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A script for a guided tour, a reconstruction of an imaginary world: an attempt to fill some holes in the fabric of our fragmentary knowledge.

Exhibition view 3500 Years of Textile Art, Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Dear visitor,

Welcome to the Headquarters of Katoen Natie (translated: cotton guild), a company with over twelve thousand employees who oversee the logistics of many types of goods and materials in ports around the world. In 1854, the company started by discharging and stocking cotton. Later on, they extended their range to include other raw materials such as wool, coffee, jute, rubber and aluminium. The CEO of the company, Fernand Huts, invests part of the money made in art collections.

Have a look around: there is a front desk, one or two ladies answering the phone, a waiting area with some coffee table books, a courtyard with a pond with big fish and some art on the walls. Inside the nearby offices, employees ensure that the company runs smoothly — it’s a familiar scene.

But this is not your usual office building. Within the inner core of the building, hidden treasures are preserved. Treasures from forgotten places made by forgotten peoples who wielded now forgotten techniques. So long as the lights are dim and the temperature and humidity remain constant, these artefacts remain preserved there for eternity.

Enter the dark room, the light automatically switches on, like in a fridge.

In the middle and to the sides of the room stand glass boxes containing … ghosts… or are they textiles...? The atmosphere feels reverent. The music enhances this feeling. The soft lights direct your attention to dresses worn by people without faces and soft paintings on the wall.

Notice your breath and take it all in.

Who & what are these… ?

To answer that question, we need to get the restorer involved:

“These textiles have been kept in the ground for a few thousand years in Egypt or somewhere along the silk route and are well preserved thanks to a constant climate in the desert and dry ground. Textiles can bear only little fluctuation in temperature. To preserve the materials in this room we need a constant humidity and a temperature of 18 degrees Celsius. Here it is 20 degrees, but it’s constant and that is the most important. These values are centrally arranged and there are alarms connected to all the rooms, so if the humidity or temperature changes the technician will be warned on his phone. It’s supposed to be like that, it’s very important…”

A few thousand years? (You never keep your clothes for more than one season.)

“Well yes we have an idea of the age of many of the pieces, because we used radiocarbon dating. A professor who used to work here started a kind of comparative database and dated tunics from different locations at the same time, to link them to each other and therefore have a more accurate outcome. Purely stylistically it is always risky to date objects.”

You nod. Probably the concepts of conservation and restoration are new for you.

Walk around some more and take a closer look at the tunics.

“Actually a vertical orientation isn’t that good for conservation. Every pleat is a weak point which can cause a rupture in time.”

Stop in front of a brownish black and dirty white fabric, a blanket or carpet containing the silhouette of a ghost, displayed on the wall.

“These are body fluids which you see here. Someone was wrapped inside this and then buried: you can see a head and the start of the shoulders. These traces are archeologically and genetically interesting. If you wash it, that will be all gone. Washing is impossible to reverse. In general we restorers try to intervene as little as possible in order to preserve the history as much as possible.”

Enter the next room, different music begins to play.

You enter a different era, the era when Islam was introduced to Egypt, also on view here are pieces of textile found along trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean.

In the centre vitrine is displayed silk from the silk route.

“Samite weaving. It requires at least two weft systems and two warp systems — they call that a complex binding. Don’t forget: this was manually woven.”

Open the shelves.

“Look, these are all falsifications. This *points at a textile sample* is a false loop fabric that is just sewn on top. You can see it on the background. Here *points at another sample* you also see it, they just worked on top. Combined it makes for a beautiful piece of patchwork. That head, or what is made to look like a head, is just placed there afterwards. All those lines, just fake, also here, completely remade, probably in the nineteenth century for commerce.”

Finally you turn to a special piece on the wall, displayed, like the others, behind glass.

It looks like a map, a landscape, sacred land, but only fragments of it.

What could the rest of this landscape have looked like? The rest of this undiscovered territory?

Recently, scientists provided a 3D model of the landscape. You turn to the touchscreen to explore the landscape further.

Enter into the knotted landscape, it is nice and soft, feel it. There is wind or sun or rain, it is hot or cold, feel that too. You are standing somewhere at the foot of the mountain. The mountains look like frozen waves, but reddish brown. Like wrinkles of earth: plateaus, plains and wrinkles. When you turn the other way, you see dust in the distance. Small bushes of green, hard grass, try to keep the sand in place.

Hop on a bus (or a train) to explore some more. It takes 24 hours to cross from the red mountains to the coast; it’s a vast landscape compared to Belgium. On the way, you see more red earth and houses in the same colour as the land. On the big plain shepherds are herding white sheep with black faces. The road passes through some villages. Some men sit together in the shade under a tree (or an umbrella, what you prefer) and some women spin yarn to weave into textile afterwards. You lost that skill some hundred years ago.

The bus/train passes by more women and more sheep and draws further and further away from the mountains to finally arrive at the border of the tapestry. What do you see on the other side? A far stretching desert or deep woods, left untouched for the last two thousand years, or a waving ocean.

You imagine a forest, dense, alive, and green. With streams of water and a holy plain with all kinds of small flowers, every part fragrant and in never ending blossom. The flowers and the other fresh plants face me and smile. This ecosystem has a fragile equilibrium.

You return to the border. The landscape seems to have changed. What else can we imagine?

The ground is frozen for quite some time now, they call that permafrost, it occurs close to the arctic and at high altitudes. Also here climate change causes air and ground temperatures to rise and permafrost to melt. This worries scientists. They predict a rise of 3 to 6 degrees in the area you’re currently looking at.

A local woman arrives and tells you that she isn’t worried about the melting, but more about returning bodies/ghosts/textiles to the ground, where they came from, to keep the ancestors together and her people’s faith in balance. She explains that scientists often come to excavate in this area because the permafrost has preserved old bodies and textiles which contain missing data about ancient human history. The scientists already excavated an important ancestor, a 2500 year old princess of her tribe. Surrounded by her horses, the princess’s well-preserved body was found lying on her side as if asleep. She was young and was wearing a wig and a tall hat with animal motifs, which used to be the fashion at the time. Also, the tattoos on her skin were well preserved. She was wearing a textile similar to the ones you see in this exhibition.

You look back at the map/carpet and see the shadows of everyone involved.

The missing data are difficult to interpret, it’s confusing, you doubt.

“Every time I turn it around or touch it, material comes off. Any material that old keeps losing fibers.”

She turns it one more time.

“Oh no, now it is completely weathered, the fiber is gone.”

Text by Evi Olde Rikkert

restorer: Kristin van Passel,

in close collaboration with Danaë Vermeulen, curator of the textile collection

& with thanks to The Phoebus Foundation

The text is the script of a guided tour conducted in the headquarters of logistics provider and port operator Katoen Natie, published in Le Chauffage magazine (BE) accompanied by a cartographic representation of the ancient carpet.

Hidden inside Katoen Natie’s main office you find an exhibition space containing a big collection of archeological textiles from Pharaotic to Coptic to Roman times. The speculative guided tour, in combination with a 3D model of one of the carpet fragments were a temporary addition to the exhibition. The additions played with the provenance of a particular piece, known as the oldest dated carpet in the world, dated 600BC. The 3D model suggests new cartographies following the symbols and the colours of the carpet exploring relational subject positions and transforming the carpet into a digital map of an infinite desert or permafrost ground, proposing a different narration of events. The guided tour is aimed at investigating the meaning of the carpet artefact in the context of an office building and questions the sustainability of conservation practices carried out to keep the carpet on display compared to it remaining buried in the landscape of origin. It was an attempt at making the office building itself the subject of the guided tour, rather than the textile artefacts.