On Allusions and Semiophors

A dialogue with Imi Maufe and Hilde Kramer related to their contribution to the IN-R symposium

Materiality, Space and Embodiment: Transformative illustration in communication & entanglements with the Other

October 15th 2021

Development of printing technology and book design has lifted the two-dimensional illustration found in conventional visual literature to a gradually increased three-dimensional existence, such as in tactile books and artist books. What happens when an illustration as a visual and tactile object abandons its placement on the surface of the paper in a book to become an independent semiophor?

The term semiophor ( Semiophor (from old Greek) Σημεῖον semeion ,´character','signal 'and φορός Phoros , carrying') was introduced in 1988 by the French-Polish historian Krzysztof Pomian. The term emphasizes the property of an exhibited object as a special sign bearer whose meaning first emerges from the context of the museum (Pomian, 1988). 

This text is a conversation between artist Imi Maufe and professor Hilde Kramer on two central questions concerning their mutual artistic research:

Can an artist’s book reach a universal audience through illustrating place-specific genocide history?  

What happens when an illustration as a visual and tactile object abandons its placement on the surface of the paper in a book to become an independent semiophor?

 Hilde, why did you start this project?

I started my artistic research in 2015 as an artistic engagement related to the refugee crisis. I wanted to investigate how illustration, that has been my professional area for thirty years, could create awareness about the dangers that emerge when we humans start dividing ourselves into groups of ‘us’ and ‘the others´. 

In my corner of the world, Holocaust research is much more accessible than if I were to study genocide in another continent.  I was invited to enter a network of universities in Poland, Germany and Norway working in media studies, journalism, history and visual communication exploring new ways of conveying the Holocaust. Since 2016 we have met annually in Łódź, Poland, site of the second biggest ghetto in Europe – also, the longest-lasting ghetto of World War II. 

You have illustrated many books previously, where two-dimensional illustrations fill the book pages. What could be gained in going from two-dimensional to three-dimensional illustrations?

Before that, I set out to question every aspect of what a book could be design-wise, and also challenge the narrative structure. Stuck and frustrated, unable to find a direction, I contacted Imi Maufe. I only knew you briefly at that time, but I asked if you might be my partner in this artistic research project. 

The question we asked ourselves was how could one make an artist's book that contained three-dimensional objects illustrating a very complex topic that might speak to an audience beyond those who already knew this history?)

 Imi: what has this experience been like for you?

Being part of this project has been a challenge, focusing my attention on very different subject matters than I usually work with.  When we first met in my studio I showed a selection of books, some of my own and some from my collection that I thought may be inspirational to the project. I focused on showing you works in boxes, as I knew Hilde have been experimenting with boxes, including these three:

Voyage Boxed is a collection of 18 artworks - all printed on paper except one ceramic sculpture – and it is a documentation and a travelling version of an exhibition I curated at Dortmund Kunstlerhaus, Germany in 2013. The works in the box are not replicas of the original exhibition; rather, interpretations on a smaller scale than the voluminous exhibition.


One of my early works, 4 Weeks Cycling in France, is a boxed book consisting of objects found each day on the road. These objects are all small enough to fit into a 6x5cm plastic bag, and are stapled to the concertina book structure in a wooden case. This is an example of a very literal use of objects in a book. It’s a book that can obviously only be produced as a unique book - due to the nature of the material.


I also want to mention 36 Tunnels and a Ferry, which is a very small book (5x5x4cm) when closed. It documents a bus journey utilising the names and distances of all the tunnels travelled through between Bergen and Røldal in Norway. The book's mechanism, a simple, but long concertina, folds out to form a tunnel thus becoming an object representing the book’s content.


So that book [36 Tunnels and a Ferry] could actually be called a semiophor; a three-dimensional object with a narrative potential that becomes evident when folded out and displayed. Semiophor is terminology from the field of museology. What do books and museums have in common? 

H: Both books and museums use narrative structures, structures consisting of linguistic and visual elements. It is the context that defines the meaning of these. Of course, museums are full of objects that narrate in a context bigger than each object itself. Krzysztof Pomian  who has written about the transformation of the Wunderkammer into the Kunstkammer and then the Museum, divides all objects into three categories: the useful, the worthless, and those without an immediate use, whose value lies in their connection to the invisible. In the latter category he includes objects that lack a pragmatic function, but are assigned with meaning. Their role is to turn the eyes of the viewer towards the invisible - they are to be viewed and contemplated (Pomian 1990).


Coming closer to the topic of illustration and three-dimensional objects. Artist books  are usually not found in book stores. Hilde; since the major part of your artistic work has been within the picture book arena; are there examples of picturebooks that has been widely available for a broader audience in book shops?

