems to be looped in this space: the pictured scenes from different years are almost identical. The artist comes back to find out whether changes can be seen and documented; whether we are receptive enough to notice them. What has happened in the past years and whether the five-year plan has been fulfilled remains unclear.
Jermolaewa’s studies of life through its visual documentation are pivotal for her art, and by virtue of these practices she is in constant dialogue with Dziga Vertov, a pioneering filmmaker and cinema theorist. Their techniques have little in common: Vertov’s editing is impatiently fast-paced, while Jermolaewa’s long, almost endless shots mirror the listless pace of everyday life. Perhaps life was more exciting in Vertov’s times, ie revolutionary early Soviet era, or maybe Jermolaewa deems Vertov’s techniques obsolete and ineffective. However, similar to the author of Kino-Pravda newsreel series [‘kino-pravda’ translates from Russian as ‘cine-truth’, while Pravda is the name of the most prominent Soviet newspaper], Jermolaewa defines a set period, a timeline for her filming and becomes an impartial reporter, whose chronicle can tell more about people and time than a most eventful of films and sometimes even manages to record real life ‘caught unawares’, in true Vertovian style.

Nilbar Güreş. Between Two Desires
2012, paper, watercolour, mixed media, 118x175 cm


Nilbar Güreş’s graphic works are quite elaborate and often executed in expressly feminine techniques: along with pens and pencils the artist uses textiles and foil, nail polish and other ‘women’s’ materials. Despite their large format, the works look handicraft, belonging to decorative, ‘low’ art. Thus Güreş defies ‘high’ male art, resonating with the practices of other feminist artists like Miriam Shapiro or Faith Wiling.
The name Between Two Desires brings to mind psychoanalytic paradigm and plunges the viewer into Freudist world of desires. Their unconscious nature shows through in the surreal composition, where parts of human body are interweaved with ornamental, often floral, motifs. According to Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst largely influenced by Freud, desire is impossible without taboo, and it is always scandalous and eccentric. The tension in the work builds up due to the fact that Turkey (Güreş’s home country) is a land of many unspoken, publicly silenced restrictions and prohibitions, especially those pertaining to sexuality.
Güreş deals with gender issues, and this borderline ‘between two desires’, on the one hand, exposes the enforced nature of gender choice: it cannot and yet must be made under the pressure of social norms. On the other hand, the artist brings attention to the normativity-related category of moderation, which becomes a referent for ‘doubled’ desire, when it goes out of the unconscious zone and into social context.

Nilbar Güreş. Breasts
2010, photograph, 123x182 cm


Nilbar Güreş’s body of work cannot be considered outside the context of her biography. The artist, who now lives and works in Vienna, New York and Istanbul, was born in Turkey, and the gender issues she addresses are associated with the socio-cultural background of this region. The motif of nakedness (recurrent in feminist art) is predominant in Breasts photograph, and for Güreş it is not only about women’s sexual liberation (although a picture of two female figures in similar poses might be suggestive of lesbian love), but about women’s emancipation in general. This photograph is part of Çırçır series named after a neighbourhood in the north of Istanbul, where monotonous way of life changed after the decision to build a bridge across the Bosphorus on the territory. To a certain degree Güreş simply documents fragments of life of Çırçır women community facing the new, the unknown. But she also makes metaphoric assumptions on the moment of inner transformation, which may follow the change on the outside.
Living Room, a staged photograph of the same series, shows women’s relationship with their clothes in a patriarchal society: women are sitting on sofas with their bodies covered up with sheets, and dresses that are meant to be worn are placed on top of the covered women instead, exposing their non-functionality or rather substitution of one function by another. Women are reduced to images of abandoned objects, obsolete and hidden from sight like pieces of furniture. Likewise, the daring act of demonstrating naked breasts by the protagonists of Breasts photograph (a bold gesture, but upon a closer look it is quite gentle and not aggressive at all) is not an Amazonian call to legitimise female nudity for it to be perceived equal to male nudity (to equal naked breasts to bare chests), but the first step to revise the archaic view of female body, female clothing, the position and role of women in society.

