I first came across the works of The Undercurrent Objects – some lighting or chairs – a few years ago. Afterward, I learned from a painter friend that the man behind The Undercurrent Objects was called Philip Ma.
“My name is Philip, I’m an economics graduate. Before founding The Undercurrent Objects, I’ve worked in advertising and in a vintage jewellery shop.”
In the early days of The Undercurrent Objects, Philip held an exhibition titled “Objects Proposal” which revolved around lighting, vases, hooks, frames, and furniture. “My reasoning was that: since I don’t have the experience to create good objects – and by good I mean good as in utility, pricing and appearance; working from such basis, that is, forgoing the limitation to be good, will I be able to produce something extraordinary?”
How did an economics graduate, with no experience in crafts or design, come up with the idea for The Undercurrent Objects? “Life had changed completely for me since my kid was born, so I decided to leave the jewellery shop. As to The Undercurrent Objects, the beginning was obscure. I was wondering: what else could I do? In my head I went through all the options labelled ‘vocational skills’ and tried to match them with a corresponding gap in society – to no avail. There was simply too much I wanted to do. And so, The Undercurrent Objects became my ark, carrying my wishes across the river of time.”
Building on his previous job which involved steel work, Philip took furniture as a starting point and tried to create tables and chairs. In the process, he came across metalworking, and gradually added lighting to his repertoire.
“Essentially, it’s a step-by-step learning process. The Internet is full of diverse knowledge; it may be difficult to navigate at first, but things do clear up over time. Such knowledge in turn helps me think about ways to create my imaginary objects within a certain framework.”
Of course, imaginary objects.
I’ve only ever seen the works of The Undercurrent Objects online. Why do they capture me so, as though I had seen them in flesh? I like Philip’s writing, whose musings about his practice conjure an imaginary existence in a certain dimension, like suspending a frame in a stream of images pertaining to the many faces of the world.
“I usually start with a key sentence, or a name. My practice relies heavily on words; I cannot begin unless I have described in words a certain emotion or scene,”
“After putting emotions into words, the actual transposing of those words to the work itself relies on the materiality of the medium. To some extent, this explains why I’m always working with different material; material is my mentor, my pointer in the creative process, telling me ‘this won’t work’ or ‘that’s alright’ – until the moment comes where everything clicks and I feel at one with the material. The reward is seeing how far I have come, and how much I have yet to reach.”
I asked Ma if that’s only applicable to objects. “Not necessarily. I just want to embed myself within the ‘creative process’ as much as possible,”
“I’ll never know where the river of time will take me, but I think The Undercurrent Objects has shown me a lot more of the world out there – more of materials and people. I’m happy for that. But what exactly is this place that I’m heading? I still can’t quite put my finger on it; I just hope it’s a more interesting place.”
All that effort to create a delicate clay toy or mechanical toy, or to capture the silhouette of light, only to articulate the unspoken. Philip’s work possesses a sense of mystic calm, pulsating perpetually, without sound, from his monologue and musings, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.
For whatever we lose, it’s always ourselves we find in the sea – a feeling akin to having water stuck in one’s ears, an entire ocean unravelling from within. And yet, amid the tumble, we must have felt each other one way or another. We may never completely understand another person, but it’s possible to make sense of a piece of them.
“I’m always thinking about light,”
“I’m always thinking about the non-existence of light,”
“In between those two states, light is always there, one way or another,”
“I never thought I’d make so much lighting,”
I remember Philip’s interview from three years ago, where he mentioned Yoshitomo Nara’s correspondence with Yayoi Kusama. He was touched by something Kusama said; I was touched by something Philip said in the interview – allow me to quote it here:
“After encouraging Yoshitomo Nara, Yayoi Kusama ended the letter by saying, ‘When you feel lonely, please think of me.’ That line arrests me, as though manifesting my purpose to imagine, to create, to found The Undercurrent Objects for someone, anyone – with the hope that, having visited the shop, they might think of it or its associated experience whenever they feel a bit down or helpless, and find energy from that memory. It need not be anything powerful or impressive, just a simple memory to come back to when one feels lonely,”
“I remember weeping whilst reading that line: when you feel lonely, please think of me. I thought: there are some things we can communicate through language, but there are more things we can’t, and that’s when we feel incredibly lonely and lose our passion for life. We need ‘empathy’ as an outlet to fill in the gaps of unarticulated emotions and experiences, to come to an understanding that ‘I’m not the only one who feels like this’ or ‘he’s been through the same thing too,’”
“Because emotive descriptors like ‘sad’, ‘miserable’, ‘sorrowful’ and ‘joyful’ can hardly capture the nuanced spectrum of feelings. The only comfort, perhaps, comes from a speechless painting, or a melody,”
“I don’t expect my work to fulfill that, but at the least, I practise with the intention: ‘as long as someone finds company in my work, I’d be content,’”
Quiet reverberations and understanding are a quiet power to make the other person feel: I’m here with you.
“For me, things that are small, that elude most people’s attention but stay with those who ‘feel’ them, are the only truth. As I look back on my experiences, it becomes apparent: life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,”
“I don’t subscribe to any maxim. I’m more interested in the transient – things that change along with encounters, farewells, time, and memory. For me, metaphors are far more important than maxims.”
“Undercurrent” refers to things that are unseen but whose existence inspires conviction. “For me, it’s a metaphor for a creator’s life hidden from plain sight. I hope my work serves as a reminder: the world is full of modest, quiet presence,”
“Such as objects, friendship, love, conviction,”
“That’s when I came across Bill Evans’s Undercurrent and I thought: how apt!”
“Undercurrent can also be construed as ‘under current’, which lends to an interesting reading beyond what I had imagined at first.”
If you feel a faint sense of familiarity, if you understand the power of the minute –
Hold onto your feeling.
Despite the tumbling and rolling of waves, we bathe in the vastness of the ocean, weightless and comfortable in our distance from each other.
Someone once told me: if you see a light somewhere, someone is staring into the same light, too.
“Not necessarily every day, but I often ask myself, ‘Am I becoming freer?’”