Oldenburg/van Bruggen, Knife Ship © 2021 Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen


The Storied Origins of “Il Corso del Coltello”

Published Aug 15, 2021

Mark Beasley, curatorial director at Pace, said in an introduction to a Pace Live workshop centered on the performance and held in New York on July 21, “Coltello is a theatrical production with a radical twist—rather, it’s a proposition that suggests through momentary fantasy the meeting of art and architecture through the sociability of performance.” For that event, Beasley, poet and artist Precious Okoyomon, artists David Levine and K8 Hardy, and author Hari Kunzru presented a reading from the Coltello script and discussed the work’s enduring legacy.

“I am a very practical person only concerned with fantasy that can be mad real. Can one make architecture without the slightest education in the subject as one can make art?”

These ruminations were written by Claes Oldenburg in his preliminary notes on the 1985 site-specific performance Il Corso del Coltello (The Course of the Knife) in Venice, Italy, which was staged as part of a collaboration among Oldenburg and his partner Coosje van Bruggen, the architect Frank Gehry, and the curator and writer Germano Celant. Oldenburg’s words would come to reflect the madcap nature of the work’s content and form, which defy easy categorization and speak to the various disciplines of its creators. Featuring large-scale sculptural works as well as outlandish costumes and props, the performance’s centerpiece was the monumental Knife Ship on the Venice canal.

The genesis of the humor-filled performance—which chronicles the absurd pursuits of colorful characters like Dr. Coltello, a purveyor of Swiss souvenirs, and Georgia Sandbag, a former travel agent who traverses the Alps by mule—is the stuff of art historical lore. The first meeting related to the project took place in 1984, when the four creators gathered to discuss an architectural and theatrical piece to be staged in Venice as part of Celant’s proposed but ultimately unrealized exhibition Art and Theater from 1900 to 1984 for the Venice Biennale. Over the course of the next year, the artists, architect, and curator imagined other ways that the work might take shape—one such plan involved the cultivation of a so-called “Coltello Island,” complete with functional housing, a post office, a bank, and other structures.

The creators settled on an intervention spanning water and land in Venice, with the Knife Ship situated at the city’s Arsenale of former shipyards. Gehry said that the historically resonant site, which has hosted presentations in the Venice Biennale since 1980, represents “urban design in harmony with the natural development of the city.”

“To be in the middle of Venice, so close to Palladio—and so much of architecture today refers to Palladio—in that situation to be talking about disorder, another kind of order, is a bit irreverent, I think, a kind of poking,” the architect once said. “But the performance is not only about being irreverent, for there is a grain of truth in saying that Palladio is too orderly.”


Oldenburg/van Bruggen, Georgia Sandbag Costume - Enlarged Version, 1986, vinyl filled with soft polyurethane foam; canvas filled with soft polyurethane foam, painted with latex; painted wood and canvas, 86" x 82" x 141" (218.4 cm x 208.3 cm x 358.1 cm), overall © 2021 Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s interest in “thing-ness” and notions of abstraction in their wide-ranging practice, which brought monumental iterations of everyday objects into public spaces, was also central to the project. At its heart, Coltello is the result of auspicious unions and tensions between sculpture, theater, and architecture.

Detailing the beginnings of the project in an essay published in Artforum in 1984, van Bruggen explains, “In Gehry’s opinion the selection of a found object, as Oldenburg has proposed, need not preclude so-called ‘serious’ architecture. Since serious architecture is also determined by such incongruous factors as economic and social conditions, building codes, traditions, and available construction methods, the end result of any building project is to a large degree accidental.”

As Celant wrote in an introduction to a 1987 book on Coltello published by Rizzoli, “The realization of a dialogue between writing and sculpture, theater and architecture, fiction and history, can produce spectacular events, in which the arts come together to form a permanent weave. Pieces such as the Knife Ship can become large-scale ‘monuments’ of an esthetic and expressive experience in which creative energy overcomes reality.”

  • Films — The Storied Origins of “Il Corso del Coltello”, Aug 15, 2021