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I completely ran out of time today, so here is a picture of a sculpture which I made at the end of last year.  It is a Romanesque Flounder with strange Babylonian parasites embedded in the various arched niches.  The fish is made of wood and the smaller sculptures within are sculpted of sculpey polymer. As you can see, my “studio assistant” Sumi Cat is reviewing it carefully to see if there is anything which needs to be altered by being clawed off and knocked into a forgotten corner.

It is a bit harder to say what this sculpture represents, but the flatfish is my avatar of Earth life (and a sometimes a sort of psychopomp/spirit guide sent by the dark gods below).  The dark tree is a cruel parody of the tree of life and the parasites are clearly beings of pure appetite (albeit with a certain ecclesiastic flair).  This must be a sculpture about the appetites which religion is meant to satisfy…but what the nature of those appetites is and how we can avoid being controlled by them is a question which resists facile answers.

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Today we feature a masterpiece of Visigoth art.  This is a silver medallion from the Iberian Peninsula during the 5th-7th century A.D. which shows Bellerophon killing the Chimera with a lance.  The work is an anomaly:  it was made in early Medieval Christendom and has the style and workmanship of that time, yet its subject is entirely Greco-Roman in nature.   In ancient Greek myth, Bellerophon was a mythical Corinthian demigod who was the son of Poseidon.  With Athena’s help, he tamed Pegasus, a winged steed born of violence and ancient gods & monsters.  Bellerophon used this power of flight (and his own martial prowess) to kill the three headed chimera–part lion, part goat, and part snake–one of the most convoluted and confusing monsters of ancient mythology (and one of the children of Echidna, the great mother of monsters). Yet Bellerophon’s heroic deeds went to his head and he tried to fly up to the top of Mount Olympus and take a place among the Gods.  Because of his hubris, the gods cast him down.  They took Pegasus back, and the maimed Bellerophon was left as a crippled beggar.   Clearly the story appealed to somebody during the chaotic centuries after the Empire blew apart as different hordes fought their way back and forth across Spain, Gaul, and the Mediterranean. Pegasus has lost his wings in this version, but the long centuries of chaos and political and cultural upheaval have given it pathos. Look at the expression of fortitude and resignation on the warrior’s face!

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One of the real surprises to me in college was…bacteria.  Now I had encountered these characters before (I guess everybody has, since more of the cells in a human body are symbiotic bacteria living inside of us than are…well our own actual cells).  However, in college I learned the full history of life on Earth.  It is mostly a history of bacteria:  multicellular creatures only show up for the last 600 million years.  For over 3 billion years, the world belonged to the bacteria alone.  I also learned about extremophiles—bacteria that can live in boiling hot temperatures or in oxygen-free environments.  Some extremophiles can metabolize inorganic things like sulfur and arsenic.  They can live without the light of the sun in the fathomless depths of the ocean on poisonous elements. The oxygen we breath was created as a waste product by these first archaebacteria.  The planet’s atmosphere was once a reducing atmosphere, where paper would not burn (assuming you had any…billions of years before trees plants evolved, much less paper-makers).  Bacteria made it an oxygen world where things burn…including our metabolisms. They changed the world in a fundamental way that we industrial humans with our infernal carbons cannot match.

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The archaebacteria sound like aliens (indeed, there is a real possibility they actually originally were aliens), but they are also our great-great-great ever-so-great-to-the-100th power grandparents.  I don’t need to wonder whether evolution is real: I have seen it in a science lab when we put a pellet of penicillin on a petri dish and watched as the bacteria evolved resistance to it (not really a super-smart experiment in hindsight, but a super-compelling one). I wish I could impress upon you how astonishing bacteria are.  They are the true sacred seed of life–the undisputed masters of Earth.

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However, this is old news.  The new news is that there are so, so many more bacteria than we realized.  The earth beneath our feet is filled with bacteria…but the stone beneath that is filled with bacteria too.  And the weird hot putty beneath that stone (the gabbro) is also filled with bacteria.  There are bacteria in the depths of the world.  Living bacteria have been discovered in the gabbro 1400 meters beneath the basalt floor of the ocean.  There is a barely discovered world of secret life deep beneath our feet—a true underworld of secret unknown species of micro-organisms.  The size of this ecosystem is enormous.

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To quote a news article from..yesterday,  “The record depth at which life has been found in the continental subsurface is approximately 3 miles (5km) while the record in marine waters is 6.5 miles (10.5km) from the ocean surface.”