Roman Signer. Four Fans with a Red Ribbon
2011, installation, 80x80x120 cm


Swiss artist Roman Signer, a pioneer of processual art, works across sculpture, performance art and land art. He orchestrates mechanical, electrical and chemical energies to transform space and engender new objects and situations. Like his fellow Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, Signer derives these energies mainly from readymades, such as bicycles, kayaks, fans and explosives. He does not demonise the world of these artificial objects, even though its energies can often be destructive, but studies it in a clinical, scientific fashion, with a dead-pan face, as he would study natural forces (like gravity, for example). Despite their essential differences they can have almost equal effects: a fan imitates wind, and there is no conflict in this. There is only ironic distance from reality consistently maintained by Signer, which allows him to have a broad view of the world in all its complexity.
In that Signer is comparable to German Romantics who came to use irony as a special intuitive (as opposed to intellectual) way of comprehending the world and as a salvation from its controversies. Signer calls himself a poet and, according to his own words, his work on sculptures is driven by intuition: despite long meticulous preparation and often carefully calculated outcome, sculptures cannot and do not explain the laws of the universe. Of all influences Signer has only acknowledged the impact of Land Art on his oeuvre, but still there is another common ground he shares with Romantics, ie the poetics of finding peace and joy in nature and the fierce longing for freedom, evident in most of his works.

Hans-Peter Feldmann. All the Clothes of a Woman
1973—2010, photograph, 89x120 cm


The practice of collecting and sorting found and own photographic imagery makes Hans-Peter Feldmann part of the circle of Conceptual Art (although he would never describe himself as an artist). Feldmann’s method is largely based on Conceptualism’s beloved flat factual accounts, predilection for producing series and archival approach. A fine example of his method is his piece All the Clothes of a Woman, which presents 70 individual snapshots of a woman’s wardrobe articles assembled into a peculiar catalogue. Each item is enclosed in a square box, and the boxes are arranged into a grid—the key element of Modernism, according to the seminal essay by contemporary art critic Rosalind Krauss Grids. She has argued that the grid has mythic power despite its alleged rational, materialist essence. Thus, a myth about a woman and her daily mysteries integrates separate items that have been appropriated by the artist from their owner and from their natural environment.

Christoph Weber. Not Yet Titled
2012, concrete, 76x14x37 cm


Concrete is a staple medium for Austrian sculptor Christoph Weber, he uses it in all of his works. In that the artist’s oeuvre goes along the lines of Postminimalism with its preference of raw unfinished materials. It also resonates with the philosophy of Arte Povera, an art movement which emerged in Italy in the 1960s. However, it is not speculations on the meaning and place of art and art mediums that drew Weber to producing abstract concrete forms, but a certain event in his biography: he witnessed a Palestinian building devastated by a terrorist attack. Therefore, in Weber’s sculptures concrete is no longer minimalistically neutral: it cures in fluid, visually unstable forms, it crumbles and shows its pores and cracks, demonstrating the best of its malleability while retaining its inherent monumentality.
Paul Neagu. Object Palpable Multiple
1969, paper, pencil, mixed media, 34.5x22 cm


In 1969 Paul Neagu wrote his Palpable Art Manifesto!, defying the reign of visual perception of the world. ‘The eye is fatigued, perverted, shallow, its culture is degenerate and obsolete, seduced by photography, film, television…’ the artist asserted, calling for a unified experience of art that would make use of all the senses.
Object Palpable Multiple, a 1969 drawing of a three-dimensional object, carried the potential idea of generative art, which Neagu finalized 3 years later. The main feature of generative art is that its genealogy can be traced back to a limited set of universal primary elements. Thus, Object Palpable Multiple is an attempt to atomise an integral structure into individual parts that still remain interconnected and, when added up, acquire more value. The drawing depicts a human palm (the symbol of touch) as a compound of fragments rotating around vertical axes, exposing different sides, thus exposing larger surface for touch than before deconstruction.

Paul Neagu. The Subject Generator (Hyphen)
1974, paper, pencil, mixed media, 41.5x29.5 cm


Since the 1970s Paul Neagu started referring to his art as art Generative Art, by analogy with Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar. In 1972 he set up the Generative Art Group and went on to sign many of his works with its stamp ever since. Members of the group were Neagu himself and his four fictious alter egos, each representing various aspects of his creative potential. This complex structure decomposes the artist’s individuality into plain schematic parts, thus making it richer, and thereby illustrates the systematic and universal character of Neagu’s generative approach. The essence of the approach lies in his belief that endless variety of the world originates from a limited number of simple elements, and in his pursuit of those primary elements Neagu goes along not only with Chomsky, but also with Ancient Greek philosophers and their search for ultimate substance.
One of those primary elements, according to Neagu, was the Hyphen—a connection symbol that became recurrent in his art since 1975. Meanwhile, in 1974 he did a drawing of its prototype—the Subject Generator—a simple object looking both like a table and like a plough (the symbol of land cultivation, and therefore its fertility). This object is split into two parts—‘male’ and ‘female’, each with an identical set of instruments for production of subjects and themes on top of them: a white board, a spotlight lamp, a magnifying glass, a mirror and a microphone.