An early inspiration was a Norwegian fictional picture book called  Jenta med heilt jamne, mjuke augebryn (2008) for an audience of blind and sighted readers published inabout young people during another war situation. Written by Bjørn Sortland and illustrated by Inger Lise Belsvik, its title translates to The Girl with The Most Beautiful Eyebrows (Sortland and Belsvik). The book utilises three-dimensional objects in a very sophisticated way, despite simply being glued to the book pages. 

How is your work in this artist book different from the book you now mentioned?

I: We agreed to go one step further, where the objects would abandon their placement on paper and could be handled by the reader. Naturally, a book with three-dimensional objects would have to be designed differently than the normal codex format, to house the object-illustrations.

Are there other illustrators that work with similar approaches as yours?

H: In the book Illustration Research Methods by Gannon and Fauchon (2021) there is a chapter about Crafting, and here we find different approaches to illustration as three-dimensional objects, both virtual and as physical, tangible things. The book presents Jasleen Kaur (Kaur) who creates hybrid forms of fused everyday objects. The artist, herself a Sikh living in Glasgow, calls these culture specific objects, speaking of migrant identity and aspiration. Even though they are culture specific, the objects can bring associations to any viewer. For me, there is an uncanniness in the ambience here… maybe because these objects somehow resemble the objects one might find in places where migrants try to cross borders, in refugee camps - or excavated in an archaeological site related to Holocaust history. As Krzysztof Pomian writes, “The semiophor reveals its meaning when it goes on display” (Pomian, 1990: 31).

You mentioned narration and linguistics as important in books and museums a moment ago. How is this carried out in this project?

I: An important aspect of displaying objects is the use of  labels. What do the labels look like, how are they placed in relation to the object and what information the labels contain. I am interested, through my own artistic practice, how through minimal use of text information can be conveyed. Do we need the object if text is used and vice versa? How can we add extra meaning to an object without the use of text in the book / box context? 

The comparison between a museum and a boxed bookwork is interesting - the box conceals and reveals its contents very much like a museum. A box can be complex in construction and can play with this complex nature. How does the viewer see the contents - the object - in a glass cabinet or in a box within a box? What is in view? What is hidden? How is the story told? Sequential movement from room to room, like flipping from page to page, or a haphazard collection approached randomly? Do we read about or see the object first?

Can you say something about challenges you meet in context of working with Holocaust history and objects?

I: During a Book Surgery at the Center of Book Arts in New York with Johanna Drucker in spring 2021, Drucker eloquently described our project as dealing with matters of profound human experience. She sees the main challenge in such a project is to decide whether to represent experience or to provide an experience. The distinction is significant. When one represents experience, one might use a metaphor, an allusion – these are familiar frameworks within illustration. Or one may provide experience that uses objects and documents as material witnesses and testimonies. And her advice was that we would have to make a choice here.

Her question was poignantly precise in the dilemma we face in this project - and it is something we have been conscious of from the start. Artists would normally insist on absolute artistic freedom, to limitlessly explore boundaries of a topic. That carries certain dilemmas in relation to such an overwhelmingly painful history as we deal with in this project.


What happens if one introduces invented objects to such a narrative?

H: An object’s meaning must be interpreted in the context it is being displayed in. A meaning arises from the interpretive strategy, thus pointing to the curator or collector or museum. Openness of interpretation of an object is something one should be aware of, in an artists’ book that treats the gruesome story of genocide. 

Bringing in original objects from the ghetto is a difficult option. When objects have unique historical value, it is hard to imagine we would ever see them embedded in a boxed book to be handled by an audience. One would have to split the object into fragments (thus destroying the object) or make copies to make an edition. The affect-value, as well as the material-value of a replica is not the same as with the original.

Introducing invented objects add to the complexity: We are currently investigating artists imprisoned in the Łódź ghetto. and the dilemma these artists found themselves in; to apply their artistic talent to the propaganda machinery that benefitted the oppressive authorities as they were forced to do, or to oppose, and thus risk their lives. Or do both secretly. One might consider illustrating this dilemma with an image of this thorned pencil. It would fit Pomian’s categorisation as an object that lacks a pragmatic function, but is assigned with meaning. The object itself is open to several ambiguous interpretations. The viewer might assume there actually existed such a pencil in the ghetto. Or they might be provoked by the pencil presented as a material witness with misleading information. One has to consider the consequences. 