If these are the true boundaries of the underworld bacteria biome, it means that there is a region of secret life twice as large as all of the world’s oceans combined.  Based on past experience though, it is not unreasonable to doubt that deeper pockets of bacteria will be discovered as our drilling and bio-assaying become more sophisticated.

Most of the super deep bacteria spend enormously long periods in suspended animation.  Sometimes they enter a metabolic suspension so profound that they seem dead or inanimate (which is maybe how we missed them for so long).  At present, scientists and writers are calling them “zombie-bacteria” because of their half-alive status (which seems like an appropriate nomen based on their underworld habitat).

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I wish I could tell you more about this realm of life on Earth, but I can’t.  Not only am I not a bacteriologist or geologist, additionally we (meaning all of humankind) simply don’t know the answers yet.  More research is necessary.  Sadly, it is probably going to be slow to materialize.  Our leaders seem incapable of grasping that surface life needs to continue longer than a few decades (at least if they hope for meaningful long term economic growth).  I shudder to imagine them furrowing their brows at the concept of vast stone oceans of zombie one-celled organisms…and explaining to their constituents why we need to know more about such things.  But we DO need to know.  In the synthetic ecosystems of my youth, the lack of coherent sustainable bacterial communities was the root cause of disastrous failure.  I don’t think our new underworld friends are going to fail or die any time soon, no matter what we surface beings do, yet if we want to take life elsewhere than Earth we are going to need to understand them much better.  Perhaps life did not spring from some pool of irradiated scum or arrive on a comet from beyond the solar system.  Maybe it came from the hot depths.  Maybe we are all underworld beings.

 

Disturbing news from the world of workplace safety.  Gillian Genser, a 59-year-old Canadian sculptor, has been suffering from worsening pain, splitting headaches, and nausea for nearly a decade and a half.  She visited a range of specialized neurologists and endocrinologists, but none of them could pinpoint the nature of her malady which grew worse to the point that she was immobilized and suffered complete loss of hearing in one ear.  She was unable to distinguish up from down, forgot the names and faces of people, she knew her whole life, and discovered herself wandering the streets for no reason shouting profanities.   The doctors suspected heavy-metal poisoning, but Genser vehemently insisted that her materials were all natural.

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If you are an artist yourself, you are probably shouting—but this is clearly heavy metal poisoning!  And you are right: Genser finally was diagnosed with acute arsenic and lead poisoning after one of her physicians insisted on a blood test.  Yet Genser was not a painter (like me, sigh) nor did she cast in metals or use exotic glazes and stains.  Her only materials were silver and mussel shells which she polished agonizingly by hand.

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She obtained the blue mussels from a market in Toronto’s Chinatown and ate the mollusks with friends.  She then used the shells for her larger than life anatomical sculpture of Adam, the mythical first human from the Abrahamic faiths.  Sadly, whoever was providing the shellfish was obtaining them from water which was heavily polluted.  Mussels store metals in their shells, and Genser’s polishing, sanding, and shaping freed the trapped pollutants into dust which she inhaled (although eating 3 meals a week of mussel flesh probably didn’t help either).  The story is even more troubling when one reflects that blue mussels are an Atlantic shellfish and Toronto is at least 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the waves.

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Hey! Has anyone noticed that Toronto is apparently right next to New York State? Where were these mussels from anyway?

The moral here in not “don’t be an artist” or “don’t eat mussels” (although, come to think of it, those are extremely plausible lessons).  Instead everyone needs to be careful in the modern world to watch out for hazardous materials which proliferate in unexpected ways from novel sources.  Of course, this is hardly a soothing message since most of us are not chemists (much less endocrinologists) and it looks like even those experts can’t always see where problems are coming from.  Maybe the real lesson is that humankind’s vast numbers and sophisticated industrial society are fundamentally inimical to the web of life which sustains us.  Actually, that is an even less comfortable message…but, well, I am not a politician here to sooth you with lies.  We have learned how to protect ourselves from the natural world.  Now we are going to have to learn (quickly) how to protect the natural world from ourselves.

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Anyway, let’s take a look at the sculpture that caused such suffering for Genser (see the photos above from the artist).  It looks like the metal-poisoning started to fundamentally work its way into the sculpture itself—in terms of conception, execution, AND material (obviously).  Yet there is something oddly appropriate about the subject matter (Adam’s choices, after all, are a metaphor for humankind’s great metamorphosis from hunter-gathering beings to civilization-building farmers and crafters).  The dark armless statue with the alien face and the black glistening muscles and nacreous organs, seems to be a sort of manifestation of heavy metal poisoning.  The whole 15 year project has inadvertently become a performance piece about the pain of the world (just think of those poor mussels which can’t even move to escape their poisoned home waters).  I hope that the short-lived media burst helps Genser’s career, but I also hope she switches media as soon as possible.  While we are making wishes, let’s express some really heartfelt aspirations to be better stewards of the oceans.  They are the cradle of life…yet they are being sadly abused.