Paul Neagu. Blind Bite
1975, photograph, 40x50 cm


Sight, of all the senses, dominates European fine arts culture, it suppresses the others and prevents people from feeling the world in its entirety. This thought underlies Paul Neagu’s series of performances Blind Bites and is articulated in his conceptual Palpable Art Manifesto! of 1969. The participants (the 1975 version, according to this photograph, featured Neagu himself, Anish Kapoor, Marc Heimowitz and Paul Overy among others) were blindfolded, starved for a while and finally allowed to touch food. The performance studied the role of taste and touch in our daily life.
Neagu’s choice of gastronomy as a means of comprehending the surrounding world brings him close to Eat Art of his fellow Romanian-born Swiss-French artist Daniel Spoerri, whose invented neologism ‘gastronoptikum’ suggests a world view ‘from the gut’. Both artists centered their performances around food intake, but in case of Spoerri it rather read as process of consumption, while in case of Neagu—as receiving communion. This religious parallel is even more obvious in Neagu’s 1971 performance Waffle Man, where an edible sculpture of a human body was built from cell-like blocks of sweet waffles. The artist preferred to call his performances ‘rituals’: as in the Eucharist, in Blind Bite the participants, through consuming a part, connected to the whole—to the world in its sensual diversity.

Paul Neagu. Hyphen of Three Levels
1976, paper, mixed media


The Hyphen is the key form in art making of Romanian-born British artist Paul Neagu, as an image, a sign, a symbol. Neagu’s universe was largely influenced by modern philosophy, particularly the linguistic turn that was wrapping up in the 1960s, rather than by history of art. In writing a hyphen both binds together and divides words, and in the artist’s poetics it proves to be just as controversial and ambiguous a symbol.
In his drawing Hyphen of Three Levels Neagu accentuates the triple nature of this symbol. The Hyphen structure comprises a rectangle supported by a tripod where one leg is ‘the mother’ [nature], another one is ‘the father’ [culture] and the third one, the longest of the three, is their ‘offspring’ [art], as seen by Neagu. Open to many interpretations, the Hyphen also reflects the three-tier semantic hierarchy designed by the artist and manifested in his Generative Art Code. Neagu classified all of his works into three levels with each one corresponding to a certain type of performance, or ‘ritual’ in his terms, and a certain geometric shape. The lowest level, symbolised by the triangle and illustrated by Blind Bite ritual (eating a figure made up of waffles), is individual experience, primeval emotions and feelings. The middle level—the rectangular, associated with Horizontal Rain ritual (where Neagu showed up in a specially designed costume with multiple transparent pockets to communicate with the audience), is about collective experience, interpersonal communication. And the topmost level, represented by the spiral, or circle, and coordinating with Gradually Going Tornado ritual (where the dressed-up artist produced spiral movements), is an attempt to reach total ‘cosmic’ freedom.
It is worth noting that the recurring three in Neagu’s works is an obvious reference to the Christian Trinity. Religious connotations have been mentioned by Neagu himself as well as by his researchers like anthropologist Matei Stircea Crăciun, who considers the Hyphen a cross without its vertical backbone; something a cross turns into when society loses interest in the transcendental.

Paul Neagu. Mykonos Ramp
1976, photograph, 40x30 cm


Paul Neagu, the prophet of Palpable Art, the author of its 1969 manifest, did a lot of performances using his body to go beyond the traditional visual perception of art. His early actions like Cake Man or Blind Bite were interactive, while the Ramp series, started in the beginning of 1970s, according to artist Mark Heimowitz, marked the transition from public performances to documented actions-rituals without audience.
In Ramp series Neagu tried climbing vertical walls (in this photograph, the wall of a typical Greek building in Mykonos island), not only defying the laws of gravity, but also rotating the regular coordinate system by 90 degrees. Thus, he not only declared his ambition to reach the impossible by trying to hover between the earth and the sky. Rather, this change of movement vector was meant to turn the artist’s body into a horizontal line in the form of Hyphen, which was yet to become the crucial element of his doctrine. This became more evident later, when Neagu started doing multiple Hyphen sculptures: he called the elongated leg of the supporting tripod structure ‘a ramp’.

Şükran Moral. Bordello
1997, video


Şükran Moral was born in Turkey and started her career as an artist there. Then she went on to study in Rome and eversince she has been living between Rome and Istanbul, although in her home country her art is not quite welcome, almost to the extent of her being a persona non grata.
Bordello performance was shot on video camera for the 5th International Istanbul Biennial (1997). In the video Moral dressed up as a prostitute and enters a real brothel, provoking a discussion about the social role of women in Turkish society, about social taboos and bigotry. In the same period Moral produced another video—of her performance piece Hamam, where she visited traditional Turkish male baths. This work provoked an extremely harsh reaction, which, according to Moral, would have been different had she gone there not as a female artist, but as a working prostitute on a call. 
Moral was also criticised for the choice of profession and place for her performance. The brothel where the performance took place became a universal symbol of prostitution for the artist—something that a work of art can be subjected to in an art institution, just as a woman's body in a brothel. This was emphasised by two signs that Moral had on her: ‘For Sale’ and ‘Art Museum’.

