Berlin, 2011: Nicky Broekhuysen uses black 1 and 0 stamps on white paper to express life’s manifold complexities and contradictions. The Berlin-based South African artist graduated from University of Auckland in New Zealand before moving to Shanghai in 2006. She explores the ample range of cultures and philosophies that she has experienced through her radically reduced visual vocabulary, borrowed from Binary Code. Broekhuysen juxtaposes the two understated forms, which computer scientists use to build infinite bodies of information, into basic symbols representing order, chaos and life’s ultimate complexity. Her solo exhibition, "Between States, Into Light" runs from 12 March – 23 April, at Berlin’s chic Pool Galerie. Here we discuss the “shades of grey,” that Broekhuysen represents though the simplest means.
Nicky Broekhuysen, Into Light #7; Courtesy of the artist
Ana Finel Honigman: What is the meaning of the "1" and "0" stamps?
Nicky Broekhuysen: I use the 1 and 0 in a metaphorical manner. The main reference is, of course, binary numbers. On a simplistic level the binary numbers are a reference to the digital world that we live in and through which we communicate. They function just like letters of the alphabet. When put together in a certain way, they create words with meaning. Binary numbers, when arranged in particular states, hold meaning and information. Without realizing, it we communicate through binary code all the time.
Nicky Broekhuysen, Bang (detail), 2009, ink stamped on paper, 70cm x 100cm; Courtesy of the artist
AFH: How do you employ this language?
NB: I take this one step further by using the binary code as a metaphor for thought, knowledge and the information that we hold about the world around us. What draws me to binary numbers is the fact that they are just two simple elements. There is only a 1 and 0. And they have the possibility of manifesting ANYTHING and everything, depending on how they are arranged. For me they are the building blocks of thought, which can be shifted and rearranged at any time. This also ties into one of the main concepts in my work, the idea that nothing in life can remain static and that change is always inevitable and necessary.
AFH: Yet the language itself remains profoundly consistent. Doesn’t the notion of a binary juxtaposition undercut life's complexities?
NB: I like the simplicity of the1 and 0. I find that the simpler something is, the more powerful it can be. I also like the paradox of 1 as something and 0 as nothing. It is something that I play with a lot in my work and thoughts.
AFH: How does this relate to the actual black and white juxtaposition of ink on the page?
NB: The forms of the numbers in black ink represent the 'something' against the emptiness or 'nothingness' of the white paper. The paradox of simplicity and complexity are also present. When viewed from afar the forms of the work appear simple. But when you get closer, you see the form in all its complexity. This is often true in nature and many aspects of life. In fact for me the paradox is part of life, for something cannot exist without nothing and vice versa. It is the yin and yang. I guess in short for me binary numbers are a beautiful, simplistic and powerful method of communicating my various ideas.
AFH: Why not actually use code rather than the stamps?
NB: I am not interested in having the binary numbers stamped into actual programmed code. For me that is too restrictive, rather I am interested in open states of potential and change. The works are more like abstract paintings in the sense that each one is individual and takes weeks or months to produce. This is another paradox, the obsessive hand crafted aspect of the work against this 'digital context' which would normally also be produced in a digital manner.
Nicky Broekhuysen, Flock 4, 2009, ink stamped on paper, 70cm x 100cm; Courtesy Nicky Broekhuysen
AFH: How deeply have you researched Binary Code and Laws of Thermodynamics? Are you just referencing the science or are you truly intellectually invested in its study?
NB: Look, I am an artist and I think that I interpret life and my work through this perspective. However, I am also very fascinated by and curious about science. I use science as a reference point in my work, or its laws and processes as metaphors. For example, the first law of thermodynamics speaks about the transformation of energy. As my work is about change and potentials this law fascinates me. The shifting of energy between states, from one to the other is what preoccupies me. The fact that this exists within society as well as science and nature I find to be quite beautiful and powerful. Also remember that the binary numbers allow for a 'transformation of energy' too. Because they are just two elements a 1 and 0, we can continue to change their meaning, and just like energy can never be lost only transformed, the meaning of the binary code holds the potential and residue of all past, present and future meaning. We can never 'lose' what was before we can only transform it into something new.
AFH: Do think that interviews with artists are an annoyance or a distraction from the content of the work? Does this process offend you?