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I was sent out of the office to deliver some financial papers in midtown the other day, and, as I came back, I spotted this amazing autumn garden featuring a magnificent Yayoi Kusama statue of a pumpkin covered with polka dots.  It really spoke to me in the gloomy gray day and it made me realize that we need to write about Kusama, who has been a mainstay of Japanese art since the sixties, (although she has a biography and artist-creation story which stretches back to before World War II).  Kusama took up residence in the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in the mid 70’s and she has lived there ever since, even though she is a wealthy international art celebrity. She makes no secrets of her emotional troubles–but she has surmounted them through polka dots and gourds. Kusama is often quoted as saying: “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”

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The unexpected appearance of her work out in the real world brightened up my November outlook and I hope it will cheer you up too (here is a link to actual details written in the insufferable language of real-estate developers).  Additionally this particular manifestation is seasonally appropriate and needs to be put up before autumn fades away and winter begins.  However don’t be anxious, we will be sure to return to Yayoi Kusama’s work and talk about colors and polka dots when winter’s monotony is too much to bear.

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World War I effectively ended on 11 November, 1918 at 5:00 AM when Germany signed an armistice with the Allied powers.  We need a post to appropriately contextualize the end to one of history’s most disastrous chapters, but it is unclear where to start with such a huge and fraught historical subject as the Great War.

Let’s star on the ground, where a generation fought and died.

I am not going to write about the stupid global politics leading up to (and out of) the war.  Suffice to say the vainglorious aristocrats who ran Europe and the world ended up caught in a trap of their own making with no way out other than to bleed their countries dry while hoping for the best. You can read about the events leading up to the war on your own if you wish, but it is turgid stuff and, historians still disagree about the larger lessons (if any).

However a few great works of literature brought home the absolute horror of life in the trenches, and that is what we need to address. The war created a fundamental and inescapable trap for those who served.  It was a trap honed to razor sharpness by the circumstances–but it is familiar to anyone who must deal with bureaucracies or just with other people… and therein lies the horror.

So imagine being conscripted to be an infantryman to fight in France or Belgium.  After scant training your nation hands you a high-powered rifle, and then plops you into a muddy ditch filled with corpses, explosives, and corned beef  until one day you’re told to go “over the top” and charge into an impregnable fortified machine gun nest and certain death or contusion. Really think about the dread of such an order and imagine what you would do.

I am pretty sure you would rush into your death…not because you are a towering model of bravery (though maybe you are), but because what other choice would you have?  To refuse and be summarily shot by an officer? To shiftlessly loll around the back until your fellow soldiers noticed and decided you were worthless and arranged an accident? To go stark raving mad on the spot? Those things seem worse than being blasted to pieces by shrapnel and rifle bullets.  Likewise they seemed worse to millions of soldiers who knew pretty quickly what the true nature of the war was, but who had no way out other than to carry on in impossible circumstances.

World War I represents the full horror of human society.  Acting together, the rest of humankind can make you DO ANYTHING.  There is no resisting them.

Modern humans are like ants: we wither and die without our extended networks.  These networks are our glory–they provide us resources and information we could never obtain on our own–but, if they somehow go wrong, they are a prison sterner than any Alcatrez or Devil’s Island.  Imagine the worst moments of 8th grade.  Now imagine it with Howitzers the size of fortresses and poison gas and the worst boss you have ever had (except with power of instant execution over you).

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We would like to pretend otherwise but human society is often harmful and vicious. World War I perfectly demonstrates that problem. Everyone said “Huzzah! our brave boys will win the day with true bravery…but true bravery is no match for industrial machines and implacable logistics (and pig-headed politicians).  World War I was a perfect inflection point of the stupidities and horrors of preindustrial feudal society with the stupidities and horrors of modernity and machine-like hierarchies.

And then, after all of that, we didn’t learn our lesson.  It was only the first round of the two part drama of the World Wars.

Well…so far anyway

It isn’t as though nationalism and monstrous greed have vanished among  politicians and business leaders. Enormous machines and hierarchies become more enormous and hierarchical.  Politicans (and the rest of us) however have not grown noticeably.  Even if there were visionaries and geniuses who could prevent any more such disasters, the rest of us people would never let them.

