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An unusual installation at Cuesta College should start a few discussions

The definition of art has been up for grabs for some time. Even so, the centerpiece of the current show at Cuesta College Art Gallery is raising some eyebrows. It seems to be more of a science project than a work of art.

And yet the exhibit, "I Would Do Anything to be One of the Loved Ones," is the collaboration of two former classmates who earned their masters degrees in fine art.

Brad Sunnarborg, one of the artists, is quick to acknowledge how the main exhibition, a bio-chamber, appears.

"It looks like a piece of lab equipment," he said. "It doesn’t look like art."

He was referring to a complicated 8-foot-tall apparatus that holds a live canary. The self-contained biosphere grows algae, creates oxygen and keeps the canary thriving. In turn, the canary keeps the algae blooming.

Is it art?

Tim Anderson, the new Cuesta curator who scheduled the show, believes it is.

"I think this is strictly idea-based art," he said. "It’s definitely unusual, but that’s exactly what grabbed me."

Anderson believes the exhibit’s title adds layers to its mystique, but Sunnarborg defends its significance.

"It talks about the mystery that happens in our lives all the time: love and trust and surprise."

And although the photosynthesis that occurs in the bio-chamber is a scientific fact, to Sunnarborg, "it’s a form of magic."

Conversation piece

He hopes the show inspires dialog and will "force people to follow a line of reasoning that makes them ask questions."

Among the 100 or so gathered for the recent artists’ reception, the main question seemed to concern the canary’s well-being. "They think I’m hurting the bird," Sunnarborg admitted, but he insisted that it’s perfectly safe. He keeps an eye on it via computer from his Los Osos home and can adjust various conditions within the chamber by remote control.

Other work in the show includes paper drawings of the bio-chamber’s design as well as diagrams welded on metal. Anderson, staggered that somebody would use steel as a drawing medium to end up with something that weighs hundreds of pounds as opposed to a few ounces, decided to book the show based on that concept. "The absurdity of it was just fantastic," he said.

For Sunnarborg, absurdity isn’t the main goal. Instead, he likes "to shake things up."

He and partner Alfredo Cristiano, who lives in London, have been collaborating on their art projects since 2000, under the umbrella of "The Palimpsest Panoramic Project." A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been used and erased so often that its previous contents are still partially visible. The term has various meanings for the artists, Sunnarborg said, including the fact that their work contains many layers of information. "We’re building on past works of our own," he added. "We started on something completely different a long time ago."

The artist speaks

During a March 8 talk at the college, he will explain how the "love" in the show’s title ties in with the canary and the massive steel plaques: "It’s hard to find the tenuous threads that connect things, but they are connected."

The canary’s innocence is part of the picture. "The bird, he doesn’t know what’s going on," Sunnarborg said, just as we humans don’t really know what is going on in terms of "choosing to have someone love you and not knowing who is going to."

Although Sunnarborg has done all of the grunt work — construction, cutting, welding and hauling — for the show, he is adamant about sharing credit for the project. "All of the ideas are collaborative; all of the concepts, all of the titles," he stressed.

Since the duo became friends as graduate students at the University of Delaware, their projects have included a waterwheel-powered purification system using tidal surges in New York City’s East River; a gravity-powered contraption which sends a single-person vehicle airborne; and a windpowered carousel.

Just as in these past installations, the current exhibit "comes down heavily on the conceptual side," curator Anderson added. Ultimately, it’s "funny and poignant and then serious."

IF YOU GO ...

What: Artist’s Talk and Exhibit, "Palimpsest Panoramic Project," Collaborative Works by Bradley Sunnarborg and Alfredo Cristiano

When: Noon to 1 p.m. Thursday

Where: Cuesta College Art Gallery, Room 7120, Highway 1, San Luis Obispo

Show continues through March 22

Information: 546-3202, palimpsestpanoramicproject.com

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