Guia Rigvava. Five canvases, each shot with one load of Makarov pistol by Major Mamatsashvili of the Soviet Georgian Militia at a training ground near Tbilisi
1989, canvas, mixed media, 45x45 cm


Guia Rigvava’s art investigates the potential and the boundaries of media. His works of the 1990s cleverly reveal the manipulative nature of video: in one of them on the TV screen the artist with a halo around his head keeps saying ‘You can rely on me’ over and over again, and his performance piece You Are Powerless, or Things Are Not That Bad involves imitation of reporting live from the preview of an exhibition.
Canvas as an art medium has seen a lot of violence from artists: Lucio Fontana would cut it, Niki de Saint Phalle would shoot at it and invite viewers to join her in doing so. However, these five bullet-ridden canvases are not a direct homage to those artists, rather just a reference. The canvas and the artist do not oppose each other here. First of all, canvas maybe old-fashioned, but it is safe and friendly to the viewer, according to Rigvava: in 1992 in Hannover he exhibited a painting with a hole through which members of the audience could shake hands. Secondly, as it becomes clear from the title (Five canvases, each shot with one load of Makarov pistol by Major Mamatsashvili of the Soviet Georgian Militia at a training ground near Tbilisi), it is not the artist who has done the actual shooting. For Rigvava the canvas is an innocent victim of unjustified aggression that may have just as well been pointed at a person. The artist reminds us of this aggression in the subtitle of the work: ‘In any society people are still taught to kill and mutilate other people.’ .

Andrey Monastyrsky. Cannon
1975—1999, mixed media, 76x54x26 cm


Conceptualism, which is a sort of a return to avant-garde synthesis of arts, traditionally operates across fine art and literary practices, but in this work Andrey Monastyrsky also employs audio perception. Inside the black cardboard box of the cannon there is an electric buzzer and its switch is on the left hand side. After reading the attached instruction sheet the viewer must look into the barrel and simultaneously turn on the switch to activate the cannon, but instead is confronted with the discrepancy between the expected visual effect and the harsh sound of the electric buzzer. Monastyrsky’s Cannon is conceptually close to Palets (1977), another prominent work of his: despite the detailed step-by-step description these action objects remain mysterious and enigmatic to the viewer. Their blackness is the blackness of the unknown; the tube and the hole both lead into nowhere. They demonstrate what art expert Ekaterina Andreeva once called ‘a research of existence in the borderline mode of under-completed state and endless waiting’ when speaking about Monastyrsky and his art. And with these objects the artist ‘brings back to life the Russian existential boredom, which used to be a taboo in the USSR’.

Yuri Albert. Conditional Symbol of Colour
1989, hardboard, enamel, 153.5x122 cm


This work illustrates Yuri Albert’s typical questioning ‘What is the art of painting?’. The achromatic piece resembles graphics, it can be called a potential painting: in place of circles, cross, squares and V’s the author suggests imagining the colours which correspond to these conventional symbols.
The pattern in the upper part of the canvas, reminiscent of an embroidery scheme, poses another question—on the difference between ‘high’ art of the elite and ‘low’ art of general public. This painting can just as well be embroidered, cross-stitched or satin-stitched.
Anyway, Albert’s conundrum can be interpreted in the following way: every work of art consists of a material object and conventionalities that help the viewer to perceive it. This dual nature of art is present in the compositional structure of the painting, which is divided into two parts—image and accompanying text.

Marina Abramović. Holding Emptiness
2012, photograph, 170x170 cm


Part of With Eyes Closed I See Happiness series, Marina Abramović’s triptych provokes introspection in viewers as opposed to her usual invitation for the audience to interact with the artist. Nevertheless, such a dive into one’s inner self has remained a fundamental theme of Abramović’s art throughout her career. Emptiness—not boundless, but visibly contoured—became the key element of Imponderabilia performance (1977), which Abramović collaborated on with Ulay. To get into museum the public had to squeeze through the small gap framed by their naked bodies flanking the entrance. Another empty space, between Abramović and the audience this time, constituted the nerve of The Artist Is Present performance at Museum of Modern Art in New York (2010).
Keeping in mind Abramović’s interest in Buddhist philosophy and Tibet, this photo documentation of a non-interactive performance Holding Emptiness can be interpreted as a declaration of the artist's love for emptiness, with her hands tenderly outlining an invisible silhouette in the air.


2016

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