So thank goodness the Great War has been gone for a hundred years, but we all need to remember it and to remember to work tirelessly at dealing better with each other…if we even can.

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I’m sorry about yesterday’s exiguous post.  Usually I edit out Sumi’s additions to my writing, but if a black cat can’t speak out on Halloween, then when can she have her say?

Anyway, I am still thinking about our 2018 Halloween topic: cities and the dead.  I wonder if the week’s worth of posts came out quite the way I wanted.

Let’s look at the entries one by one: the introductory post turned into a discourse upon land usage in the United States. The second post was an article about four (4!) tombs, which hardly seems like a city. The 3rd post was about some pretty cathedrals and a physically abusive Visigoth king. The Vietnamese graveyard was enormously satisfying to look at, but I worry that I didn’t explore why people would lavish so many resources on such a project (a question which is enormously magnified for the Ming tombs). This leaves my drawing of a haunted fish city, which was a work of art by myself and not really a place in the real world.

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I am left with a feeling akin to what I felt when I was in LA: Where exactly is the city?  Everything in Los Angeles was city-like (often beautifully so), but the true heart of a city–the throngs of individuals afoot, the drunkards shouting at each other, the eccentric man dressed as a pickle, the street vendors selling sausages–all that was hidden away somewhere else as you drive around endless freeways looking for it.

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Except in the case of these “cities of the dead”, that magic is well and truly hidden away forever–replaced by inscriptions, marble finials, and ceramic dragons.  I feel like I would have done a better job writing about cities by writing about a guillemot colony or a bacteria culture than by writing about even the greatest cemeteries.

Perhaps there is a fundamental paradox within the concept itself.  Cities are, above all, places where people live and conduct their business.  If there are no people, then a place is maybe not a city, even if there are buildings and monuments and every other trappings.  Maybe cemeteries are really abandoned cities or a wastelands even if they are adjacent to a living city (or inside the city itself). Necropolises are so close to the real thing, but so far away…separated by the greatest of veils.

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I think cemeteries are beautiful and special and I like going to them whenever I go to a new city in order to get a sense of what the inhabitants are like and what they love best, but it is worth recalling that such tourism is an exercise in chasing ghosts.  Of course there are no actual ghosts: specters are really feelings and ideas.  Feelings and ideas are, of course, things that only exist within the minds of the living.  If you are within a City of the Dead it is because you have crafted it within yourself as you wrestle with the past and with the long shadows the dead have cast over us by building the world as it used to be.  The people who used to be here are always with us–in our actions, our outlooks, our genes, and our hearts, but they are not in any cities.  Cities are places for the living. Cemeteries are just places of memory where we try to understand how we got to where we are now and remember what we lost along the way.

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No series about the cities of the dead would be complete without a visit to the world’s most populous country, China.   Because of China’s 5000 year+ uninterrupted cultural history, there are some extraordinary examples to choose from, like the Western Xian tombs, or the world famous Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a circular tomb with a circumference of 6.3 km (3.9 miles) and an army of more than 7000 life-sized earthenware soldiers (they don’t build ’em like that anymore, thank goodness).  However for artistic reasons, Ferrebeekeeper is going to highlight the most well-known tomb complex in China–the Ming tombs which is a compound of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty from 1424 to 1644 on the outskirts of Beijing.  Indeed today the tombs are now in a suburb of Beijing, surrounded by banks, residential housing parks, and golf courses.

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The First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, whose rags-to-riches story has no obvious equivalent in history, is NOT buried in the Ming tombs (although don’t forget to follow this spooky link to read about his horrifying excesses), nor is his successor, the Jianwen Emperor, who was usurped and vanished from history.  However the third and greatest Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the mighty Yongle Emperor is buried there.  The Yongle Emperor chose the spot according to principles of Feng Shui (and political calculus) and he and 12 other Ming dynasty emperors were interred there along with a dynasty worth of empresses, concubines, favorite princes, et cetera etc.  Each of the 13 mausoleums has its own name like the Chang Ling Mausolem, which is tomb to the Yongle Emperor, or the Qing Ling Mausoleum which is the final resting place of the Tai Chang Emperor.

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Some of the subjects of past Ferrebeekeeper posts can be found buried in the Ming Tombs–like the Jiajing Emperor (who is in the Yong Ling Mausoleum, if you are keeping track of this at home).  Considering how much mercury that guy drank, he is probably perfectly preserved somewhere in there glistening like the silver surfer even after all of these years.

