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The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a new home for making art at Duke University.

Ocean Room: Art Installation and Refuge

Published By Robert Zimmerman
Published on: February 5, 2019

"I wanted to create a space that feels safe, comforting—a place where anyone can escape from the world for a little while." Kora Kwok (Trinity, '20) recreates the ocean-side experience in the Ruby.

Dome with waves projected on the outside

The Ruby is already something of a sunlit retreat from the bustle of West Campus, but for the first two weeks of February visitors can check their cares at the door of the Murthy Agora and slip into the immersive sanctuary of Ocean Room. For the installation, Duke junior Kora Kwok assembled a dome from plastic disks overlaid like scales. Inside, there’s a pair of floor chairs on beige carpet.

What the installation offers is not monastic silence but a kind of gently energizing mind wash. Thanks to a video loop projected from above, waves gather and break on the dome’s translucent surface, complete with the hiss and roar of the water and the distant call of seabirds.

man sits in front of dome with ocean images on it
Kora Kwok with his creation. Photos by Robert Zimmerman.

Kwok is from Hong Kong, where the ocean is a constant presence. “I grew up with the sense that this massive, beautiful piece of blue was always nearby, and that it would always be there, wherever I was in the city,” he says. “I didn’t realize how comforting that feeling was until I left.

“Ocean Room is, firstly, my attempt to recreate a similar, refuge-like space on campus. I wanted to create a space that feels safe, comforting—a place where anyone can escape from the world for a little while.

“At the same time, this installation is also my tribute to the ocean. I wanted to recreate a small part of the sea here, for everyone who—like me—longs for it when they’re here at Duke.

“Finally, Ocean Room is an experiment in space. I wanted to explore how art spaces can influence the way we perceive the world and each other. What kinds of thoughts and emotions will the experience inspire in visitors? What happens when two visitors, otherwise strangers, meet inside?”

A chair and small box on carpet inside a dome made of translucent plastic with a projection of waves on the outside.
Inside Ocean Room.

“I wanted to explore how art spaces can influence the way we perceive the world and each other.”

Kwok, who is studying computer science, visual arts, and art history, has not created a major installation before. Although his inspiration and goals were clear from the outset, realizing them has not been easy.

“It requires an incredible amount of ideation, preparation, and hard work to create an art piece you’re willing to showcase to the public,” he explains. “One of the most valuable lessons I learned was the importance of never settling, and being willing to put in whatever time and work it takes to create something you’re truly proud to call yours.”

“Another major lesson I learned was the importance of feedback. Although it’s important to stick to your core goals and ideas, I believe it is equally important to generate a steady flow of external feedback on your work.”

Kwok’s principal advisor on the project was Stephen Hayes, a visiting professor in the Art, Art History, and Visual Studies department who has revitalized sculpture in Duke’s studio arts curriculum. During the fall semester, Kwok designed and built a prototype of the piece in Duke’s sculpture studio on Oregon St.

“I couldn’t have possibly completed this installation without [Hayes’] help and advice: the years of experience he brought to the table as a sculptor and artist helped me shape Ocean Room into what it is today,” says Kwok. “[He] was always willing to take the time out of his personal schedule to work with me on the project, whether I was working late nights or over the weekend in the studio.”

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