Showing off their mussels: the living art lab on Cherry Street Pier considers mollusk and freshwater


Freshwater mussels were once the most abundant bivalve molluscs in rivers around the world, but their populations have seen steep declines. They are now among the most endangered species in the United States.

Local arts organization Philadelphia Contemporary unveils Fresh water, a new large-scale installation by Jean Shin. To draw attention to the life of these overlooked species, which can filter between ten and fifteen gallons of water a day, Shin designed a fountain that doubles as a living lab.

Erected along the Delaware River on Philadelphia’s Cherry Street Pier, the strings of glass vessels hold live freshwater mussels. Water from the river trickles through glass spheres with the molds, filtering the flow in real time and collecting it in a mirrored basin filled with covers of pearl buttons. The clear, purified water then returns to the river where it came from.

A fundraising session in progress

“By making visible the incredible ability of mussels to filter the river, Fresh water elevates the role of these native species in restoring blue infrastructure from collapse,” Shin said. “Juxtaposed alongside samples of polluted river water, dead shells and the vast amount of unused pearl buttons, the project is an urgent call to care for freshwater mussels, vital to our healthy and living ecology. .”

The Fountain of Shin invites viewers to witness the filtration process along the exhibition route. Standing like a monumental water clock, the piece marks the passage of time and draws attention to the climate crisis. Moreover, he recognizes the slow and necessary work of restoration.

Alongside this central fixture, the Brooklyn-based artist has created a series of sculptures that incorporate mussel shells collected from the banks of the river. Cleaned and polished to show the radiant, pearly interiors for which these species have long been prized, the nearby sculptures are topped with glass vessels filled with samples of unfiltered river water collected by the participating community and the public.

“Like the site-specific installations and public sculptures for which she is known, Shin Fresh water inspires Philadelphians to think about critical environmental issues while inspiring them with awe,” said Harry Philbrick, Founding Director and CEO of Philadelphia Contemporary.

“We hope this project will draw attention to the role of mussels in the ecology of the Delaware River. Our communities depend on a healthy river, and the monumentality of Jean’s work underscores the importance of protecting this ecosystem now and in the future,” added Kerry Bickford, Curator of Ecological Futures at Philadelphia Contemporary, who developed the project with Shin.

Fresh water opens with a reception and party on June 16, 2022 and will be on view at the Cherry Street Pier through early November 2022.


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