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I say probably, because we don’t know.  Only three of the 13 tombs have been properly excavated and explored by archaeologists (these known tombs are the tombs of the Yongle Emperor, Longqing Emperor, and the Wanli Emperor).  In 1644, the whole necropolis was looted and burned by Li Zicheng, the first (and last) Emperor of the ill-fated Shun Dynasty, but, fortunately, he seems to have burned and looted tombs the way he set up kingdoms–very badly and incompletely.  This means there are ten whole tomb complexes of China’s richest greatest emperors which are awaiting the archaeologists of the future (probably…it is always possible that one of China’s more recent autocrats secretly looted everything and sold it to dodgy collectors or hid it under his bed). Imagine the unknown treasures awaiting discovery!

The first paragraph alluded to the artistic merit of this graveyard, and I really meant that.  Just look at the beauty of the Sacred Way in the top photo (this is the main entrance to the tombs which Emperors would traverse when visiting the spot to pay homage to their predecessors) or the ceremonial chamber form the Ding Ling Tomb (which is the third image down).  Best of all, we have an amazing painting (below)! Look at the this beautiful watercolor map/landscape painting from the late nineteenth century which shows the entire tomb complex (the painting itself belongs the Library of Congress).  Naturally, if you click the painting it will not blow up to full size here (thanks to the hateful anti-aesthetic nature of WordPress).  However here is a link to the original image at Wikipedia, you can expand it to immense size on your computer and take a personal tour of one of the world’s most lovely and historically significant tomb complexes.

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As a Halloween treat, here is a pen and ink drawing which I made of a great dark fantasy metropolis (which is also a lurking predatory fish).  As you can see, there are three stages to the composition: the cerebral top portion inhabited by angels, gods, and flying marvels; the primal underworld at the bottom (which is filled with wailing souls, dark sacrifice, and insatiable hunger); and, in the middle, a glistening city between the two extremes.  In the sky, Apollo, god of prophecy and the arts, rides his chariot angrily towards a blithe Icarus.  At far right, Death watches the city while, beneath the towers (beyond life?) the inhabitants…or possibly their souls walk through a Tartarus of appetites and chthonic marvels.  I am sorry that it is too small to appreciate (it took me forever to draw all of the little ghost figures and monsters which are under the fish).  The piece speaks to the larger nature of humankind’s collective existence (and our appetites) but I feel the supernatural monsters and crystal landscape with the heavens also speaks to larger possibilities we could aspire to.  I am sorry it is slightly crooked in this shot: this was the best picture I have but it is slightly distorted (until I can get a finer scan made).

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Ghosts do not seem to care about cultural appropriation.  That is one of the many eye-popping crazy lessons of An Bang Cemetery, an up-to-the minute ultra-necropolis in Phu Vang district of Thua Thien Hue province, Vietnam.  The graves in the cemetery are a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Indian, Thai, and American styles.  The monuments reflect religious traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Đạo Mẫu, Cao Đài, and probably other more esoteric faiths and sects.

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The fishing village of An Bang is on a beautiful white shore in Hue.    In 1975, the reunification of Vietnam caused a diaspora which swept away many of the “boat people” who lived in An Bang.  In the 80s and 90s cash began to flow back into the community from all around the world.

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An Bang Village is not very far from the vaunted imperial tombs of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty which lie along the Perfume River (the ancient imperial tombs are a UNESCO heritage site).  The contemporary villagers took some of their inspiration from the majesty, size, and beauty of the classical imperial graves, but they took the rest of their inspiration from…everywhere.  At first blush the American influence may seem to be lacking…but look at the ostentation, the gaudiness, the competitive one-upmanship among the dead (plus where do you think that International money came from?)

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There is a riot of styles and color and meanings, but yet I am not sure I have ever seen anything more distinctly Vietnamese.  I don’t think there are many sculptural installations anywhere that could compare with the utter Baroque riot of An Bang…and that is to say nothing of the corpses, mourners, phantasms, spirits, and what not!  Most of the intelligent people whom I know believe that there is nothing after death, and cemeteries are pointless.  My rejoinder would be that cemeteries are not for the dead, they are for the living.  Plus just look at this color, art, and form!  Of course Vietnam is a developing country, and it could be argued that this money could be spent better elsewhere, but in America we spent 6.5 billion dollars on the 2016 election (to say nothing of the corporate money that went into buying influence) and look what we wound up with.  Maybe the dead are better off with the money after all. They sure know how to live it up in style at least!

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