I: The replica brings up questions about scale, materials, and whether it is an identical copy or not. What is the reproduced object trying to retell? In Duchamp’s Suitcase in a Box, his famous Urinal from 1917 was reproduced in a miniature version of about 5 cm high). It makes a very visual reference to an original piece of work.

H: Our big challenge is to build our artist's book on real events. As Timothy Snyder writes in the foreword to his book On Tyranny, history doesn't repeat. But it does instruct. We know what happened to the majority of the Jewish population in Europe during World War II - Genocide.


I: What should the visual qualities and content of a work be that is trying to capture one of humanity's most horrific potentials? Can a beautifully crafted work convey something so gruesome to audiences in different parts of the world, and for whom would such a book be of importance?  

H: In genocide studies, one usually speaks of three different actors: the perpetrators, the victims and the bystanders (Hilberg 1993). The role of the bystander is significant; how do we, the ordinary citizens, react when democracy is under threat? How does one act when fascistic violence occurs? Also, if we study recent genocides, like in Rwanda, we can learn that the typical perpetrator is a young, single man. For each year that passes, the chance he will be involved in killing is reduced by 2% (McDoom). On the other hand, Christopher Browning has conveyed the detailed records of one squad from the Nazis' extermination groups, in which he explores the squad’s composition, actions, and the methods by which its members were trained to perform acts of genocide on an industrial scale during World War II (Browning 2001). These men were adults; they were not unemployed or poor. But their inner moral compass was not activated. They followed orders, and went even further in their war crimes than what was expected of them by their superiors. And most of them did not suffer any consequences for their atrocities after the war – they continued being respected citizens working as traffic police, for example. We hope our artist's book may initiate a process of critical thinking in our audience, preparing them to take a stand to defend democracy and peace if future ethnic or cultural conflicts arise. So, designing these objects is a matter of charging them with the right semiotic code.

If one gives mundane objects the role of testifying to certain real events there is a potential to remind of specific historic events (resemiotization). The original meaning linked to the usage of the object may fade (desemiotization). Semiophors are things whose meaning lies not only in their material value, but in the testimony they give. If we return to Pomian’s three categories of objects: there are the useful, the worthless, and those without an immediate use but whose value lies in their connection to the invisible. These are objects that lack a pragmatic function, but are assigned meaning. Their role is to turn the eyes of the viewer towards the invisible - they are to be viewed and contemplated. [JG3] In a recent text Pomian discusses the transposed value of objects which have been long considered rubbish, that in the new context become sort of relics: “[...] while semiophors form collections, this also works the other way round: collections form semiophors. By virtue of being included into a collection, an object is deprived of its utility and of its (liturgical), ceremonial or decorative role (if it previously had one), and at the same time it is endowed with a meaning.” (Pomian p.16).

And how is this relevant in your work?

I: If correctly chosen objects are assembled, they may turn our attention to the invisible, to things we have never experienced, and we can direct our compassion towards the people the objects represent. 

H: As mentioned in the introduction, we build on historic events that took place following the invasion of Poland in 1939. The Nazi-German oppressors changed the name of the city of Łódź to ‘Litzmannstadt’. A district called Bałuty became a controlled area of approximately 4 square kilometers where more than 200 000 Jewish people were incarcerated until 1945 (Sitarek 2018). With the victims working as forced laborers and starved to the extreme, Litzmannstadt was a slowmotion genocide. When the war ended, there were only around 815 people alive. The rest were deported, most of them killed in the extinction camp in Chełmno nad Nerem, with a smaller number deported to other camps (Montague 2011).

Much of the infrastructure in Bałuty was built during the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. And it is still intact. Streets, paths, buildings, heavy with stories from the past, house a community living there today. The population since 1945 is predominantly Polish, also carrying a traumatic war history that in many ways has been overlooked by historians.

I: But it depends on what kind of object or semiophor we discuss: We may pick a handful of dirt from the ground in Bałuty and box this. It could be a material witness, but the rest of the semiotic context would define what story the boxed material narrates (Geisma 43).

H: This layered history has relevance to conflicts in other parts of the world, where shifting ethnic ownership is part of a painful legacy.

In this short talk, we focus on the affordance of illustration as a three-dimensional object. What comes next is to go deeper into the artist's book as a carrier of dark topics. We have already begun this work, but the time now does not allow for diving deeply into this.


I: Material for my own work comes mainly from first-hand experience, so working with a historical project is a real challenge and something I am very thankful to you, Hilde, for asking me to be part of. I am looking forward to developing our initial ideas and to see where our investigations lead us to. 



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36 Tunnels and a Ferry, bookwerk by Imi Maufe.

Some of the semiophors used in the symposium presentation.