Binary code has come to define our increasingly virtual reality, but Nicky Broekhuysen’s dense numeric compositions represent worlds far more complex than your average computer operating system. The Berlin-based artist obsessively stamps her 1’s and 0’s by hand, performing a deceptively simple action that’s repeated hundreds of times to complete a single work. Primarily stamped onto paper, she’s also directed her ink at more symbolic surfaces, ranging from iconic philosophical texts to a crumbling wall in an old Shanghai neighborhood undergoing rapid transformation.

Born 1981 in South Africa, Broekhuysen moved to New Zealand where she studied Fine Arts at the University of Auckland before relocating to Shanghai in her mid-20s. While living in China, she began working with binary numbers, which she terms as metaphors for “the fact that nothing in life can remain static.” Based in Berlin since 2009, Broekhuysen herself personifies transition, but her work approaches change from a more philosophical, abstract angle.

Binary code emerges in philosophical texts as early as the ancient Chinese I Ching (Classic Book of Changes) from the third to the second millennium BC, which illustrated the existence of unified binaries in all beings and asserted the inevitability of perpetual change and evolution. In her use of symbols for various states of being, Broekhuysen explains that she’s attempting to show how “within a structure, there are many other possible structures that can exist.” Ultimately, Broekhuysen’s works convey the potential inherent to transformation, the energy created by the shifting of structures from one state of existence to another.

By limiting her symbolism to binary code, Broekhuysen is able to refer to universal binaries ingrained in our collective consciousness. Order/Chaos is perhaps the most immediate association and the underlying source of all cosmic anxiety. However, Broekyhusen’s personal philosophy is unrelentingly optimistic, relating chaos to potential and, hopefully, progress.

In the series Flock, which the artist exhibited in this year’s Volta art show in New York, Broekhuysen stamped a tightly coded crucifix onto paper, the shape of which slowly fell away throughout the series’ ten images. Collecting below in a heap of 1’s and 0’s, the cross is ultimately deconstructed as it descends into the chaos building below.

In the final images, the binary pile re-patterns itself into a flock of birds, rising from the muddied rubble in collective flight. One of Broekhuysen’s leitmotifs, a flock of birds, reassigns meaning to what seemed at first to be the hopeless degradation of a clearly defined construct. Yet flocks of birds also have a system that intuitively patterns their behavior, but it is a constantly changing response to their environment and to each other, allowing the group to move forward (through wind currents, for example) and to progress, together.
Similar to Pointillism or Impressionism, these compositions only achieve their full form when viewed from a distance. Once approached, the image splinters into rows of rigid numbers or disperses among chaotic masses of binary digits, with no intrinsic logic to determine their former meaning.

Broekhuysen’s monochromatic technique draws inspiration from ancient Chinese painting in both her ink-based medium and meditative process of repetitive stamping. Currently preparing for an April show at Cape Town’s Whatiftheworld Gallery, Broekhuysen has begun experimenting with pigments, substituting iron oxide for her usual ink and making direct reference to ancient cave paintings found in both South Africa and Europe. She continues to explore “visual manifestations of chaos in nature” in her latest work, always managing to find the silver lining within our often darkly coded and forever fluctuating states of being.

TEXT BY Emilie Trice