The meeting of the curator Germano Celant, the architect Frank O. Gehry (Toronto, 1929) and the artists Coosje van Bruggen (Groningen, 1942 - Los Angeles, 2009) and Claes Oldenburg (Stockholm, 1929) transpired in a large-scale sculpture called Knife Ship. Il corso del Coltello (in its original Italian name) - a boat with twenty-four metre long oars and knife blades measuring nine metres when folded out as well as a corkscrew in an upright position. This piece arrived in the Venetian Arsenale on 6 September 1985 to become the backdrop for three days of diverse artistic activity and a performance that involved the dramatisation of the 'alter ego' of each one: Oldenburg as “Doctor Coltello”, a souvenir salesman with secret ambitions to become a painter, van Bruggen as “Georgia Sanda”, a modern version of Georges Sand, an individualist and adventurer, and the architect Gehry as “Franky Toronto”, a modern Piranesi.
The initial idea came about in 1983 with the idea (that never materialised) of the boat being placed as a monument in Basel. The image of the large knife blades (initially referring to the Swiss army) was devised as a symbol of cutting and separating; recurring in Oldenburg and van Bruggen's projects are cutting instruments, such as scissors and knives, as macro-signs, tools that metaphorically split the chain of relationships and section reality. Frank O. Gehry has also explored the direct relationship of the metaphor of the knife in his work - for him architecture is a sharpened scalpel that traverses, slices, separates and tears the centre of spatial, architectural and urban development issues with its blade. In an article published in Artforum, van Bruggen talks about how, by chance, “the knife and corkscrew are not only equal to a fish, but also a snake, the two biomorphic forms Gehry frequently uses in his architecture.”
The knife, albeit an image, structurally corresponds to the Venetian gondolas, modern tug boats and even the Bucintoro, a Venetian ceremonial boat. By means of the penknife, with its blades open upwards, the Knife Ship engages with the vertical structures in Venice, for instance the Il Campanile de San Marco and the parapets of the Arsenale. The red of the boat's hull reflects the ceremonial events that appear in Canaletto's paintings, while the souvenir appearance of the enormous floating sculpture and its distant origins make references to tourism, Venice's main source of income.
The Knife Ship is the centrepiece of the exhibition curated by Germano Celant, the critic, curator and one of the figures behind the popularisation of Arte Povera at the end of the Sixties. The vessel-sculpture is exhibited in the Palacio de Cristal in the Retiro park, a space which Oldenburg claimed is, “interesting in its own right, the Palacio de Cristal has exactly the right dimensions”, as he talked about the exhibition in Madrid in an interview.
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