NB: Not at all, I think that having a dialogue around your work is vitally important and part of being an artist.
AFH: How much actual knowledge should an artist be expected to possess when doing a work about a non-art subject?
NB: Firstly I do not believe that anything can be 'non art'. The beauty of art is that it can incorporate anything, there are no rules as to what can or can't be put into an 'art context'. By combining science and art I feel that we can create a wonderful dialogue between these two traditionally paradoxical subjects and start to find new ways of thinking about life and our place within it.
AFH: How are science and art paradoxical? Aren't both processes of creative experimentation, within certain traditions, which aim to understand the world and our place within it?
NB: Yes I agree that both art and science are means to understanding the world around us, which is what interests me about them, but the type of understanding is rather different - science aims to understand facts, how things work, in a very black and white way - there is right and wrong in science. The experimentation in science is to prove or disprove. In Art the experimentation is for its own sake - art can also serve as a way to reflect on the world around us, to process it, to comment on it, to challenge it - there is of course no right and wrong, it can be anything, it can be emotional, it can be factual - art is the gray scale to science's black-and-white, so to speak.
Nicky Broekhuysen, Bang 5, 2009, ink stamped on paper, 70cm x 100cm; Courtesy Nicky Broekhuysen
AFH: Do you feel that we live in a chaotic era?
NB: Yes I do think that we live in a chaotic era. Perhaps it is more an era of flux and change. So many structures and systems around us are in flux. I feel like we have the privilege of living in time where we have the opportunity to move from the 'old' into new open, flexible states of existing. The potential of 'energy transformation' is confronting us at every turn whether it be political, moral, social, environmental, spiritual or financial. Everything seems to be shifting. This movement between 'order and chaos' and back and forth can be scary. The unknown is scary! But it is also filled with potential to do better than before and this is beautiful.
AFH: What are the leading institutions or ideologies representing order and chaos in our contemporary lives?
NB: I think that the leading institutions and ideologies representing order and chaos are political and religious. Both can be extremely freeing or extremely restrictive. We grow up within certain contexts and systems of each that form our views and perspectives on life. They are our blueprint. Remember in my view chaos represents 'potential for change'. I feel that at this time we are moving into a time of 'chaos' which has come about through the realization that 'fixed states of being' or blueprints are no longer helpful. We need to be able to view things from different perspectives and realize that meaning lies in many different forms and manifestations.
AFH: How does your background in South Africa, New Zealand and Berlin inform your work? Two of these cultures are deeply imbued with traumatic consciousness of juxtaposition and the extremes of chaos and ´order´.
NB: The places where I have lived have had a huge influence on my work. I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, an extremely restrictive political system and society. Like Berlin, another place which seeps with the residue of a former restrictive political system, I have seen and felt the thin line between order and chaos and transformation and shifting perspectives of energy. Living in China for two and a half years also influenced me greatly as it felt like I was dangling between the old and the new, the East and the West, Communism and Capitalism. I have loved living in these places as I felt the energy of flux and the potential of what can come. New Zealand has been an island of calm within these shifts. I have been part of a 'traumatic consciousness' but it is not this which stands out. Rather it is the overwhelming consciousness of hope and new possibilities that are made possible with the shift into more open states of existing. South Africa particularly exemplifies this.
Nicky Broekhuysen, Into Light #1, 2009, ink stamped on paper, 70cm x 100cm; Courtesy Nicky Broekhuysen
AFH: Why use light as a metaphor? What does light signify?
NB: Energy can be transformed into light. I like to think of light as an illumination or revealing of things or possibilities that perhaps were not visible before. Light also shows structure and form by illuminating their edges but yet light itself has no form. It has a 'source' yet the light energy emitted has no boundary except that of the physical walls we consciously choose to place around it. What I mean is that by using light we can identify restrictive forms around us and even the blueprints of our thoughts. We can then let that light exist in an open and free state or we can contain it and continue as we were before without change. The 'between states, into light'!
AFH: What are your thoughts when physically producing your work? Is it meditative or frustrating?
NB: I find the process of producing the works to be extremley meditative and calming. Sometimes I also listen to online talks, lectures and documentaries. It is a wonderful time to think and learn.
ArtSlant would like to thank Nicky Broekhuysen for her assistance in making this interview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman